Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films
Where is the line between faith and madness? Martyrdom and delusion? Friend or invader? They’re questions at the heart of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ The Mission, a compelling documentary produced by National Geographic Documentary Films and screening in the BFI London Film Festival’s documentary slate.
Not to be mistaken for Roland Joffé’s 1986 film of the same name, McBaine and Moss’ The Mission is in an interesting concept for a documentary, but it’s one that eventually suffers from being too even-handed with regard to some of the groups it depicts.
The Mission explores the circumstances surrounding the death of John Allen Chau, an American evangelical Christian and would-be missionary. Chau was attempting to make contact with the still uncontacted people of North Sentinel Island which lies in between the East Coast of Southern India and the West Coast of Thailand. Previous attempts to broach contact have been met with hostility and violence, yet Chau, miraculously, thought he would be the one to bring God to them.
It’s a knotty subject for a documentary, made even more tragic by the fact that Chau’s diary is read in voiceover: “Is this Satan’s last stronghold?” we hear him ask. Or is he pleading? Chau’s voice sounds increasingly desperate, but it’s a device which is inherently manipulative. Chau is dead, we are hearing an actor; the inflections and pauses aren’t his, and the device ultimately adds an uneasy layer of artifice to a film which elsewhere takes a principled commitment in presenting the various attitudes towards missionary work with an even hand.
Missionary work, the film makes painstakingly clear, isn’t just hopping on a coach to Mexico to paint houses and build wells. Chau prescribed to a heavily romanticised, colonial view of missionary work. Juxtaposed with Chau’s diary is a letter written by Chau’s father and given to the filmmakers, again read by an actor.
Chau’s father recalls, with retrospective aching, how smitten Chau was with stories like Robinson Crusoe and Through Gates of Splendour. Chau’s father describes him as suffering a ‘predestined suicide’ and the film has the dreadful air of depicting an easily preventable tragedy.
Something the film takes real sensitivity in is depicting the colonial violence inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands. It renders this trauma with a coolly anthropological voice, positing history itself as being itself an unreliable document.
Provocatively, it even questions the role of National Geographic in upholding these narratives of primitive savagery and prehistory simplicity, but this idea is promptly forgotten. So long as the Sentinelese people choose to remain isolated, the film argues, the historical narrative remains incomplete.
Where the film falters is in its oddly blameless treatment of the kind of evangelical thinking that led to Chau’s delusion. His father describes Chau as being effectively radicalised by his faith, yet the members of his church escape any genuine scrutiny. Religion is the closest to a modern mythology many in contemporary America still believe.
Compared to the incendiary power of recent documentaries like Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed or Ezra Edelman’s definitive 2016 work O.J.: Made in America, The Mission feels frustratingly toothless, clearly afraid to reckon too intensely with a history of American evangelical extremism. You can’t help but feel that those who encouraged Chau are getting off scot-free, those behind the camera remain almost silent.
As it is the film is often reminiscent of reading an article in a magazine: it’s a fascinating story and one which is told with an admirable journalistic rigour and refreshing historical clarity, but unlikely to linger in the memory like the great works the documentary format has given us.
The Mission – official trailer
For more on The Mission visit: www.films.nationalgeographic.com/the-mission
LFF screenings begin at MAC on 4 October and run until 15 October, with tickets for all films and events on the programme now on sale. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk
To follow Jimmy Dougan on Letterboxed visit www.letterboxd.com/jimmydougan