(director/writer: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss; animation director: Jason Carpenter; cinematographer: Thorsten Thielow; editor: Aaron Wickenden; music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans; cast: Pam Arlund, Dan Davis, Levi Davis, Adam Goodheart, Daniel Everett, Lawrence Kao (John Chau voice), David Shih (Patrick Chau voice); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Simon & Jonathan Chinn; Mile End Films; 2023)
“A fascinating documentary.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A fascinating documentary co-directed and co-written by Amanda McBaine (“Boys State”) and Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”). It tells an astonishing true story about the 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed when shot by an arrow in 2018 while persistently trying to convert to Christianity the isolated Indigenous community of the Sentinelese on North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India and within the confines of the Andaman Islands. They are a hunter-gatherer tribe of 200, and are one of the last people on Earth who live in complete isolation. They only wish to be left alone and live as they have from ancient times.
Because of the tribe’s violent tendencies towards outsiders that resulted in several deaths, modern legislation has imposed a ban on visits to their tribal grounds. Visitors would be wise to heed this request.
We learn as a youth Chau was obsessed with 19th and early 20th-century tales of exploration. As an adult he was an outdoors-man who worked at a national park. Though raised as a moderate Christian, he became an Evangelical and became obsessed with traveling the world to make conversions to Christianity. He had traveled on missions to Mexico, South Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Because of his internet posts, Chau became a popular and influential figure among fellow Christians.
We learn through statements made by Patrick Chau, John’s father, and the entries in John’s diary as much as we can about John and about the Evangelical community. It leaves us viewing John as a colonizer, forcing his religion on a people who don’t want his religion.
The film shows an animated sequence, footage of John on his travels and numerous interviews such as the ones with the historian Adam Goodheart, his childhood friend Levi Davis and, with the former missionary to Brazil, Dan Everett.
Chau comes across as a polite guy, but someone naive and fatalistic (not qualities I particularly admire).
It played at the Telluride Film Festival.
REVIEWED ON 10/18/2023 GRADE: A