New NatGeo Doc ‘The Mission’ Explores the Life and Death of Missionary John Chau

New NatGeo Doc ‘The Mission’ Explores the Life and Death of Missionary John Chau November 3, 2023

In the new documentary, “The Mission,” playing in theaters now and premiering on NatGeo next month, director Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss explore the mysterious life and death of American missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed by the isolated Sentinelese tribe in 2018.

John Chau walking on the beach in Port Blair, Andamans. (courtesy of National Geographic)

“We read about John’s death in 2018, and I think we were just struck by what kind of astonishing story and tragedy,” Moss said. “And there were more questions than answers. It stayed with us. We weren’t quite sure how to approach it if we were the right people to approach it. But it was a story worth understanding more about.”

The duo initially had reservations but decided to embark on the project. “National Geographic was also exploring the story from their perspective, and in 2021, they approached us,” Moss continued. “We said, ‘Well, we certainly know the story. We’re really interested, we don’t quite know how to do it. We’re kind of scared. But that’s a good thing. Let’s see if we can figure out a way to tell the story.'”

McBaine noted that the documentary aimed to present a balanced perspective. “I felt like it was very fair. Obviously, you have both sides of the coin. And when the event happened, there were both sides of the coin coming out.” McBaine emphasized the importance of creating a film that could facilitate a conversation between different communities, “There’s such a gulf, sometimes between believers and non-believers. And I wanted to lean into that space.”

The directors’ commitment to understanding the multifaceted nature of the story became evident as they delved deeper into the tale. McBaine elaborated, “We had so much time, and we could really spend time getting to know people in John’s world, and who knew him personally, and who taught him in high school and college, and the missionary sending orders. Then, of course, things get much more complex. That’s really where the truth lives.”

The film’s ability to shed light on different perspectives resonated with Patrick Chau, John’s father, who participated in the project. “He wrote a letter to himself, I think he was wrestling with his feelings of responsibility and questions that he was left with and pain and anguish that he was processing,” Moss explained. Patrick’s involvement helped the directors connect with John on a deeper level.

As they delved into the story, the directors encountered surprises that made the narrative richer. McBaine confessed, “I didn’t really expect to find myself in the story. But as we pulled the thread, I recognized how much of the story, how many of the stories that John took in when he was a kid, I took in when I was a kid.”

The filmmakers employed a mix of media, including illustrations, animations, and historical clips, to engage the audience. Moss noted, “This is a story about stories and the powerful stories that shape our lives. We thought, ‘This is the language of the story that we’re telling, and let’s lean into that.'”

Moss believes that the use of mixed media reflects John Chau’s enchantment with stories and his potentially dangerous naivety. “I think he might be accused of kind of being too enchanted by stories to a dangerous degree and imagining himself as a storybook character without fully grasping the consequences of his actions.”

The documentary presents a nuanced portrayal of a story that captivates people across various backgrounds. Moss and McBaine’s careful handling of the subject matter invites viewers to grapple with the complex issues surrounding faith, cultural sensitivity, and human nature.

“The Mission” challenges audiences to reflect on their own biases and beliefs while fostering a dialogue that transcends the boundaries between believers and non-believers. In an increasingly polarized world, the documentary offers an opportunity to engage in conversations that bridge the divide. It is currently in theaters and will air on NatGeo in December. 

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