The Sentinelese are one of the few isolated communities left on the planet. They live on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India, an area protected by that country’s government from outside contact. They are still hunter and gatherers, a group of about 200 people (we think) who live off their island’s land and actively protect themselves from intruders. Said anthropologist T.N. Pandit in a quote that opens The Mission, “The happy survival of such human groups should be the test of a truly civilized society.”
Yet American John Chau didn’t see it this way. Fuelled by the adventure novels of his childhood, like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and the ‘Narnia’ series, as well as his unshakable evangelical Christian faith, Chau made it his mission to travel to North Sentinel Island with the intention of converting its inhabitants to Christianity. It was a mission that would take the devout young man a decade to plan. It was also an illegal trip, ignoring India’s protective laws surrounding the island. Chau also ignored the arrow that shot through his bible on his first attempt to engage with the Sentinelese. His blind faith, both in God, and in his naively expected acceptance by these islanders, would lead to his death in 2018 when he tried for a second time to approach them. On that visit, the arrow was intended for him.
Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State) discovered this story through an article in the New York Times that, as they describe it, seemed implausible: ‘Isolated Tribe Kills American With Bow and Arrow on Remote Indian Island.’ This article was soon fodder for the internet, some people painting Chau as a “reckless religious zealot,” and some on the other end of the spectrum considering him a martyr. McBaine and Moss were interested in delving deeper. Who was John Chau and what drove him to such lengths to give his life to this cause?
The Mission tries to unravel the complexities underlying his actions. And it attempts to present a balanced examination, sometimes frustratingly so. There is a lot to unpack here, from the historical implications of religion’s role in colonization to the, frankly, white saviour narrative that seems to be the undercurrent for needing to convert Indigenous populations to the ways of Christianity. Chau considered if North Sentinel Island was “Satan’s last stronghold,” and made it his mission to ‘save’ them with the gospel. Instead, the inhabitants of this island are a community choosing to continue living as they always have, supported by the government formally responsible for the land they live on. Who is to say they are wrong? Honestly, some days I might envy them.
The filmmakers interview friends, anthropologists, even the people he did ‘missionary bootcamp’ with to find different perspective’s on Chau’s actions. But, their interview with a former missionary, Dan Everett, is probably one of the most interesting threads of the film.
In the 1970s, Everett lived with his family amongst an isolated community in the Amazon. After years of interactions, he finally learned enough of their complicated language to try and convert them to Christianity. They outright rejected him, feeling what Everett was telling them were little more than stories. They didn’t believe in things up in the sky, only things firmly planted on the ground. It caused Everett a crisis of faith. While he speaks of Chau with respect, and understands his motivations, it’s most intriguing to see his side of things. He discusses how inserting yourself amongst an isolated people not only endangers them by exposing them to foreign pathogens and illnesses, but also by erasing their culture. He now considers work such as this an ethical violation, firmly anti-mission. His transformative arc has depth and intrigue, and could be a fascinating film on its own.
Chau’s father did not participate in the documentary directly, but instead sent a letter where he discusses his unease with his son’s actions, calling John a ‘radical evangelical’ whose mission was little more than colonization. He is the emotional heart of the film, grieving for his son while realizing he cannot make sense of his loss. An actor reads his words, as well as lines from Chau’s diary that was recovered after his death, documenting his final days. There is footage of Chau from his social media, hiking, climbing and having home-grown adventures. But largely, the film tells his journey through animation; images that draw inspiration from cartoons like The Adventures of Tintin, which Chau found so influential. It’s a clever way of bringing his story to life, though obviously leaves room for interpretation, and the style itself may undermine the serious implications of his behaviour.
How you relate to and/or empathize with John Chau’s actions and eventual death I do feel will depend on your own personal relationship with religion. I could not be further on the spectrum from Chau’s beliefs, and therefore still find it difficult to understand and comprehend this young man, as much as The Mission paints him as an active, outdoorsy, kind, educated person before delving into his self-perceived religious purpose.
Quite frankly, this film made me angry. Not specifically at Chau, though he certainly factors in, but at the knowledge that there are many people like him in the world that feel entitled and empowered in their beliefs being the ONLY beliefs; that everyone needs saving. But, the filmmakers construct The Mission in such a way that they will not lead you down this path. This was just my path. Different perspectives are treated fairly, leaving the viewer with lots to question about the stories that shape our belief systems, and how much that has truly impacted the world.