An animated sequence from The Mission depicting John Chau approaching North Sentinel. Image: National Geographic
On John Chau’s Instagram page you will find an adventurer, people person and constant grinner. Pictures of him camping on mountains, scuba diving, taking sailing trips, capturing rainbows and sunsets, attending friends’ weddings and holding their babies. “Snakebite survivor,” reads a line in his profile. “Following the Way,” reads another.
This Way led Chau to North Sentinel Island, home of one of the last isolated Indigenous cultures on Earth, and his death aged 26.
In 2018, he travelled to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. North Sentinel lies 50km west of the capital Port Blair. In November, Chau made three attempts to visit. “Lord, is this Satan’s last stronghold?” he pondered in his journal. Local fisherman were paid to ferry him close enough for him to approach the shore in a kayak.
He reportedly called out: “My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you,” but turned back after receiving a hostile response. On his next try, arrows were fired, one piercing the Bible he carried. He went once more on 17 November. The next morning, the fisherman saw the islanders burying his body on the beach, where it remains.
The story made headlines across the world, with Chau framed either as a martyr or a moron. Now the subject of a documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, The Mission, peels back layers of Chau’s life and death, the history of the island and connects them to the factors that have driven our culture for millennia.
Chau’s Instagram page was a starting point for the pair.
“It’s one of the first things we looked at,” Moss says. “Of course, it’s not the whole John. He was very careful in how he presented himself publicly. He was keeping a lot secret. But it’s very appealing. He was an outdoorsman, a mountaineer. He loved life. He had friends. He wasn’t a reclusive loner on a suicide mission. He was a complicated human being, not the caricature that was portrayed in the media.”
The Sentinelese had fascinated Chau since he had first heard about them as a teenager. He had a poster of a satellite image of the square-shaped unknown land, roughly 8km long and 7km wide, making it about the same size as Guernsey. The population is estimated to be anywhere between 50 and 400.
“He decided this was his life’s path and he didn’t waver from that,” Moss continues.
“He planned methodically for 10 years, trained spiritually and physically. For John, it was an act of love. Other people see it differently.”
“It’s an issue of consent,” adds McBaine. “The Sentinelese are a tribe that have existed for 50,000 years. They have generally been left alone except for some key moments that we talk about in The Mission that were traumatising. In the last 40 years the Indian government has protected the island. It’s illegal to go there for any reason. So what John Chau did was an illegal act, not just for some an immoral one.”
The traumatising events in recent history include a British survey in 1880 which consisted of removing an elderly couple and four children from the island for further study. The couple became sick and died almost immediately; the four children were returned, potentially carrying diseases that the island’s population would have no immunity to.
In this age of constant information overload, North Sentinel remains an enigma, magnified by the mystery.
“We don’t even know what the tribe calls themselves,” Moss says. “We don’t know what language they speak. There’s so much that is unknown about them and I think that’s what captured the public’s and our imagination. Who is this ‘lost’ tribe? I say that in quotes because they’re not lost to themselves.”
North Sentinel can symbolise a place of uncivilised savages in need of enlightenment or the closest we have to a Garden of Eden. Of course, it is neither. It is home to a culture we don’t understand, and as noted in the film, our thoughts about it tell us more about our own attitudes than the people who live there. The documentary raises the question about whether their hunter-gatherer lifestyle is preferable to ours, with its conflict and social media-fuelled rage.
The Mission uses GoPro footage Chau shot, diary entries and interviews with friends and experts. His visit to the island is evocatively illustrated like a Boys’ Own adventure, as Chau may have naively interpreted his actions.
Letters sent to the filmmakers from John’s father Patrick are also read throughout The Mission. While processing grief, Patrick Chau is clearly trying to comprehend how his son’s interpretation of the gospel could have been so different, leading him to be “sucked into this whirlpool of radical faith”.
In part, it’s online communities that connected people with similar ideologies, encouraged and condoned their actions. All Nations is the organisation that trained Chau. He went to a bootcamp in Kansas where volunteers would pretend to be island natives, carrying fake spears.
The endeavour to spread the name of Jesus to all people on the planet is known as the Great Commission, building on post-resurrection Jesus’s command to “go and make disciples of all nations”. Some believe that the Second Coming is being held up by this not having happened yet.
You can visit the Joshua Project online, which features an unreached community every day for you to pray for. The day I’m writing this, it’s the Rajbansi in Bangladesh with only 0.67% converted. The website notes “Ministry obstacles: Those who put their faith in Jesus Christ would face hostilities from both Muslims and Hindus.” And then “Outreach ideas: The Rajbansi people have many needs in the areas of education and medicine. Christian believers who go to them can provide for these needs while demonstrating the ways of Jesus Christ.”
There are handy charts listing communities most in need of salvation. For example, 428,321,000 people in the Arab world, which will require 6,073 “pioneer workers”. Another category is “Deaf” – 191 missionaries are needed for the 18.1% so far unreached. For the Sentinelese, the website still states “Pioneer Workers Needed: 1”.
“There are very few missionaries who go to the extremes John Chau did,” McBaine says. “He felt specifically called to that place because he had this history as an outdoorsman. He could kayak, live off the land, fish the ocean. He was strong and young and single. Plus having this calling; he felt like all those things made him the tip of the spear. That small group of people in the North Sentinel Island? Those were meant for him.”
Others, Moss continues, sharpened the spear and propelled it forward.
“In that way, it’s the universal story of radical faith, not just Radical Christianity, but the ways in which young men often are… call them weapons.
“The teachings of Jesus can inspire people to do tremendous good and bring tremendous compassion and charity and forgiveness. It really depends on how you interpret those teachings.
“Our hope is that the film will challenge people who come persuaded already that John is a martyr, to think about his story a little differently. And if you come already condemning John, you might see a reflection of your own impulses or viewpoints challenged a bit too.”
The Mission is in cinemas from 17 November.
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