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The Mission

Year: 2023
Production Co: Lightbox
Studio: National Geographic
Director: Amanda McBaine/Jesse Moss
Writer: Amanda McBaine/Jesse Moss

Another documentary film that would might have been better presented as a book, only because of how little material there is about the actual event promised in the title.

And that's ironic, because like all millennials, John Chau videoed himself doing everything while he went about his life as an outdoorsy adventurer and devout Christian.

But records about what the calling he thought God gave him to give the gospels to the North Sentinelese people are incredibly scarce. There are diary entries from after his first contact with them before he met his ultimate fate, but I don't know if they were authentic, made up or augmented for the sake of the movie.

And the only record of what happened to him was from the two criminals (hardly trustworthy sources) he paid to ferry him there, who subsequently told authorities they saw tribespeople dragging Chau's dead body along the beach and burying it.

The search the Indian government mounted to retrieve the body for his family turned up nothing, so Chau's bones could still be lying somewhere glistening in the sun, or he might have just sailed off, still sitting on a beach somewhere in the Andaman Islands drinking beer.

The only real visuals the film can offer are interviews with his friends and former colleagues about what kind of guy he was, animated sequences with actors portraying him and his parents that recount the life that led him to the North Sentinel Islands, and photos and history from attempted contacts with the North Sentinelese people.

That's the part that's always fascinated me, which is why I was interested in the movie to begin with.

If you don't know the story of Earth's supposedly last uncontacted hunger-gatherer tribe, North Sentinel Island (in the North Indian Ocean and part of the Andaman Islands administered by India), is full of the kind of adventure, romance and wonder of discovery and the unknown we rarely hear in this age where we figure most of the Earth's surface has been mapped, walked across or at least looked at.

But the movie is really three pieces; Chau's life, what happened to him and how it put him on a collision course with an amazing place. It raises some interesting questions about the cultish nature of evangelical Christianity and the cultural arrogance of a lot of its views, and it's a fortunate accident of history that North Sentinel Island become a flashpoint for them, but everything here only feels partially related to everything else.

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