Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine on Grasping What Lies Beyond Our Reach in “The Mission”

It could be argued that there was a greater god that John Allen Chau worshipped than the supreme being he devoted his life to, though for better or worse, they were intertwined when he set off to North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India, a place he had to place his faith in existing as much as a higher power when it had been so fiercely protected by its native population that no cartographer could ever map it in detail. He may have seen himself on a mission for the lord, aiming to convert those he found amidst the archipelago to Christianity, but there was no doubt he was serving his own thirst for adventure to some degree, lured as so many other would-be conquistadors before him by the promise of making first contact with the unknown and presumably taming the wild as he had read about in books.

“The Mission” tells a story that many know when Chau made international headlines after meeting his death in 2018 upon making it to North Sentinel Island where he was not welcome, but directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine tell an entirely unfamiliar one when suggesting his folly may be one we all share when the less known about the Sentinelese only fueled his desire to seek them out and bend towards his beliefs and a history of exoticizing such communities rather than trying to understand them is laid bare. Remarkably, Moss and McBaine make the film under the auspices of National Geographic Films, whose legendary magazine sibling was among the first to bring attention to the Sentinelese and suggested that their disconnection from civilization somehow made them pure. (As historian Adam Goodheart tells the filmmakers, “As long as North Sentinel Island exists, Eden exists.”)

While Chau may have seen himself as a pioneer when few had attempted to make the trek across the Indian Ocean to the Andamans, he is seen as neither alone in his zeal nor in history as Moss and McBaine chronicle a pursuit driven by a desire for independence yet nonetheless feels beholden to a culture that remains committed to conformity when the end goal was ultimately to bring strangers to be more like him. The story allows Moss and McBaine to dig even deeper into themes of religion and masculinity that they’ve found so juicy before, from “The Overnighters,” in telling of a North Dakota pastor confident in his ability to reform broken men to the point it could destroy him, to “Boys State,” where the amateur government set up by 17-year-olds mirrored real-life politics in its tribalism. Yet the two, already some of the most daring filmmakers out there, venture into uncharted territory right along with Chau when having to speak to a subject who’s no longer around to speak for himself, drawing upon his social media accounts and exchanges with his father Patrick to reflect his passion for life, and examining their own role and that of others in romanticizing cultures that may be different and no matter how well-intentioned, placing distance between them.

It’s an extraordinary and provocative film that has the power to counter long-thriving ideas about missionary work when it is bound to linger in the mind just as long and with the film making its way across the country theatrically, including a special screening this Saturday at the Aero Theater in Los Angeles, Moss and McBaine spoke about what compelled them to make “The Mission,” having to move away from their verite roots to properly tell Chau’s story and looking to unconventional examples for the film’s engrossing structure.

It was interesting to hear that you were actually looking into this story when National Geographic came to you with their own project about it. How’d you end up committing to it?

Jesse Moss: That’s actually true. Normally we run away from big global stories. There are lots of people chasing them down and [the stories themselves] challenge us, but this one really grabbed us when we read about it. We didn’t know how to pursue it or approach it. Of course, we thought about it in terms of “The Overnighters” [since] we’ve been engaged in this conversation around radical faith for a long time now, thinking about our culture and our country and our divisions, and coming as people who are secular and trying to make sense of a very extreme act of faith and of the people on the other side of the equation. So we thought about it a lot and fortunately, National Geographic was thinking about it too, and then at some point thinking about us, so that was a happy accident or great fortune that we could partner with them. We were all still challenged by the form and the content of the story, but I think we all were ready to embrace that challenge.

It seems like your own test of faith when typically you’ve worked in verite filmmaking rather than telling a story set in the past. Was there something early that made you think this was possible?

Amanda McBaine: You’re right, we are comfortable doing cinema verite, and this didn’t offer any of that. There was the diary that existed, and there were the third rail topics that were uncomfortable and interesting and this far into our careers, we want to be a little scared of making something. There was a lot of stuff that made me very uncomfortable that I wanted to explore, but then how do you do it with so little available initially? That became the project initially of just pulling that thread. The diaries were very powerful, and they had been made public by the family, and reading them felt like an emotional purchase in this person whose motivations were very unclear to me, and similarly, in meeting [Adam Goodhart] the historian who gave us a little bit more of an understanding of what the history of the Sentinelese is, as unknown as they are and how much can we know about them. It turns out that National Geographic itself had done a feature on this exact tribe, so you have these little moments where there are stepping stones across the stream, and then you just create another one and another one, and another one. We didn’t always know we were going to try animation — and that was another scary place to go — but once we landed on that, we were really happy we tried.

The interview with Adam Goodhart was particularly fascinating to me because there’s a moment where, as he’s saying the words out loud, he’s having the epiphany that what he’s long thought of as an adventure [for missionaries], he can’t see it that way anymore, and the movie itself seems to emerge from a similar perspective. Did that moment actually clarify things for you?

Jesse Moss: I think that it really opened up. There was a sense that there was an embedded history here that needed to be brought forward as much as we could understand it because the narratives in the news were that this was an uncontacted tribe, and that John was like a reckless zealot on a suicide mission. Both are really not true. And to understand through Adam that this place, North Sentinel, and the island chain, the Andamans, have been the wellspring of how the Western world thinks about indigenous tribes and [has inspired] so much mythology and narrative, it did become a pivot point in our process to reckon.

There was clearly in John’s youthful adventuring a kind of seduction that we could relate to through the secular stories that he took in, the “Tintins” and the “Robinson Crusoes” and we hadn’t fully realized that John embodied these two faiths — the faith of his evangelical Christianity, but also this faith of adventure and exploration. And most people coming into the story know the outcome probably, and they probably are already judging John quite harshly, so unless you really come from John’s world, you’re not excited to be on the ride, although there is a feeling we maybe all can recognize in ourselves of like, “Wow, I’m going to do something exciting and maybe a little bit dangerous and it might take me to a place that I’ve never been before that’s very different from my own.” Those are universal aspects, which I think many of us can connect with, and the film is shaped in a way that draws us in to John’s journey and we get Adam Goodhart’s own youthful account of going to North Sentinel, but then I think we have to take that turn and Adam helps us do it.

Amanda McBaine: That is a pivotal moment in this film because he is an older person now, reflecting on this moment of his youth and there’s a zeal and an excitement to go out and discover the unknown, but there’s a recognition as you get older, that you may be on this hero’s journey, but there’s a much bigger story than you. And what’s nice about all the people in our film who got older and are reflecting back is they recognize that bigger picture and that they’re decentralizing themselves from the narrative. That’s actually happening in real time for Adam a little bit in that moment [where] it’s not an adventure story and I love that moment for that shift between the me part of the story and us part of the second half.

What was it like to build around a subject you would never get to meet?

Jesse Moss: We were challenged by John and what record he leaves us, the inability to really get inside of his head outside of his diary and his absence of doubt is hard to fathom — to doubt seems to be very human and he doesn’t display much of it. And that frustration led us to other perspectives. Dan Everett, most notably, was someone very compassionate towards John, but also very judgmental at the same time and we were not so sure we could bring him into the film in such a substantial way because up until that point, it was really people who had either known John or directly influenced his trajectory, like Adam Goodhart, whose article John had read as a young man, but in the moment that we met Dan, the film and the conversation opened up, and we had to give ourselves permission to bring Dan’s voice into the film because he has such a big and important story to tell and [it became important] for him and Adam and T.N. Penn at The Anthropologist to become these kind of composite alter egos of John — those who lived long enough and had different experiences, but could give perspective on what it means to come in contact with these cultures and what the consequences of those youthful actions are.

We also had to allow ourselves a kind of literary structure to the film. I wouldn’t consider it to be an essay film, but literary nonfiction maybe was a better model for us in thinking about how we could interweave these different storylines because we’re going forward in time with John, we’re going backwards in time through Adam to understand the history of the island, and then we have this Dan’s own trajectory and then we have the father and son in conversation. There’s really four balls that we’re juggling in the air [narratively], and that’s very exciting once you get them all going, but you drop them in before you figure out the rhythm, and that’s really what we had to sort out.

Amanda McBaine: We love cinema verite because you just hitch your wagon and [see it] unfold. That has structural challenges too, of course — especially multi-character narrative, but this is a story about stories too, so [we had] to really think about the shape and structure of this, and it’s interesting, I love humor in documentary and this is not a funny story, but it’s a story about life too. There are moments that remind us that these are real people with real experiences, so [it was important] to make room for those moments too. There is a lot of trauma — obviously a father in writing a letter about processing the grief and the guilt of his own son’s radicalization, but also loss — that as parents, [there] was a point of emotional purchase for us in understanding the human side to John.

Jesse Moss: And one compass point, and this came through looking at John’s social media, which is vast, but a little bit shallow [as far as reflecting who he was], is this overwhelming impression that this is a young man who loved life, so [it was important] to always remind ourselves of that and drawing our portrait of John as a real person and a sensitivity and respect to his faith, his life, his choices. That was important, even if we disagree with him, which we do, and because this is a story about stories, [we wanted] a certain amount of self-awareness, but [asked ourselves] what is the right amount?

Amanda McBaine: These kinds of stories that are so complicated need to be really excavated [and examined] in all the historical ways and all the human ways and all the self-reflective ways and that’s probably where Jesse and I like to live the most — maybe to our detriment. I feel like we only lean into these super-complicated situations that are not easy to summarize at the end or easy to talk about afterwards, but that’s where we’re happiest, honestly. More complicated, the better.

“The Mission” is now in theaters. It will have a free special screening November 18th in Los Angeles at the Aero Theatre.

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