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Thread: THE MISSION (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss 2023)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE MISSION (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss 2023)



    The fatal zeal of a true believer

    It has a few too many drawings and animations and fudged uses of clips from fiction films about missionaries and natives for my taste, but the National Geographic flim The Mission describes a tragedy that turns out to be topical, and in a vivid and absorbing fashion. The young John Allen Chau, a fit young man with big grin and felt-pen eyebrows, died violently and needlessly, killed by arrows and left to rot on a far away beach, because of his total determination to play Christian missionary to perhaps the most remote and hostile group currently oh the planet, the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island off an archipelago, a distant outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea 1,400 miles off the coast of India known to be tremendously hostile to outsiders. (His presence was illegal: the Indian government forbade it.) The Mission recounts everything in Chau's life that led to this event.

    While it may try too hard to illustrate, there was a wealth of material (from the social media, constantly-filming generation), of handwritten journals, voices of relatives (or actors voicing them), many haunting, fleeting images of John Chau himself up till near the end, to make this story come to life and tell it from multiple viewpoints. Hints are thrown out critical toward evangelicalism, Christian missionaries as unwelcome colonizers contaminating indigenous people or even bringing them fatal diseases; but while the subject here may have been a fanatic dangerous to himself and others, the film is gentle toward him. Hollywood Reporter, which said the film "compliments" the filmmakers' previous doc Boys State (ND/NF 2020) because "both study manifestations of American masculinity," called The Mission "an empathetic reconstructive portrait."

    The topicality? It turns out the increased number of individual churches organizing their own missions, the growth of evangelicalism, and the general easing of world travel have all caused the waves of American Christian missionaries going out to spread the word of God to triple in recent decades. John Chau is an example. An early convert to evangelicalism, he was ready to go and be a missionary right after high school. His immigrant father insisted he attend college first so he went to Oral Roberts, the evangelical university. But then he did everything he could to set his course toward the remote, unfriendly people who would kill him on sight.

    Why did John Chau set his aim years ahead for the toughest, most remote, most hostile place? Because of his motivation and accomplishment, and the desire for the ultimate challenge. His heroes, according to an article in the The York Times, were the naturalist John Muir and Jim Elliot, an American evangelical missionary killed in Ecuador; "friends said missionary work was the perfect fit." Besides being a fan of boyish fantasies of exploration-adventure like The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, The Adventures of Tintin, and The Other Side of the Mountain, Chau was a passionate outdoorsman who took a job at a national park just so he could hike whenever he felt like it. At the time of his final mission, he was extremely fit, doing constant pushups and workouts and following a healthy diet.

    He had taken a crash course in linguistics and worked hard to ready himself to learn the North Sentinal language, which outside experts had never been able to fathom. He had studied to become an emergency medical technician. At the last minute he went through an outward-bound-style physical test staged in Kansas, where he played the role of would-be missionary arriving among hostile natives whose language he did not know. He is said to have aced the course.

    Years of preparation had gone into his mission, but it remained extremely unpromising, arguably doomed. The picture of Chau in a kayak, wearing black underpants (because he thought that would inspire most confidence), holding a Bible aloft seems not a promising one, whatever the preparation.

    But frankly, what a good story. Hollywood Reporter brings up an association that occurs, to Chris McCandless, and the film of his story, Into the Wild, informing us that a feature film based the life and death of John Chau, directed by Justin Lin, is also in the works.

    Chau was too optimistic to be thought suicidal, but the possibility is raised that he had a "messiah" complex - which would mean that ego overwhelmed Christian altruism. From his first appearance in this film he has the air of being cheerful, upbeat, and clueless. This may sound, as it must, unsympathetic toward the Christian context: but there is a talking head in the film, linguist Daniel Everett, who describes reacting to his own similar personal (but non-fatal) experience by rejecting first his own missionary activity, then his own Christian faith, as untenable. And the film gives sympathetic time to this man's point of view.

    Yet Chau, who had prepared also with preparatory prior missionary trips to Mexico, South Africa, and Iraqi Kurdistan, had posted so much about missionary history and his outdoor activity that he had become an "influencer," much admired as a role-model-to-be and given paid kickback from products he endorsed. On some levels, this is a whole new world, while on others, it's as old fashioned as the explorers Chau admired.

    This is a film pitched to make viewers ask radical questions. While it may be a little too hard to rethink world history minus the Christian faith, one may be moved to imagine things done differently, with a damper on evangelicalism and missionary fervor. There are more than a few hints here that such fervor has had a destructive effect on many hitherto unspoiled indigenous cultures that might otherwise have been preserved; that making "natives" into Christians has meant the destruction of fragile cultures. Unfortunately things seem to be going in quite the opposite direction, and the unspoiled places are increasingly vanishing as the airports jam with travelers.

    Don't mess with the natives. Preach the Gospel to the converted. You'll live longer.

    The Mission, 109 mins., debuted at Telluride Aug. 31, 2023, showing at a dozen other festivals including London, the Hamptons, and Toronto. It opened theatrically in NYC at Angelika Film Center via National Geographic Documentary Films Oct. 13, 2023, and comes to Northern California Nov. 10; the UK and Ireland Nov. 17. Metacritic rating: 7̶6̶%̶. 74%

    It opens Nov. 10, 2023 in the Bay Area at the Landmark Opera Plaza and the Smith Rafael Film Center.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-01-2023 at 01:22 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Begins streaming on the Nat Geo Channel on December 7, 2023.

    Begins streaming on Disney+ and Hulu on December 8.


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