Even if someone wanted to learn more about Guam and its 4,000-year-old civilization, there’s not a lot to draw from. Very little has been published—or filmed, for that matter—about the Mariana archipelago, comprised of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, flung 6,000 miles to the west of North America. This comes as no surprise. As with all colonized peoples, the people of the Marianas have struggled—and continue to struggle—with threat after threat of erasure: erasure of a people, a history, a culture, an identity.
This is what makes the latest film from Vanessa Warheit, The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands, so remarkable.
The real heart of Insular Empire lies in the portraits of the Chamorro and Refaluwasch Carolinian people, the natives of these islands. Warheit follows the lives of four individuals—Hope Cristobal and Carlos Taitano from Guam, and Lino Olopai and Pete Tenorio from the Northern Mariana Islands. Each duo represents the opposing identities that all colonized peoples must reconcile. Simply put, it’s a choice between the “Give me liberty or give me death” credo versus the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” school of thought.
The most chilling scene in the film comes when Tenorio, now holding the position of Resident Representative to the United States, seeks funding for needed infrastructure projects by trying to ingratiate himself to stony-faced officials at the Department of the Interior. As he is being turned down, his self-deprecating shrugs and chuckles underscore, almost embarrassingly, the vast power inequity at the table.
Insular Empire remains a landmark work, filled with moving scenes that give genuine voice to the voiceless. It is the first film ever to accurately present the views and disturbing predicament of the people of the Mariana Islands. In doing so, it is an important archive of a valuable people’s history.
This is an excerpt from Koohan Paik's article in the latest issue of The Progressive. To read the article in its entirety, and to subscribe to The Progressive for a year—all for just $14.97—simply click here.