The Sentinelese, a group of Indigenous people living on North Sentinel Island in India, are a source of curiosity for anthropologists due to their isolation from the rest of the world. However, for evangelical Christian groups, they present a challenge and a calling to spread their beliefs. In 2018, 26-year-old American missionary John Chau attempted to reach the island with gifts and Bible verses, but was met with a barrage of arrows from the Sentinelese, resulting in his death. The incident gained widespread attention, sparking various reactions including claims of martyrdom and mocking memes. Through their documentary, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss aim to understand and explain the circumstances surrounding Chau’s tragic demise.
Actors will recite passages from Chau’s diary and a letter from his father, shedding light on the motives behind his journey. Chau was deeply immersed in a Christian and evangelical upbringing, but was also drawn to tales of colonial adventures. His extensive preparations for the trip, spanning almost ten years, involved learning survival techniques and receiving training in emergency medicine. He even participated in a missionary bootcamp, where instructors would simulate interactions with hostile tribe members.
Interviews with unsuccessful missionaries and experienced anthropologists, on the other hand, uncover the pointlessness, recklessness, and conceit of Chau’s pursuit. Created by the documentary division of National Geographic, The Mission even utilizes the channel’s own past works to hint at the media’s role in perpetuating exotic depictions of indigenous cultures. However, the film also makes similar errors. While it effectively fills in the gaps of Chau’s story, the abstract animation depicting his final moments falls into the same trap as the adventurous tales of the past, sensationalizing a tragedy that is ultimately not as enigmatic or theoretical as it seems – but instead rooted in tangible sociopolitical circumstances.