Review by Camden Ferrell
The Sentinelese are a people located on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. They are believed to have been almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world for over 60,000 years. They are a fascinating and enigmatic people and are focused on in The Mission, a new documentary from National Geographic. Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who won an Emmy for their previous film, Boys State, their new movie had its premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. This tale of a savior complex gone wrong is captivating on paper but doesn’t hold up as well in practice and fails to highlight some of the more interesting aspects of the story.
John Allen Chau was an American missionary. He was a devout man who believed he had found his calling in spreading the word of God. Since the Sentinelese had been in isolation for tens of thousands of years, they are one of the few places on Earth where the existence of Jesus and Christianity is unknown. Chau takes it upon himself to spread the Gospel and fulfill his perceived purpose on this Earth. However, contacting a tribe in voluntarily isolation is as hard and ethically complicated as it sounds, and Chau learns this through his efforts. This is an interesting story and cautionary tale that could have been a profound and thought-provoking documentary if done right.
From a purely narrative perspective, this movie succeeds. It tells its story in a clear manner and does a great job of making sure no stones are left unturned. You walk away feeling you understand all of the events that led up to Chau’s ill-fated journey and thanks to firsthand accounts from Chau’s diary (graciously approved by his family), the movie is able to provide some interesting insight into his mind during this period of his life. However, while the movie excels in delivering a clear-cut narrative, the same can’t be said for its exploration of the film’s more complicated themes and ideas.
The movie never condones Chau’s actions. This fact I believe is most paramount to the understanding of this story, and the filmmakers understand that. The problem I have with its storytelling is it doesn’t always try and explain the dangers and ethical nightmare of religious colonization. What Chau believes is a noble calling from God, is no more than a deplorable attempt to satiate a savior complex through a voluntarily isolated tribe of indigenous people who could not care less about the alleged existence of his Messiah. While the film doesn’t support his mission, it also makes a notable attempt to turn Chau into a tragic and sympathetic character. While the untimely death of Chau was avoidable and a product of his own delusions, it’s a bit messy for the film to try and paint this in such a strangely sympathetic light as if he was an innocent person who died from a having a tragically ambitious and kind soul.
Despite the strange optics of everything, I can’t deny that on its surface, this is a well-made movie. It nicely balances footage of the Sentinelese people with talking heads of people in Chau’s life as well as narration of his diary. It’s a comprehensive set of resources for this story, and the movie does a skillful job of utilizing all of it properly. Unfortunately, the aforementioned problems undermine what could have been an otherwise informative and entertaining documentary.
The Mission is worth watching for those who are interested in Chau’s story or the enigmatic Sentinelese people. While it does have some interesting insights into the beliefs and mindset of tribes in voluntary isolation, it also spends far too much time trying to make Chau a sympathetic and innocent character. It doesn’t grapple with the complex ideas surrounding colonization like it could have, and this makes the documentary feel quite shallow at times.
The Mission is in theaters October 13.