Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss take a comprehensive look at the tragic end to the life of young American missionary John Chau who in 2018 decided he was going to preach the gospel to the most isolated tribe in the world, the Sentinelese.  Despite warnings from the Indian government to stay away from the island, John’s unwavering evangelical Christianity and his spirit for adventure caused the 26-year-old blogger, armed with only a bible, to defy rationality.  Psalm 121. 7-8 states “The Lord will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life.”  There’s a difference between Faith and Blind Faith, which is no match for the tip of a spear or an arrow.

“My friend John paid some pirates to go to an island to talk about Jesus when he knew they had no business doing that” comments Levi Davis.  He grew up with John, and the two attended Vancouver Christian High School, where they formed an Accountability Group to keep each other on a Christian path and away from sin, in this case, pornography. Levi states, “We were doing all the things that we said we shouldn’t do, shamefully” as he chuckles, while adding, “John was not.” Photos and videos of the two close friends fill the screen as the filmmakers use candid interviews with those closest to John to help paint a picture of the unwavering young Christian while asking, “Who was John Chau, and what was his mindset?”    

The documentary features hand-drawn animation by Jason Carpenter and the voice of actor Lawrence Kao to convey John’s thoughts taken directly from his diary and social media posts.  While none of John’s family appear in the film, his grief-stricken father Patrick Chau is featured in a few of the animated sequences (voiced by David Shih) after sharing his feelings about his son’s “foolhardy mission.”  Patrick blames “extreme Christianity” for the death of his son, yet he takes responsibility for not intervening to stop his son from embarking on the dangerous mission.

McBaine and Moss include clips of films that inspired John including 1971’s family adventure “My Side of the Mountain,” and the biographical drama “End of the Spear” which now chillingly feels like an omen.  While there’s no doubt that John was a devout Christian, the documentary shows how he was still very much an average teenager.  He loved “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He played sports and loved camping with friends and was very active on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram.  So, what happened?

Using archival footage, John’s own words, and interviews with John’s pastor Cameron Silsbee, who spoke about “the process of discernment” that led John to undertake the mission to convert the isolated Sentinelese community, help paint the picture of an intelligent young man who let his passion for Christianity overtake rationality.

John’s friends and colleagues appear to understand why he chose to do what he did. Many appear on camera speaking highly of the young missionary, and a sense of admiration permeates the interviews, yet they also are aware of how naïve and foolish he was for his actions, as one person states, “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.”

“The Mission” is fascinating to watch, especially if you are unfamiliar with John’s story.  It is a bit overwhelming at times as directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss hit the audience with an overabundance of information as interviews, clips, animation, and home movies come at you at a fast pace.  Could his tragic death have been avoided? Yes.  With intervention, would it have been avoided? Probably not.  You are left with a sense that one way or another, John’s blind faith proved too strong to guide the young missionary from Portland down an alternate path.

(3 stars)

Now showing through Wednesday 11/22 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as part of the ongoing series Magnolia at the Modern

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