‘The Mission’ Directors Discovered Killed Missionary John Chau Was “Possessed Of Two Faiths” – Contenders Documentary

The Mission tells the story of John Chau, a missionary who in 2018 attempted to bring Christianity to the indigenous people of remote North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. The Sentinelese killed him for intruding.

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine said they discovered that Chau’s story was as influenced by adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe and Tintin as it was the Scripture.

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“John was possessed of two faiths,” Moss said at Deadline Contenders Film: Documentary. “Charting both of those faiths in our story, we discovered that the film was a reflection of our own history.”

Chau discovered missions work at Oral Roberts University. The university had safe work, but Chau soon grew hungry for riskier endeavors.

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“I think it became his hunger for adventure to test himself put him on this more dangerous course,” Moss said.

McBaine said Chau believed he was embarking on an act of love to bring love to this isolated society. Part of the film is exploring the psychology that enabled Chau to justify it.

“John felt what he was doing was the greatest act of love that there is,” McBaine said, adding that she disagreed. McBaine challenged herself “to try and really stretch my brain around the idea that this would be an act of love when you are not fully considering the point of view of the other side of this moment of contact.”

McBaine and Moss interviewed former missionaries who grew to be more self-reflective about their true motivations in missionary work.

“They’re looking back in retrospect at their younger selves who were aggressively seeking adventure or answers or meaning or going out to discover something unknown,” McBaine said. “There’s a certain power to that and intrigue to that and there’s also a certain self-centered quality to being the hero of that journey. I’m not sure John ever got to be old enough to have that kind of reflection.”

Chau actually made two trips to North Sentinel Island with the help of fishermen and other missionaries. The first time, the Sentinelese fired an arrow into his Bible as a warning shot. When he returned, there was no more warning. Chau also read an English Bible and never learned the Sentinelese language.

“Call it blind faith or call it madness,” Moss said. “He believed if he quoted Scripture they would understand him perhaps through some universal language that he was communicating, the language of love. He thought he was bringing them love but it seems unlikely that they did understand the Bible verses that he yelled. So they made it clear. They didn’t want to receive him.”

McBaine said it was equally important to represent the Sentinelese side of the story, which she felt was neglected when reports of Chau’s death first made news. McBaine said she was in “awe that a place like North Sentinel still exists in 2023, an island that’s unmapped, that’s unknown, that people have been living in isolation for 50,000 years and how magical that is. It does make it a challenge to make a story about it. In de-meaning the headlines, the vitality of this story when it was in the news, we knew we needed to contextualize their history to the degree that we could.”

Moss said the film also explores radicalization, and the erasure of indigenous cultures by myriad forces other than religious missionaries. In showing the film to faith communities, Moss has found The Mission, from National Geographic Documentary Films, challenges all firmly held beliefs.

“If you think John is a martyr, you’re going to come and be challenged,” Moss said. “If you’re ready to condemn John and see John as having nothing to do with you, you’re going to discover a reflection of yourself and perhaps the secular stories of adventure you took in.”

Check out the panel video above.

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