“The Talented Island of Guam”
by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
July 31, 2014
The Marianas Variety
If you didn’t get a chance to watch “Talent Town,” the latest film from the filmmaking duo The Muña Brothers this past month, you really missed out. The film was an engaging and exciting take on the state of art and creativity in Guam today and a call for both artists and their audience here to take things to the next level in terms of representing Guam. Full disclosure, I am one of the people featured in the film and so I do have some positive bias towards it.
The Muña Brothers are known for their work on “Shiro’s Head,” which is considered to be the first Chamorro/ Guam-movie. Other movies were filmed on Guam before “Shiro’s Head,” but this was the first one that took the island’s identity, especially its Chamorro heritage seriously. Whereas other films such as “Noon Sunday” and “Kaiju-ta no Kessen Gojira no Musuko” just used Guam as just a backdrop and basically ignored the truth of it, “Shiro’s Head” got its hands dirty and provided a gritty and sometimes uncomfortable portrait of Chamorro culture, past and present.
When I watched it for the first time I was almost moved to joyous tears by the way the Muña Brothers incorporated the Chamorro language into the storytelling. For so many Chamorros today, there is an almost jarring divide between their pride in being Chamorro and coming from Guam and their relationship to the Chamorro language. They represent themselves through the language in small ways, through a tattoo, through a t-shirt, through some slang thrown into their English. But with extensive use of Chamorro in “Shiro’s Head,” the Muña Brothers made a statement about this island and how it should represent itself. It should not run away from its heritage, but find ways to celebrate and reimagine it.
The question on everyone’s mind after “Shiro’s Head” was released was, “What next?” What will the next film from the Muña Brothers be? Many people expected another fiction piece, something that either kept with their gritty dramatic edge or something entirely different like a local comedy. I imagine that few people thought their next effort would be a documentary.
But the more I think back to the conversations I’ve had with Don and Kel and with other artists on island, the more I realize that “Talent Town,” far more than being just their next movie, is a movie that is meant to help make their next movie possible. It is a film shot, edited and distributed with the intent of making a lot of future movies possible. A lot of future books published, songs written, albums recorded, artwork exhibited.
Even after the Muña Brothers gained local prominence for “Shiro’s Head,” they still had to deal with the difficult realities of creative life on this island. Not a great deal of support for local efforts, but people always find ways of coughing up a serious amount of support for someone to come from elsewhere to show us how things are supposed to be done. A mediocre band or artist from off island gets a big paycheck for “slumming” their way to Guam, while local bands get asked to play for free. Even for recognized talent like the Muña Brothers, the words of support they received for their next project loomed large like a great sail to take them into new waters. But the words were so empty, so hollow, that the sail couldn’t take them anywhere, the winds blowing right through the gaps between the support that was promised and what was actually offered.
“Talent Town” delves into why this lack of support exists, why people on Guam fear investing in themselves or believing in themselves and always feel compelled to valorize that which comes from elsewhere and has the luster of coming from some larger and intrinsically better place. It provides as an example the hysterical “Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon” film. Local filmmakers seeking support for creative works would get little attention from the government or business for their efforts. But the moment someone from “off-island” sauntered to our sandy beaches, people were throwing money, loans and sponsorships at them. It didn’t matter that any person with an internet connection could have told you that the makers of Max Havoc were hardly A,B,C,D or even E-listers in Hollywood. The fact that they came from elsewhere seemed to be enough dazzle.
The film does not only lament the lack of support, but shows how this fear in supporting local, investing local leads to Guam missing so many opportunities. The makers of the film promised Hollywood, a blockbuster movie and a new local film industry. None of these things appeared. Imagine how different things could have been if they had given all that support to someone here, who actually cared about this place? Max Havoc is a lesson that the Muña Brothers and so many others hope the island will learn from. Because if we don’t, the cycle of self-degradation will continue and we will continually feel the need to bring in others to tell you how to appreciate things, think about things, believe in things, experience things.
If you missed the film, don’t worry; you’ll have other chances to watch it. There are plans to take the movie to the Chamorro diaspora and screen it in places like California, Washington and Texas. It will also be available soon as a video on demand. Finally it will be premiered again as part of the upcoming Guam International Film Festival in September.