Skip to content

CIFF 2023: The Mission

October 23, 2023


I remember when it made the news back in 2018. “U.S. missionary killed off the coast of North Sentinel Island by world’s most isolated tribe” isn’t a blurb you see that often. Like most news, it was reported and then forgotten, but there’s obviously more to the story, which is why the documentary “The Mission” was made. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (2020’s “Boys State”) and co-produced by National Geographic Documentary Films, the film is being distributed by Picturehouse and had its premiere back in August at Telluride Film Festival. Now, it makes its way to the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF).

There were cruel jokes and memes all over social media immediately after the death of John Allen Chau, but there were so many questions left unanswered, especially with Indian authorities being unable to find his body. Who was he and how did he wind up on this particular archipelago off the Bay of Bengal in the Andaman Islands? “The Mission” sets out to answer that question and many others. The 26-year-old evangelical Christian was determined to carry out The Great Commission found in the Bible’s book of Matthew in a radical manner. With access to Chau’s journal diary (which is narrated by actors), “The Mission” allows viewers a chance to discover who this enthusiastic and determined missionary was.

Along with his own writing, we learn about Chau through a handful of others who knew him. There’s Levi Davis, a fellow student of Chau’s at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and historian Adam Goodheart is a professor who visited the Andamans in his 20s and wrote an article about it for The American Scholar. Former missionary Daniel Everett, who spent almost 10 years with the Pirahã people in the Amazon, relates to Chau’s path and provides his perspective on the young man’s plan. Everett shares how his past romantic depictions of adventurers and missionaries inspired him and possibly others, like Tintin comics and the 2005 biographical missionary drama “End of the Spear”.

Chau’s father, Chinese-American psychiatrist Patrick Chau, is also featured, lending probably the most personal account of his son. A moderate Christian himself, Patrick shared how John devoured Crusoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a child, while developing a love for the outdoors and a desire to know and learn about God. He lamented that John, the youngest of three children he had with his wife Lynda Adams-Chau, didn’t follow in the footsteps of his siblings by following more stable and lucrative careers. These scenes with John’s father are quite heartbreaking when we consider that we rarely ever learn much about the victim’s family when such tragedies are reported.

At the start of “The Mission”, a long letter from Patrick can be heard read by the grieving father. There are family photos included as we get to know John and his family. We also are shown videos of John and his college friends as well as some of his many hiking excursions in the States and other countries, explaining how he became something of an internet influencer, often promoting products that he would use, whether it be a certain brand of jerky or footwear. These moments humanize John and make him relatable, far from the Jesus Freak many probably thought he was. Moss and McBaine also incorporate a good deal of animation and live recreations to recount how John came to decide to live and die for his faith. While we know the outcome of John’s fateful trip, the directors take meticulous



In November 2018, Chau embarked on his journey to North Sentinel Island, a place he thought could be “Satan’s last stronghold on Earth”, to contact and live among the Sentinelese, converting them to Christianity. Aware of the legal ramifications of traveling to the island, Chau nevertheless prepared adequately for the trip. He was vaccinated and quarantined, and also undertook medical and linguistic training. He paid two fisherman to illegally take him on the ill-fated journey.

Chau wrote in his diary, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold, where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”, “The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand”, and “I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed … Don’t retrieve my body.”

“The Mission” could have benefitted from going over the various attempts to engage with the islanders, considering one could learn a bit more about those attempts by skimming through the Wikipedia page for John Allen Chau.

The documentary has a certain recurring skeptical perspective towards religious fanaticism, as well as the “imperialist agenda”, and surprisingly how National Geographic will be remembered. That’s understandable, but I don’t know if it’s completely fair. Having been on organized mission trips myself, I can’t imagine going solo like John did here. One of my first encounters with a tribe of “uncivilized” natives was in northern Mexico back in high school. We drove up in our caravan of doctors, dentists, teachers, and volunteers, offering the barefoot and dusty villagers medical care and shoes. They asked us to turn around and leave. They wanted no part of anything we had to offer. That was indeed a lesson learned.

If God is omnipotent and all-powerful then anyone who believes in that should also believe that all of his creation is watched over and taken care of in some manner. There’s nothing wrong with mission trips and meeting the needs of others, especially after disasters, but those who believe often forget that receptive hearts to the Gospel could very well be living right next door and that reaching out to them can be more challenging than islanders who prefer to be left alone.




“The Mission” received a limited theatrical release on October 13th and will have a wider release on October 27th.


No comments yet

Leave a Reply