Filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss adopt a gentle, wise tone as they tell Chau’s story, but they situate it within the world of people who have either participated in or studied and written about Christian missionary work, excluding outside commentators as well as anyone who might view the idea and practice as something other than the outgrowth of a noble impulse. The movie itself never quite comes out and says what it thinks, even in a roundabout way. Mostly it watches others talk about how this particular mission ended in violence, and provide historical context that nibbles around the edges of a critique, or appears to, such as the story of a Western explorer en route to a port city who encountered a family of natives from the tribe that he was studying on their own small boat in the ocean. He persuaded them to board his vessel and accompany him. In port, the parents immediately sickened and died, and the explorer took the orphans back home, “with presents”.
The filmmakers’ approach closes off some avenues of possibility but opens others up. The execution isn’t sharp enough. There are stretches where the movie (inadvertently, one assumes) seems like an advertisement for its subject, as well as a movie that could be shown in many American Sunday school classes without making parents mad.
But there are also pointed references to how the soon-to-be-defunct magazine version of National Geographic (corporate kin of National Geographic Channel, which distributes this movie) conditioned generations of Westerners to view the natural world mainly as a place to have adventures, and view nonwhite tribes with a mix of contradictory attitudes: seeing them as proof that people really are all the same inside while at the same time treating them as an exotic “other”, more symbols than people. (Lovingly lit 19th century photos of tribespeople are followed by eugenics shots of them standing in front of measuring grids, their heads fitted with calipers.)
For all its near-miss moments, the inside-out approach of “The Mission” results in a richer film than one might have expected from reading the summary on a streaming menu. You ask questions of yourself as this tale unfolds. Where do my sympathies lie? Would I ever do something like that? If somebody I knew did something like that and got killed, how would I feel? Whose eyes would I see through?
In limited release now.