Producers: Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn, Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine and Will Cohen   Directors: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss   Cast: Lawrence Kao and David Shih   Distributor:  National Geographic Documentary Films/Picturehouse

Grade: B

Delusion and obsession are dangerous bedfellows.  Werner Herzog made that point brilliantly in his 2005 documentary about environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, who convinced himself that he was a kindred spirit to the grizzly bears of Alaska and lived among them for years until he was mauled to death in 2003.  The tale of John Allen Chau, a fundamentalist Christian driven by his faith—and by devotion to the idea of missionary endeavor—to attempt to convert the natives on a remote island closed off from the rest of the world, who had driven off all intrusions by outsiders they perceived as threats to their ancient culture and hunter-gatherer mode of life, follows a similar trajectory.  Despite an Indian governmental prohibition, Chau contrived to make his way to the forbidden people who were, he believed, in desperate need of the Gospel message, only to be killed after approaching the hostile tribesmen watching on the beach—at least according to the fishermen he’d hired him get him close to the shore.

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“Boys State”) weave together a variety of elements—home movies, re-enactments done in what appears rotoscope animation, excerpts from Chau’s diary read by Lawrence Kao, reminiscences from his friends, passages from a letter by his guilt-ridden father Patrick read by David Shih, clips from movies and archival stills—to present a biography of the young man.  It shows that he was brought up in a deeply religious home and became enamored of boys’ adventure tales and stories of the exploration of unknown places.  The two elements coalesced when he attended Oral Roberts University, whose evangelist founder taught the obligation of Christians, under the so-called Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20), to carry news of Jesus to all nations and whose director of missions Robert Parks emphasized it to students.  The injunction was exemplified for Chau in the mission of Jim Elliot and his comrades in Ecuador, who were killed in their attempt at evangelizing natives there.  Elliot is shown in archival footage shot by the group, and the mission was dramatized in the film “End of the Spear” (2005).

Chau became intent on responding to Christ’s command and trained with evangelical groups to prepare to follow it.  He fastened on North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman chain in the Bay of Bengal, as his chosen target.  McBaine and Moss include a sketch of previous Western contacts with its natives as a prelude to its dramatization of Chau’s passionate but tragic undertaking.  

To this they add lots of discussion of Chau’s voyage, anchored in the rueful commentary of Patrick about his son’s turn to what he terms “radical evangelical Christianity,” a movement he blames for what happened.  He’s clearly apologetic about letting his own professional difficulties estrange him from John, whom he might have more successfully discouraged from undertaking his venture.  (Chau’s mother, who apparently shared his more extreme religious views, does not appear.  Nor do his siblings.)

Patrick’s doubts about John’s religious beliefs, and the route on which they took him, are shared by most of the scholars who are interviewed in the course of the film, some of them historians who have studied the island and another an ex-missionary himself, whose efforts in Brazil soured him not only on missionary activity but on Christianity itself; he’s now an atheist.  (An interesting observation criticizes National Geographic, maker of the documentary, for having long romanticized the notion of interacting with “noble savages” like the Sentinelese and introducing them to progress.)

Yet others, like an official for the agency that trained Chau and other would-be-missionaries, and John’s college friends, still look upon him with admiration.  One of his old buddies evinces the conflicted way in which he looks back on Chau’s mission when he characterizes it as “stupid and courageous and bold,” and wishes that he shared his friend’s commitment to his faith.

“The Mission” does meander somewhat, and as edited by Aaron Wickenden can feel repetitious and overstuffed at times.  But it’s well shot by cinematographer Thorsten Thielow, the animation directed by Jason Carpenter gives it a haunting feel, and the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans adds to the atmosphere of hope and dread.  By making an effort to understand and empathize with all points of view rather than simply resorting to ridicule, it makes for a sober, poignant telling of a fascinating tale of modern religious obsession.