At what point does Christianity become a cult? That’s a question some viewers might ask themselves after watching The Mission, which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, this 102-minute documentary shares the sad story of Vancouver Christian School graduate John Chau. After attending Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he made it his mission to convert an isolated island tribe in the Bay of Bengal.
In an act of extreme hubris, the 26-year-old Chau showed up on North Sentinel Island with his Bible and some gifts. Such visits are illegal under Indian law. Moreover, the tribespeople had a history of killing visitors. But when you’re infused with the Holy Spirit as a result of Christian brainwashing, these become secondary considerations.
The Mission is a haunting tale, augmented with terrific animation and enough file footage to get to know Chau. This is supplemented by evocative readings of Chau’s journal entries and doleful pronouncements by his father, a psychiatrist who immigrated to the U.S. from China.
Chau’s friends paint a picture of an energetic and ambitious young man obsessed with saving souls. Others, such as historian Adam K. Goodheart, provide insights into why residents of North Sentinel Island might not be in the mood to be rescued. It’s a very dramatic 21st-century story of colonialism, only this time the Indigenous people triumph.
The Mission goes beyond the headlines
Chau’s story received widespread international attention in 2018. However, it become one of those news stories that quickly disappeared from the media. As a result, many VIFF attendees will not know the details.
This film digs deeper. I found it tough listening to Christians prattling on about the value of missionary work. But by giving them so much airtime, Moss and McBaine shed light into what’s being done to young minds in the name of religion.
In the end, the star of the film might actually be Chau’s father. He keeps his dignity while sharing his pain in the hope that some other parent can avoid his fate. Jesus might describe that as loving your neighbour.
The Vancouver International Film Festival will offer two screenings of The Mission. The first is at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday (September 30) at International Village. The second is at the same location at 12:45 p.m. on Monday (October 2). For tickets, visit the VIFF website. VIFF runs from September 28 to October 8.