May 24, 2024

The world will never know what was going through 26-year-old Christian missionary John Allen Chau’s head when he was shot and killed by arrows off the coast of North Sentinel Island. There are jokes, of course, and educated guesses, but the best most of us can do is search inside ourselves for the answer. That’s the approach “Boys State” directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine take with “The Mission,” using an investigation of Chau’s story as a Rorschach test of audiences’ own biases and beliefs.

Was Chau an evangelical martyr-hero who answered God’s calling and gave his life trying to convert a remote and hostile tribe? Or was he an arrogant and unprepared American, brainwashed by the church into undertaking a suicide mission? Chau can’t answer, and though he left behind detailed diaries and a string of social media posts, the filmmakers were obliged to get creative about how to reconstruct his story, à la “Grizzly Man,” a documentary reverse-engineered from a dead man’s personal effects. There’s something wonderfully Herzogian about “The Mission,” a philosophical quest in which wild ambition goes hand in hand with folly at the very limits of so-called civilization.

Produced by National Geographic Documentary Films — in a bold move that amounts to a reckoning with the brand’s own mission — Moss and McBaine’s movie focuses on Chau, but it’s only partly about him. The co-directors see Chau’s case as a chance to examine missionary work on a much larger scale, interrogating “the Great Commission” as it’s outlined in the Bible, whereby Christians believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and instructed his disciples to spread the Gospel to all nations. That edict underlies the attitudes of the European settlers who colonized North America (attempting to convert its natives in the process), and it has extended for centuries around the globe.

Thanks to Chau, it nearly reached the shores of North Sentinel Island, a protected area in the Indian Ocean where a hunter-gatherer tribe has lived with virtually no contact with the outside world. Precious little is known about these people, which posed a second challenge to the filmmakers, who were already limited by the fact their subject was dead. A documentary (especially one that bears the Nat Geo logo) craves footage, and hardly any exists of the Sentinelese — although Moss, McBaine and their editor, Aaron Wickenden, prove rather ingenious on that front.

One of the producers obtained a letter from John’s father, Patrick Chau, and his words — as well as John’s, both read by actors — are woven throughout. A few close friends agree to be interviewed, while other characters (like Bobby Parks, former head of missions for Oral Roberts University) take shape much as John does, through footage lifted from social media. “The Mission” may be the ultimate write-around — which is to say, a story constructed without the participation of its main subjects — but the intricately constructed doc is ultimately stronger for having been obliged to broaden its perspective.

Refreshingly eloquent former missionary Dan Everett, who spent almost 10 years with the Pirahã people in the Amazon, puts Chau’s plan into perspective, contrasting what he observed with the romantic depictions — from Tintin comics to “End of the Spear” — that clearly motivated Chau. According to “The Mission,” the Andaman Islands (where North Sentinel is located) were an inspiration for Skull Island in “King Kong” —the logic being that Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack shot footage there of Pygmy widows wearing their late husbands’ skulls for sensationalist 1928 film “Gow the Head Hunter.” Hyper-aware of how the documentary format can distort, “The Mission” takes care to contextualize the most famous photos of the Sentinelese: shots of the natives pointing arrows at unwelcome visitors, published in National Geographic.

“Outsiders coming there, with friendship in their hearts, can do a lot of damage,” anthropologist T.N. Pandit explains here. Also interviewed, Adam Goodheart visited the Andamans in his 20s and wrote an article about it for The American Scholar, but like Everett, he seems to have had a change of heart about whatever drove him to investigate people who prefer to be left alone. “The Mission” questions the way Westerners exoticize such tribes, contrasting labels like “primitive” and “stone age” with the ongoing impulses of a first-century religion (Christianity). The filmmakers managed to get their hands on Chau’s 27-page plan. They detail his training. And even though we know his fate going in, the film manages to instill suspense during his climactic approach.

What do outsiders really understand about the Sentinelese? Everett’s observations, which take a surprising turn, reveal how missionaries differ from anthropologists: The former tend to see other cultures as empty vessels waiting to be filled with the “good news” of Jesus Christ, but often lack a reciprocal curiosity about what they can learn from isolated people and their customs. Even anthropology has its limits.

Picking up on a recurring visual motif, a plane-crash montage cleverly ties nearly all the strands together toward the end. “The Mission” comes as National Geographic winds down the publication of its beloved yellow-spined magazines, which have been a kind of bible to generations of readers. Continuing an important pivot for the brand, this thought-provoking doc demonstrates a welcome skepticism toward everything: religious fanaticism, the “imperialist agenda,” even the limits of Nat Geo’s own legacy. That bodes well for how the company will continue to engage with a world in which there’s so much left to discover.

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