Last week’s University of Guam Film Festival, or UOGFF, was very exciting for me personally. I had a role in creating three of the films featured, whether as an actor, producer or consultant. I had a minor speaking role in the film “You’re Not Going Anywhere … Kid” directed by my former student Kyle Twardowsky, who shot the entire film on his iPhone. The documentary “War For Guam” which premiered last year on PBS stations around the United States was also shown. It was directed by Frances Negron-Muntaner, a prominent Puerto Rican scholar who teaches at Columbia University. I worked for several years as a co-producer (along with local filmmaker Baltazar Aguon and others) on this film that shows the Chamorro experience in World War II, primarily through the re-telling of the stories of American holdout George Tweed and Chamorro priest Jesus Baza Duenas.
The final film, which was premiering at the UOGFF and will also be screened during FESTPAC later this month is “American Soil, Chamorro Soul” directed by Jessica Peterson of “The Guam Guide.” In this film, I was featured as a historian and cultural expert, who tied the different themes together. After the screening was finished, members of the cast and crew gathered on stage to take questions from the audience. As I listened to the discussion, I couldn’t help but reflect back on how the film had come together, and why for me, it represented a very important and different representation of Chamorro culture today.
When the director, Jessica had first released a teaser for her project, which would be a travel film of the same name, she received some criticism through social media. The initial teaser seemed very focused on the director and her experiences on Guam interacting with Chamorros, rather than allowing the people themselves to drive the narrative. Jessica took this feedback seriously and decided to reimagine the film. She met with myself and others to talk about the concerns people had expressed and what would be the best way to approach a portrayal of contemporary Chamorro culture.
The resulting film uses the voices of a group of practitioners in the realm of dance, traditional medicine and navigation to talk about how Chamorros are working to preserve and revive their culture. Through suruhåna Bernice Nelson and a young woman named Audrey Meno, we visit Åmot Taotao Tåno’ farm and talk about how our traditional medicine has contemporary value. Through Master of Chamorro Culture Frank Rabon and his dance students, we see how Chamorros are joining cultural dance groups to empower themselves. And finally through Ron Acfalle and his sons, we watch as they work to carve and sail traditional Chamorro canoes, seeking ways to connect to the spirits of our ancestors.
It is a very different portrayal of Chamorros, when compared to some previous documentaries and also representations in travel media or the work of scholars. In those representations, Chamorro culture is described as being dead and gone, something long lost and buried beneath centuries of colonization and cultural change. But this documentary challenges that notion.
Human perceptions of culture are so intriguingly paradoxical. Cultures always change, but humans feel at the same time, like cultures exist to always stay the same and are “lost” when they do. This is the contradiction of human social existence. Our cultures live and breathe and change just as we do, but we all wish that they could be reduced to static objects that we could fit in our hands, buy from vendors at fairs or would fit nicely onto tattoos or T-shirts. Each culture is as complicated as the humans that claim it, but also subject to their desires that it be reduced to static simplicity.
Chamorros and other colonized peoples feel this more than most. People look at us and say that we have no culture, we’ve lost it all over the years, but when they look at another culture, they say that they haven’t lost anything, but just changed due to modernization and evolved or innovated. Even Chamorros themselves will generally subscribe to this notion, and perpetuate the terrible idea that nothing that we have is our own, our culture is an exotic mishmash of everyone else that has made Guam their military base, parish or home.
It is important that Chamorros not simply accept these ways of seeing ourselves. They have roots in the writings of explorers, missionaries and anthropologists, who see indigenous people as either being exotic, pure natives or else impure, pathetic victims of history. It is important that, regardless of the tragic history that we might have had, where parts of our culture were prohibited or forgotten, we do not accept that the actions of colonizers forever shape who we are and what we can be. In my interview for the film, I note that even if the dances of Chamorros from the 17th century were eventually lost, does this mean that Chamorros as a people cannot ever dance “authentically” again? No, because cultures live and breathe. They lose things, they gain things. It is not something you just plop into a museum exhibit, it is as complicated and abundant in potentiality as life itself.
For the film “American Soil, Chamorro Soul,” what I felt was most powerful in terms of its narrative, was the way it exemplified this idea, that Chamorro culture, regardless of whether you want to bring in labels or authentic or inauthentic, is nonetheless alive. It is a living culture, where we find those who are fighting to preserve, to revitalize, to keep imagining the world, even as it changes within what could be called a Chamorro perspective.
Si Yu’us Ma’åse to Jessica, the cast and the crew for their beautiful film. If you want to learn more about “American Soil, Chamorro Soul” head to its website, http://www.chamorrofilm.com, where it is available for purchase or rent.