Every year since 2011, filmmakers and movie fans have gathered together for the Guam International Film Festival, one of the island’s most anticipated arts and culture events. Although the festival is usually held during the month of September, this year GIFF will take place from November 16-20 to take full advantage of the opening of the Guam Museum in Hagåtña.

Festival organizers believe the new and centrally located location will bring in even larger audiences than in the past, while introducing the museum and its theater to locals and visitors alike.

“I hope [the museum] will open up a whole new demographic of viewers,” said Kel Muna, co-founder and program director of GIFF. “It goes hand in hand, because our mission is to educate on cultural differences.”

If you build it they will come

The idea for GIFF first stemmed when brothers Don Muna, co-founder and executive director, and Kel Muna, produced their independent film “Shiro’s Head” in 2011. After traveling to film festivals around the world, the brothers were inspired by the vast community of artists and art lovers that film festivals can bring together. 

Inspired, they wanted to share that same sense of unity and education over cinema in their hospitable home island. They soon got to work and created GIFF to promote their vision of “Community. Education. Entertainment.”

This year, GIFF received 200 film submissions. The 59 selected will be showcased in eight different categories at the Guam Museum by filmmakers from Fiji, Croatia, Japan, U.S., and Guam. Several films will be projected outside of the museum for the community to enjoy.

Emerging themes

Over the years, Kel Muna has noticed that an underlying theme will often emerge across films produced in geographically and culturally disparate places, creating what he described as an unspoken bond amongst filmmakers. This year the theme focused on issues pertaining to global climate change.

“There’s usually a trend with storytellers across the world,” Muna said. “There’s a lot to walk away with, that your issues are always someone else’s issues across the globe.”

A growing team and community

Over the last six years, the festival has grown into a three-person team to include Festival Director Ruzelle Almonds. She first started as a volunteer when GIFF made its debut in 2011. As a recent graduate at Simon Sanchez High School at the time, Almonds was set to leave island for college, but decided to stay due to her interest in partaking in the festival.  Six years later, as festival director, she has seen the number of aspiring filmmakers grow on Guam.

“I understood how important it was and I wanted to be able to contribute and see that happen and continue to happen,” said Almonds.

With GIFF’s vision of educating and inspiring, Almonds and the Munas continue to provide opportunities for artists and storytellers by creating workshops and  filmmaking opportunities for the community. 

“Since then we’ve seen a huge growth in local filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, but now there’s an avenue to get the experience of something organic,” Muna said. “I think that’s where the magic comes from.” 

Spotlight on the filmmakers – Cati and Mike Gonzalez

Hailing from Barcelona and New York City respectively, Cati and Mike Gonzalez are among this year’s featured filmmakers. The couple describe their feature film “Ekaj” as “a love story between two drifters – a naive teenager and a hustler. Ekaj meets Mecca, who takes him under his care. They cruise the city together looking for money and places to stay. Although Ekaj makes some money as a prostitute, he finds himself discarded and lacking what it takes to survive in the city. Their mutual loneliness leads to genuine friendship.” 

The raw and gritty themes of the film partly reflect on the real life experiences of the self-taught filmmakers, who overcame significant obstacles to achieve success as artists. Cati gave birth to a daughter at 16. Mike was raised in housing projects in NYC’s Lower East Side, and grew up on the streets after his mother died of AIDs in the early 1980s. 

While the film's setting is NYC through and through, the filmmakers feel that the story transcends time and place and will feel relevant to LGBTQ youth and their allies on Guam.

“A lot of LGBT youth go through the same situations, or at least some of the situations, that Ekaj experiences, especially emotionally or with their families, drugs, alcohol, and rejection,” said Cati. “I am told over and over that the film ‘is like their lives’ from many kids who see it.” 

Asked if the film takes on any additional significance or urgency in the wake of the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, who ran partly on a platform of rescinding some of the legal and social gains made by members of the LGBTQ community in recent years, the filmmakers answered by email: “I think that the LGBT movement is not going to stop gaining ground because of Trump. There are many LGBT filmmakers, actors, and newscasters, and they will not be silenced. All people, for that matter. Moving forward and not giving up is what matters in the end.”

“Ekaj” screens on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m. As with all GIFF 2016 screenings, tickets can be purchased online via this link  up to 45 minutes before showtime. After that, tickets are only available at the box office.

Spotlight on the filmmakers – Vicente “Ben” Salas

Vicente “Ben” Salas is one of the seven filmmakers attending GIFF that call the Mariana Islands home. A reporter at the Marianas Variety in Saipan, Salas has been involved in film and video production in some capacity for 12 years now starting while he was a high school and used a Hi8 camcorder for a school project.

It was then that “I was bitten by the film bug,” said Salas.

He went on to study aspects of film and audio production under Hollywood industry veterans teaching at Northern Marianas College.  

“I’m a writer and spoken word poet, so video speaks to me more than a still image,” said Salas. The combination of sound and moving images opens up storytelling opportunities, he said. “Film has a universal element, a way of communicating to people in a way that everyone can connect with.”

In addition to film and spoken word poetry, Salas has a passion for Chamorro language and culture. He decided to combine these three interests through his film “Ayotte’ – Way of the Warrior Poet."

In this four-minute narrative short, a spoken word poet is summoned by a call from his Chamorro taotaomo’na ancestors to take up the mantle of inspiring new generations of ayotte’ poets. According to Salas, ayotte’ is a Chamorro tradition of semi-impromptu call-and-response poetry that bears stylistic similarities to modern day battle rapping and spoken word slam poetry performances.

“Ayotte’” was a finalist in the “Best Made in the Marianas Award” category at the 2016 University of Guam Film Festival of the Pacific Spring Local Showcase.

This won’t be Salas’ first time attending GIFF or aving his work featured there. He had several pieces screen at the first GIFF in 2011, so he’s excited to return it the festivals sixth year to see how it’s evolved. 

“This will be sort of a little homecoming to see how it’s grown,” Salas said. 

“Ayotte’ – Way of the Warrior Poet” screens on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 12:50 p.m., with a scheduled filmmaker discussion immediately following the screening. As with all GIFF 2016 screenings, tickets can be purchased online via this link  up to 45 minutes before showtime. After that, tickets are only available at the box office.

More information

  • To learn more about this year’s official selections and watch their trailers, click here.
  • To purchase tickets ($5 per screening block, unless otherwise noted) and review the festival schedule, click here.