One of the non-fiction forms presented at the London Film Festival 2023 was the National Geographic production The Mission. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (Boys State), the documentary sets out to examine what happened to evangelical missionary John Allen Chau, who never returned from his trip to North Sentinel Island.
A colourful blend of media is used to accomplish this goal: standardised interview footage of friends and colleagues is interspersed with lively animated sequences that illustrate texts (read by actors), taken from letters by Chau’s father, or his own diary and social media accounts. Through this, we learn about John’s family, his childhood and at what stage his parents began to worry about their son’s radicalisation. Endowed with an insatiable thirst for adventure, the young Christian became obsessed with the idea of taking the teachings of his church to unconnected people groups. The absolute isolation of the Sentinelese, in particular, kept preying on his mind and he wondered: “Is this island Satan’s last stronghold?”
The documentary also allows space to contextualise the Andaman Island archipelago through its history in media (King Kong) and an anthropologist’s previous visit, but due to the tribes’ voluntary seclusion, there is a limit to how much of their side of the story can be told.
The directors chose very eloquent interview partners, who manage to fill in most of the viewer’s questions, but while, for instance, the idea of a potential Messiah complex is criticised, clear accountability for those enabling John, is missing. The feature mercifully attempts to give voice to different viewpoints on missionary work – one lapsed messenger gives indelible insight – but as most interviewees are from Chau’s circle, the bias naturally leans towards empathising with him and thereby excusing the violating nature of what essentially is colonialism under a different name.
The Mission is anxious not to position itself and will not change anybody’s mind on where they stand on religion, but hopefully, Chau’s story is enough of a cautionary tale to at the very least raise questions about the ethics of proselytism.
The Mission is released nationwide on 17th November 2023.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for The Mission here: