Hot Docs 2017 Interview: Nathan Fitch and Bryan Chang Discuss the Importance of the Micronesian Voice in ‘Island Soldier’

Island Soldier Hot Docs 2017 Nathan Fitch Bryan Chang

On one of the rainiest days in Toronto this year, I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the filmmakers behind Island SoldierI was glad to hear that director Nathan Fitch and producer Bryan Chang were able to enjoy some sunshine in Toronto before the rainy weekend, but even more excited to talk about this film. Island Soldier came from Fitch’s experience in the Peace Corps, where he became immersed in the Micronesian community and learned about their culture and their struggles.

Under the Compact of Free Association, the citizens of Micronesia are able to enlist in the US military in order to receive financial assistance to send back to their families on the islands. However, as foreign citizens, they don’t get the same access to other benefits, like healthcare, VA benefits, and support groups. Recruiters are trained to emphasize the monetary benefits of enlisting in order to entice more people to enlist. Island Soldier attempts to give the people of Micronesia a voice that is rarely seen in mainstream media.

Director Nathan Fitch was the first to join the call.  

Congratulations on the film, your first feature film, no less. I thought the film was tough to watch at times because you really felt for these people, their community, and the suffering that they’ve been experiencing. I know you started out in the Peace Corps, so I wanted to know how the film came about and how the Micronesian community was reacting to you being there and how they’re reacting to the film being out now.

Nathan Fitch: We actually premiered at Full Frame Festival. It’s a really good doc festival in North Carolina. It was really great. These Micronesian veterans and active duty guys were able to come to the screening. They drove themselves to the screening once they found out. It was really great to have them there.

They’re very supportive of each other, which is something that I noticed in watching the film as well.  

NF: Absolutely. Everyone on the island knows everyone. So when we did the screening, the people who had driven, knew Sapuro, the soldier who died, so it had a lot of meaning for them to be there.

And how did they react to seeing the film?

NF: They were very affected. We have two veterans on our Q&A and let them articulate their reactions to the film and also to talk about their experience in the military. Which was the intent of the film – not to have it narrated by an outsider.

**At this point, producer Bryan Chang was able to join the call.

Before watching the documentary, I had no idea about the compact and how it made it even possible for people in the FSM to enlist. I was frustrated at times watching the film, only because I couldn’t believe these soldiers were risking everything for a country but not getting the same benefits as regular US citizens. Because of the seriousness of the subject matter, what kinds of pressures did you both feel to properly tell this story, especially one of the Micronesian communities?

NF: As you know, this film came out of a very personal experience where I lived and worked on the islands for years. I became a part of their family and a part of the community. So I, as a filmmaker, felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to Micronesia. Micronesians don’t get their voices heard very often or a lot of media representation. So this film is a big thing for them and it’s important as filmmakers, and as me personally as someone who has spent years living in Micronesia, that the representation feels accurate because there’s not that much else out there.

Bryan Chang: And I would just say that we had a lot of discussions about stylistically how to portray this story in a way that felt genuine, that felt true to these people. Nathan, having lived there and having speaking the language, and being adopted into this community, was a great way to have access in a genuine way. But at the end of the day, the two of us are non-Micronesians, we’re both outsiders and our team are all Americans trying to tell this story. So it was important to us to, as much as possible, have the story be told from our subjects’ point of view and through their own words.

We tried to avoid having any outside expert voices, which is a common trope in documentaries, for the expert interviewee to come in and lay down the bottom line on how to think about the topic. And we felt that we wanted to tell it through these personal stories to have it be as true to their experiences, which is something that audiences don’t know about, both in terms of what it’s like to be Micronesian, what this little country is even like, and also this unique experience of being a soldier going and serving in another country.

And when you approached these people with the idea of your project, were they hesitant about it? Or were they immediately open to the idea?

NF: The project came out of years of my being embedded in the community. I was actually in Micronesia in 2011 doing another project about the impacts of WWII on the islands. I was there for about 6 months at that point, and it was sort of, in a way, the groundwork that led to the beginning of this film. Because of that, me having already spoken the language and being part of the community, when I showed up with a camera they were receptive. All the people in the film were people I either knew when I was in the Peace Corps or were related to the family I lived with, so having that direct link reassured the subjects that I had earned some trust with the community. And the second part was that they wanted this story told. This is a small community that doesn’t have a voice. They don’t have people coming in and asking them about their experience, so I think when that did happen, there was a receptiveness. Although, there was a shyness to it also, the idea of being in the spotlight makes people there nervous, especially young men who don’t want to be singled out.

BC: And now that the film is taking its first steps out into the world, it’s been really great to see the support from the community online. There’s a really vibrant Facebook community. And Nathan probably mentioned this when he talked about our Full Frame experience, but a good number of Micronesians came from far away to see this film because it’s one of the few examples of Micronesians in the media. And so, in speaking to the young men who are stationed in Delaware, who have driven seven hours to come to the screening, they feel like, “Wow, this film is about us. Go check it out.” And I think there’s a palpable excitement from the community and we’re looking forward to bringing it closer to home to the Pacific Islands.

NF: And one more thing about the access. The film opens with a funeral. And when that happened, the veteran community reached out to me directly and was like, “We want this documented. We want to have people know.” Because it’s a place where everyone is connected, you know? And for the first few years when we had no money, I would go out and shoot and sleep on people’s floors and they would feed me. So the film, in some ways, has been co-sponsored by the community.

When was the decision made to focus more on Sergeant Sapuro and his family?

BC: It’s been an ongoing process in trying to figure out how to tell a soldier’s journey in many different voices. When Nathan first went out and started filming with these guys, he had heard that there was going to be a new batch of new recruits that were going to be shipping out. So we were trying to cast a wide net to figure out who would be a compelling character. The reality of the footage that we ended up with, as the years went out and Nathan kept filming, is that each of the characters you see in the film represents a different stage in a soldier’s journey – from the islands of Micronesia, to training in the States, and then off to war, and unfortunately in Sapp’s case, back home in a casket. So in terms of the storytelling aspect and editing the film together, it was how do we take these different pieces, where each soldier tells a different piece of the story, and piece together what it might be like to go through this soldier’s journey.

Obviously, with Sapp’s story, there was a deeply universal emotion that comes out when family loses their son, their brother, and a community grieves for him. So it was a difficult decision to figure out where that emotional centre would come in the film. In earlier cuts, the funeral scene actually comes later in the film. But we felt like a funeral, that’s a universal in human society – we all grieve. And we felt opening the film with that would kick it off with some immediate emotion and tell audiences who might not know where Micronesia is on a map, that these are the stakes that we’re dealing with.

NF: Maryann, Sapuro’s mother, was one of the people who I didn’t know very well when I was in the Peace Corps, didn’t have that built in connection already like with other people in the film. But from the first interview, she had been incredibly open and really articulated the experience of the family in a way that is very understandable and emotional. I think having her as a character, as a way of understanding the loss of her son, was just so compelling and we felt that we needed to introduce Sapp’s passing so that we could spend time with her throughout the film and move towards that moment of redemption where she is finally able to meet Mario, her son’s best friend.

I think her support of the film is unflattening. She hasn’t been able to see the final film yet because we haven’t been able to get to Micronesia and the internet is so slow there. But through social media, she’s incredibly excited to see the film and it’ll be great to have her do a Q&A at the screening there so she can speak to the film herself.

You mentioned when Mario was visiting the family. How did you help organize that visit? That was also a really emotional moment because he had never met the family before and he learned to speak the language to be able to communicate with Sapp’s grandmother.

NF: I had actually photographed Sapuro, before his passing in Seattle, way back before the project was even a project, in 2010. I started doing some little interviews, but we didn’t have a substantial amount of archival footage with him and spent a lot of time on social media trying to connect with his fellow soldiers and people who might have some archival footage so that we could help tell his story. It’s been a challenge of this film to try and create a portrait of this person that we don’t have much footage of and try and capture how charismatic he was.

In the course of trying to find archival footage of him, I connected with Mario’s mother who had some old VHS and mini tapes of him. So there was about a year of messaging back and forth trying to get the tapes from them. And then when we did a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 and were going back to do a final follow-up with Maryann (Sapp’s mother) and Madison (another character in the film), we asked Mario if he wanted to go and he said yes. The funny thing is that he decided, and then his whole family decided they wanted to go too. So they did a funding campaign themselves to help fund their trip.

BC: Mario’s kind of an interesting character and angle on the whole story, where we started filming with him later on. So we had a shorter cut of the film already and were trying to figure out the third act, the final steps of all these characters, and realized Mario was kind of a unique entry point into exploring Sapp’s personality and the hole that he left behind through the people that knew him best. He and Mario had this unique bond where they were both somewhat outsiders – Mario comes from a Mexican-American background – and I think, in speaking to Mario, they kind of bonded over being another in a White world.

And Mario, as an American, was something that would allow American audiences to see that, while the establishment or system of the military and US government are somewhat turning a blind eye towards the population that their comrades in arms, the actual brave men and women that are serving along side these soldiers, that they know them as their peers and are going out to pay their respects to their fallen friends. And that really meant a lot to the people on the island. When we arrived, everybody knew that they were coming and you can see in that final scene by Sapp’s grave that it really meant a lot, not just to Sapp’s immediate family, but to the whole island, that this American family would come all the way out from California to their tiny island to pay respects for their fallen brother.

Were you able to speak with other American soldiers to try and get their opinions on the injustice, I would say, about the fact that Micronesians don’t get the same benefits as US citizens?

NF: I think to go back to the point that Bryan brought up earlier, we did want this to be a film about Micronesians told in Micronesian voices. I mean, Mario, after the passing of Sapuro, had a really difficult time. He had PTSD where he had already lost some of his friends. So the loss of his best friend was really devastating. He spent a couple years trying to get access to benefits. He didn’t have a home for a while, was having a hard time holding down jobs, and was really just struggling. And so, I think the thing about him, as an American soldier struggling to get his benefits, is that it’s so much harder for these people in the Pacific to get the same access. It’s not really the point of the film; it’s not something that we delve into, but the islands are so remote and it’s so hard to navigate all the steps it takes to get these benefits. It’s a really complicated question.

I was in Guam about six months ago and I was talking to Rodney Cruz Jr., who has created an advocacy group for veterans from the Pacific. And he was talking about how because there’s this compact and because it wasn’t spelled out at the beginning, the US can make a legal case that they don’t need to provide these benefits, but they absolutely have a moral responsibility to provide them. And I think that the stance of any American family whose children have gone away and served and been affected by that experience, would say that these people should have access to the same benefits. I mean, that seems like a clear, universal thing.

With all of the soldiers leaving to enlist because they need the financial assistance, we also have to look at the other side of it, which is if they leave, then the economic development of these islands continues to stall. And there’s also the risk that a lot of the old traditions won’t get passed down. How do you think the attention of this film is going to affect things on the island and the community? Especially with the compact contract ending in 2023.

BC: It’s hard to say how much effect our film can have. Certainly, we hope that the right people will see it and it might influence policy and maybe we’ll see some tangible changes. In terms of the trend that’s happening right now, it’s a really delicate, tricky place that the islands are in right now, where the outward migration is very real. A huge percent of the population has left the island and the economic forces are undeniable. You can make such a better living off the island than you can on the island. There are some efforts to try and retain the young people, but it’s very real that the best and brightest of these islands are being recruited straight out of high school to join the military.

And these are the same people that you would hope would stay and start businesses and be community leaders in Micronesia and in Kosrae. But it’s really hard to fault them for wanting to make a life for their family. For a lot of people, they go off and they make a pretty decent salary in the military and they’re sending it back home to support the family back on the island in a way that they wouldn’t be able to if they stayed there. Culturally, there’s also a high value placed on imported goods. That comes out where the old ways are being lost in favour of money coming in from America and jobs that they are able to get abroad.

NF: It goes beyond America, too. These islands have had colonial rulers or powers for hundreds of years. There is a movement towards more sustainable living, farming and fishing. But the truth is that the American dream and the allure of imported goods is a very real thing on the islands and has been for a while, especially with the advent of TV. Suddenly, people, instead of wanting to eat local fruit and fresh fish, they want the Big Mac that’s being displayed so temptingly. So I think the brain drain in Micronesia is a real thing. My host family had maybe seven or eight siblings, and all but one of them, or maybe all of them, are living off the island now. That was a family that focused on education and really wanted their kids to be ambitious, but the limits of what is possible, in terms of salary back on the island, was challenging.

Ultimately, we would hope eventually some policies will change. But for now, what can people do to help the cause or bring more attention to the subject? How can we help get the Micronesia voice out there?

NF: In the immediate sense, there is legislation that’s been drafted by the Trump administration to limit the access of non-Americans to American soil. So that’s something that could clearly affect Micronesians. In some ways, an American audience is a big target audience for us because I think it’s easy to dismiss these islands as something that’s not worthy of our support. But when it comes time to vote on legislation that might come down the line, having people have some information about this place and its relationship to the US and its current contribution to our military, it could make a difference between people supporting the islands and their continued relationship with the US or being willing to cut them off, which is going to be a difficult thing for the islanders.

BC: What’s the name of that organization, Nathan?

NF: Yeah, there’s a number of organizations that are trying to advocate for Micronesian rights – they’re facing stigma in Hawai’i and Guam, where they are migrating to. There’s an organization called We Are Oceania, which is trying to advocate for Micronesians to have health benefits in those places. There’s also islands like the Marshall Islands where the US tested about 70 atomic bombs in the past, and those people are still struggling with healthcare related issues related to radiation. So while our story is specifically about medical benefits for current soldiers, there is a history of US militarism for having dire consequences in Micronesia. It’s a micro story, but it’s part of a bigger history and context.

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