The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands
Study areas: American History, Colonial/Postcolonial Studies, Pacific Islands Studies, Political Science
The Insular Empire is intended to unsettle American viewers’ widely-held notions of their country’s history as a non-colonial or even counter-colonial power. As the film opens to martial bugle-and-drum music, the voice of the female narrator intones, “As Americans, when we hear the word ‘colony,’ we think of the British Empire and our fight for independence.” In a succession of quick cuts, we see mythic images of the American story: grainy old black-and-white film footage of cannon explosions and soldiers running towards us, carrying the flag of the 13 American colonies; a tightly-framed shot of the Liberty Bell swinging forward, its cast metal word “Liberty” filling the screen; a meeting hall with several dozen men wearing old-fashioned waistcoats and white ascots, signing the American Declaration of Independence with quill pens; and the Statue of Liberty silhouetted against the sky, her torch flaring into flame.
The narrator then continues, “But in some parts of America, the word ‘colony’ has a very different meaning.” The grainy black-and-white footage fades and the screen is filled with an image of tropical allure: the prow of a bright yellow wooden outrigger canoe glides over iridescent turquoise lagoon waters. Suddenly the camera takes us underwater, as if to reveal the historical realities beneath the placid surface, and we see the shattered fuselage of a war plane lying on the sandy bottom. A succession of images follow quickly, telescoping several decades of island history into 30 seconds of film montage: black-and-white footage of a war plane flying overhead, bombs dropping and exploding; brown-skinned Chamorro soldiers marching in dress parade carrying the US flag; young Chamorro girls in school uniforms, marching in front of Government House; Chamorro school children standing inside a classroom and dutifully reading from their English Basic Readers; then a sign in bold black letters declaring “ENGLISH ONLY WILL BE SPOKEN HERE.” We view all of this in the first 60 seconds of this 60-minute PBS documentary, before the opening credits scroll across the screen. This film packs a message, and it wastes not a moment in making its point.
Subtitled “America in the Mariana Islands”, this film is structured around a central paradox: on the one hand, American ideals of democracy and America’s foundational narrative of revolution against colonial oppression, and on the other hand, the historical and political realities of America’s insular colonies in the western Pacific. Immediately before the opening title rolls, we hear a female voice saying “To be a colony is to really work on your psyche, you know.... It’s really demoralizing to use that term, but call it what it is: we were a colony then, and we’re a colony today.” In mid-sentence the film cuts to former Guam senator Hope Alvarez Cristobal, who is speaking these words. Cristobal, an indigenous Chamorro woman from Guam, is one of four main protagonists whose personal stories carry the film’s content. Extensively interviewed on camera, and supplemented with photographs from their personal collections, these four individuals embody the complexities and contradictions inherent in the guiding question that this film poses: “What is it like to be a colonial subject of the greatest democracy on earth?” It is through their voices, their points of view, and their life histories that the film humanizes the political and historical message it seeks to convey.
The Insular Empire sweeps through more than a century of American history, punctuated by the recurring wars that reshaped the colonial Pacific, beginning with the Spanish-American War, which gave America its colonial possessions of Guam and Philippines. Next come the two world wars that reshuffled Pacific colonial masters from Germany to Japan to the US followed by the Cold War and the not-so-cold Korean War that provided the rationale for the US policy of “strategic denial” and the US’s security-zoning of its entire Pacific Islands territory. Following that was the Vietnam War, waged heavily from military bases on Guam, and most recently the ongoing “Global War on Terror” and the anticipated military buildup on Guam—an island which some US military strategists now refer to as the “tip of the American spear” pointed towards Asia. The Mariana Islands lie along the geopolitical fault-line between Asian and American spheres of power, and this global superpower contest forms the wider framework of the film’s message.
The four individuals whose stories drive the film forward are all prominent indigenous leaders who have played central roles in their peoples’ efforts at political decolonization and cultural revitalization. The Insular Empire sympathetically portrays the idealism and ambition that motivated their political struggles, and the victories, disappointments and betrayals they experienced along the way. Through their lives we also realize the powerful force that two institutions have long exerted upon life in the Mariana Islands: the Roman Catholic Church and the US military. By the end of the film, viewers will feel that they have come to know all four individuals on a personal level. We watch Hope Cristobal grow from a young schoolgirl intent on learning proper English (and not getting her knuckles rapped for speaking her native Chamorro language in class), to a grandmother teaching Chamorro to her infant grandchild. We see her as a teen-aged beauty queen visiting the US, representing Guam at the Miss Universe pageant, then as a young wife and mother, and later as a member of the Guam Legislature and a petitioner for over 20 years before the UN Special Committee on Decolonization. By the end of the film we see Hope helping to prepare her daughter, Dr. Hope Cristobal Jr., for her own trip to the UN as a petitioner, continuing her mother’s long effort.
The Insular Empire is a visually engaging, tightly edited and well-paced film. The film is also thoroughly researched and accurate in its treatment of a lengthy historical chronology and complex political landscape. Buyers of an institutional copy of the film can also get the access code to a 22-page Screening and Study Guide that provides supplementary background material, additional references, links to related websites, and suggestions for setting up filom screenings. The Insular Empire is an excellent teaching tool for high school and college classes in American government, history, politics, and Pacific Studies, and for consideration of questions of imperialism, colonialism, and self-determination. This is an important documentary film, which deserves wide viewing and thoughtful discussion.
Donald Rubinstein is Professor of Anthropology and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam, where he has served on the faculty since 1988. He holds a doctorate in Anthropology from Stanford University and a Masters in International Public Health from the University of Hawai‘i. He has conducted research in Micronesia on a variety of social and cultural issues for 40 years, with topical interests in visual anthropology, medical anthropology, social change, migration, and adolescent suicide. Currently he is involved in two National Science Foundation-funded research projects on ethnomathematics in selected cultural groups in the Pacific Islands and Arctic regions.
The Insular Empire is distributed by New Day Films.
DVD's for insititutional use can be purchased online from New Day Films.
The film is also available for rental as streaming video at New Day Digital.
Additional information is available at the film's official website.
Last Updated: October 16, 2012