Martyr or Misguided? Closer Look at Death of John Chau in The Mission

In 2018, a shocking event made headlines around the world: a young American missionary, John Chau, was killed by arrows while attempting to contact one of the world’s most isolated Indigenous peoples on remote North Sentinel Island. From Emmy-winning directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“Boys State”) comes National Geographic Documentary Films’ THE MISSION, which uncovers the gripping story beyond the headlines. Through exclusive interviews and with unprecedented access to Chau’s secret plans, personal diaries, and video archives, The Mission examines the mythology of exploration that inspired him, the evangelical community that supported his quest, and reveals his own father’s heartbreak as Chau’s youthful thirst for adventure became a fatal obsession.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: We got the opportunity to talk for Boys State, which it was so fun to chat with you, because I did Girls State. This time around though, I am not a missionary. However, I found this to be a super fascinating topic. So talk to me a little bit about the premise of the mission.

Jesse Moss: The Mission is, in part, about a young American missionary named John Chau who, in 2018, traveled to this very remote island that is part of India called North Sentinel, to bring the Gospel to the people who live on this island. They’re called the Sentinelese, and he was killed. This became a global news story. His death became a meme, and he was portrayed as a martyr and a reckless zealot on a suicide mission. And we were, I think, captivated by this story, by John’s life, and his tragic death, and saw this as a way to look at radical faith, which is a subject we explored in a film 10 years ago called The Overnighters, and wanted to understand what propelled John to this island, who he was, what was the world he came out of. Why did he undertake such a dangerous mission?

And then who are these people who live there, who we know almost nothing about. This is like the last unmapped place on Earth, and the Sentinelese have their own mysteries and history, and we wanted to understand how these two people, peoples, cultures collided.

RM: I love that you did do that digging deeper as to what could fuel him, other sides. And it wasn’t like there wasn’t anything that was left — 13 pages of his diary before the end there, a 20-plus page kind of like secret plan, a decade in the making — talk to me about where you started, how you even kind of decided to assemble a beginning, middle, and end, so to speak.

Amanda McBaine: This was a tricky one. So Boys State, which we talked to you about before. That’s a cinema verite film. We’re following people as something’s happening in a present tense story. And this one, we really started with that diary, which his parents released publicly, and it’s very moving and very inside sort of the final days of John’s journey, which, in fact, had been a 10-year journey, because he really, when he was 16 years old, began this commitment to this mission, and wrote a 26-page plan over the many years, and built a kind of underground network because, in fact, what he was going to do was illegal, right? So, it had to be clandestine by the end. There weren’t actually that many missions or organizations that would support him because of the illegality of the act.

So, we started, I think, first by talking to as many people as we could who knew him, and as many people as we could who knew anything about the Sentinelese. And so that led us to Levi, who’s in our film, who’s in our film, who was a friend of his in high school, and his teacher in high school, and his teacher in college, and his pastor in later life, and people within his inner circle. And then for the Sentinelese, we quickly came to a historian named Adam Goodheart who himself had gone on a journey for sort of adventure, historical writing reasons, to that same island, and he didn’t make it, because a storm prevented him from making it, but had a lot to say about the history of the place. So, talking to people is how we first got into kind of the inner circle, and then there were concentric circles that kind of flowed out from there.

John shows gifts he brought as he approaches the natives. (National Geographic)

RM: One of the choices that I absolutely loved was the choice to use animation in telling parts of the story. I thought that it was so perfectly placed because it was able to bring us closer to what’s going on, yet also oddly keep a little bit of distance. Maybe talk to me about that choice, and how that came about.

JM: Well, it was suggested in part by the stories that John himself took in as a young man. Comic books like Tintin, and Through Gates of Splendor, which is a story of some Christian missionaries who went to Ecuador in the 1950s, a kind of sacred story for many missionaries. And so, John took in all these stories, some secular, some religious, and we, in looking at the Christian comics in particular, we sort of discovered that the language of animation seemed motivated, and in some ways suited, for the visualization of this moment of contact, which John describes in writing so vividly, but we had no visual evidence for.

And as you mentioned, it’s inherently subjective. I think audiences understand this is not a definitive truth. This is our interpretation based on what few fragments we have, and I think it gives people space to kind of come to the story, and not, again, not to present it as some kind of definitive truth. And that was important to us, and it’s a uniquely beautiful medium. We collaborated with some very gifted artists who brought John’s, that chapter of John’s story, to life in I think a very humanistic but also lyrical way, which seemed appropriate. I mean, one way we thought about John was he sort of willed himself into being a character in a story of his own. He was a character in a story, but in some ways got lost in the story, I think, and lost his life, of course. And so, I think that that storybook quality, I think animation offers, and why we were so drawn to it.

RM: You know, one of the things I thought that you did so well, and I found myself going back and forth many times as to whether I thought, wow, I wish I had more of this courage, or whether I thought this guy is misinterpreting every single thing. I thought you did that so beautifully, because it allowed us as an audience member to kind of have that check and balance throughout the whole film with ourselves. Now, making that, no easy feat. How did, what did you have in place to kind of make sure it was balanced?

AB: I love that that was your experience, because I think that actually mirrors my experience, and I hope that the film kind of does that for people, so thank you for receiving that. I think part of the reason we do this work is to listen, and not so much. I don’t think any filmmaker really comes in with an agenda, but I think to find as many people who we want to listen to, and in this film, this particular story had so many different angles. I mean, there were people who just feel passionately on one side, or the other side, or every side in between, and I think that makes it kind of one of the reasons we got interested in this project. There are many feelings about John. There are many feelings about missionary work. There’s many feelings about religion. There’s many feelings about colonialism, imperialism, indigenous tribes.

I mean, you can, there’s a lot there, and some of it is third rail stuff, and I just appreciated that people were so generous with their perspectives in talking to us, because there were probably reasons for them not to talk to us. And I also loved that National Geographic was willing to look in the mirror, too. So, people were pretty fearless coming to this story, which is very thorny. And also for the family, very emotional. And so, I do think, though, that at the very end of the film, you do get a little bit of Amanda and Jesse’s perspective on where we land, which is we don’t think you should go to this island, if you’re a missionary or a filmmaker. So, that to me is a judgment, but it’s withheld until the end. And people will take away many different things from this film, and I like that about it.

JM: I mean, John was tried and convicted in the news media the moment he died. I don’t think we felt that we needed to do that in the same crude, simplistic way. And I think that, sort of to work backwards from that judgment was a more interesting project, and to create a space for people to come to this story, to be challenged. If you think he’s a martyr, if you think he’s a fool, if you think this has nothing to do with you, it does, and I think that was surprising, I think, for us to discover how much, how culpable and complicit we are, certainly, in working with National Geographic and being self-aware of their own history, as Amanda mentioned. That was important, that we scrutinize ourselves.

Directors Amanda McBaine, left, and Jesse Moss.(Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

The Mission in theatres now



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