Describing the actions of John Allen Chau, an American who lost his life in 2018 while attempting to introduce Christianity to the inhabitants of a remote island in the Indian Ocean, can be characterized as rash and presumptuous. These impressions are reinforced by the documentary “The Mission” by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. The film attempts to provide a broader perspective on what one interviewee labels Chau’s unwavering determination, which led him to believe he could convert the residents of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, despite their long-standing resistance to outside influence.
The documentary portrays Chau, who passed away at the age of 26, as a young man deeply influenced by colonial ideals. His actions were not solitary; he received support from individuals who shared his convictions at pivotal moments. Some of Chau’s friends and associates still hold him in high regard.
Throughout the film, actors recite passages from Chau’s writings and from a letter written by his father, Patrick Chau, a psychiatrist, which he shared with the filmmakers. The absence of the North Sentinelese perspective is a noted shortcoming acknowledged by the directors, who remind viewers that they are presenting a narrative about themselves, not the islanders. Towards the end, Adam Goodheart, a historian who has studied North Sentinel Island, advises, “We’re telling a story about us, not about them.” Notably, the film takes a critical stance regarding the role that National Geographic, a National Geographic release, has played in romanticizing groups like the North Sentinelese.
Some of this contextual information might appear to excuse Chau’s zealousness. However, a more enlightening viewpoint is offered by Dan Everett, a linguist who spent years attempting to convert the Pirahã people of Brazil and eventually underwent a transformation in his perspective. Chillingly, Everett observes that Chau’s supporters were simultaneously distressed and uplifted by his demise, anticipating his posthumous fame within the church. This prognosis could have troubling implications for the North Sentinelese.