Movie-making in Marakei

An auteur on an atoll: "The fact that I would be making the movie with fellow amateurs in a place with virtually no electricity only made me more determined."

While making the Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola watched as his lead actor suffered cardiac arrest, the cost of his sets skyrocketed over budget, and his financial backers threatened to leave him all wet in the Philippine monsoons. Coppola laughed all the way to the Oscars once the movie was finished. But his experience cautioned anyone planning to make a movie in the tropics to think more than twice.

On my doughnut-shaped atoll of Marakei, where the International Dateline and the equator cross, villagers like to fire up their generators to watch videos sent by family members overseas. For as long as the gasoline doesn't expire, they will watch the same movie several times over. Monotony does not have a word in the Gilbertese language. To an I-Kiribati, if something is good once, it must be a thousand times better with repetition.

I had been living in this Central Pacific nation of Kiribati--thirty-three coral atolls that form part of Micronesia--nearly two years as a Peace Corps volunteer before falling for the temptation to make a movie. Call it a bad case of island fever that made me forget Coppola's travails, but making a movie seemed a fun way to address a serious health issue in this country: alcohol abuse. The fact that I would be making the movie with fellow amateurs in a place with virtually no electricity, sound-proof sets, or stunt doubles only made me more determined to pull it off. (How do you say "cowabunga!" in Gilbertese?) At the very least, it would be a distraction from the usual midday heat.

Producer's Log: June 2, 2003

My wife, Marian, left for America today for health reasons, so now it's just me, the dog, and the movie. Being the dry season, it's a good time to start production, but I'm worried about my Sony digital camcorder surviving the three-and-a-half weeks of shooting. Until now I've only shot home-movie footage, but this full-length feature will require hundreds of shots from different angles, even some shot on the water.

The camera has only a single, two-hour battery that takes more than an hour to charge on my home's solar panel, and the only other camcorder on the island is broken. Ketia, our storekeeper friend, used to have a camcorder, but recently she lent it to a friend who was visiting the United States. The story goes that it was confiscated at the airport--either an unfortunate Homeland Security act or a convenient excuse on the part of the borrower, who possibly dropped it in the dolphin tank at SeaWorld. It hardly matters, as the bubuti (which loosely means "undeniable favor") required Ketia to lend the camera, and the quick kabara au bure (meaning literally "forgive my sin") demanded she forgive the debt, no questions asked.

Ketia is married to a seaman who works on a German cargo ship. Sailors' incomes account for a huge chunk of this Pacific nation's revenue and most of the VCRs, TVs, and karaoke machines on Marakei. Often a seaman is gone from his family for more than a year, only to end up giving away more than half of his wages to extended relatives upon his return. "I hate it," Ketia says. "They come by every day with their hands out, and my husband can't say no." For a lot of reasons--but mainly because of a reputation for drinking and toughness--a seaman makes an easy target as the primary villain in our movie.

June 14

The first scene we film is at the island wharf, a place in the reef that has been blasted away so that fishing boats can dock more easily. Here the hero of the movie, Kiaua, and his friendly four-man gang are planning a hoax. In order to stall the marriage of Kiaua's girlfriend, Rita, to the evil seaman, they'll stage the death of the sailor and dress up one of the gang as the corpse. When the corpse sits up to scratch its back at the wake, participants will scream and run away. Now what could be funnier! Then when the real sailor arrives, they'll think he's a zombie--and run away again!

Striking the right note of humor in the movie would have been impossible when I first came here. Whenever I told a joke to a group of I-Kiribati, my punch lines were met with stony faces. I found, by contrast, that a person falling off a truck equates to gut-splitting hilarity. Westerners rationalize the seemingly cruel laughter of the Kiribati people by calling it "therapeutic"--gallows humor for a people who have survived scarcity on these coral atolls for generations--but even the most disengaged foreigner finds it hard to bear a funeral in which several people are snickering. The actors tell me they want Western audiences to see the video, but if the movie is ever going to be appreciated outside Kiribati, we'll have to walk a very thin line.

In addition to humor, the movie must have song and dance. The I-Kiribati like to sing a cappella while cutting toddy (collecting the sweet sap of coconut trees), during church services (mainly Catholic on my island), and during celebrations (a first birthday, a girl's first menstruation, the opening of a new meeting hall). Strong beats on a large wooden box accompany their voices during mwaie, a folk dance that often imitates the movements of birds and may be performed sitting or standing. Though the I-Kiribati are often described as shy in their interactions with one another (you'll rarely hear people from different families argue), when it's time to perform, their shyness goes right out the sides of buildings (as there are no windows, per se).

My writing partner in this affair is Taake, otherwise known as the Bill Cosby of Kiribati. A former seaman who electrocuted himself and spent six months in a Polish hospital, he is now an elementary-school principal and the funniest man on this island of 2,500. When Taake tells a joke, people actually laugh, and he likes to put together intricate English sentences such as "Indeed, I believe that it is quite necessary I imbibe a stimulating brew this fine morning" when you ask if he'd like a cup of coffee.

Unfortunately for the movie project, Taake has a day job, so I have to direct the actors bilingually myself until I can find a co-director to help me. My search is made more difficult because the small number of reliable vehicles (bikes, motorcycles, and exactly five trucks) makes it necessary for the co-director to live in this village for the duration of shooting. A bike ride to the farthest village, just ten miles away, can easily take an hour, and the crushed coral threatens puncture with every ride.

Another wrench is thrown into the works when a team arrives from the capital of Tarawa to inspect all seventy home solar systems on the island. They decide to start with mine. Their team leader introduces himself as Jertz, a German sent by the European Union. He looks at how my system has been jerry-rigged to allow for camcorder charging and shakes his head.

"This is illegal," he says, clicking his tongue.

June 18

The Catholic youth are proving to be the backbone of this project. They are all unmarried men and women in their late teens to late twenties who have a sort of limbo status in the culture--too old to be treated as children, but too unattached to be respected as full adults. To cast the movie, Taake and I held an actual screen test for the group, who then divided into teams to find props, locations, and adult actors. Most of the singles on Marakei are bored and glad to help, as there isn't anything resembling a mall here, or even a mall parking lot. The only real hangout is the one-room airport, which is open only the three days a week that a plane is due.

Unfortunately, many young people abuse alcohol to cope with their boredom. As in the U.S., where about half of all adults have a close family member who is an alcoholic, Kiribati struggles with the social ills of alcohol abuse, including heart and liver disease and domestic violence. Ketia, the storekeeper who can't seem to cut a break from the men in her life, was recently hit over the head with a coconut grater by her drunken brother-in-law. He was fined thirty Australian dollars and ordered to keep his distance, but, according to the culture, she can't go to live with her own family on her home island, even while her husband is overseas.

In our movie, which we've called Te Maraia or The Curse, Kiaua has to reform his alcoholic father before Rita's father will give his blessing to their marriage. In the end, Kiaua's dad learns that it's his own drinking, not a witch's curse, that is responsible for his life's failures, and he ultimately calls on his family and village to help him keep his vow of sobriety.

The unhappy couple: Rita, played by Tongauea
Kiaua; the hero in film's climactic dance competition

 The unhappy couple: Rita, top, played by Tongauea, and Kiaua; the hero in film's climactic dance competition


June 19 
We're filming the scenes of Kiaua and his dance team, who will take part in an island-wide competition to prove that Kiaua is anything but cursed. One of the dancers, Taratoka, isn't having an easy time of it. He's the shortest twenty-year-old on the island and short of confidence, too. When saying a line, he looks around for help, then looks to the camera as if to say, "How did I do?" Getting one line right requires at least five practices, eight takes, and all the patience the rest of the actors can summon.

June 21 
The solar-panel situation is stressing me out. Jertz took away my solar battery for a full day to fix one of the posts, and I lost a day of shooting. Today he returned it repaired, but I have to wait for the cover of darkness to defy policy and reconnect the wires. I hastily hook up everything and plug in my charger. All's well that ends well.
Almost immediately I begin to smell smoke. The charger is melting! I quickly dismantle everything and begin pacing inside my hut of yarn and coconut branches.

All is lost. It will take a month to get a new charger from the States, and I have no camera back up. Knowing it to be useless but with nothing better to do, I recheck the simple wiring anyway--and discover that two of the wires were crossed. I had created a repeating circuit. Switching the wires back, I say a prayer and plug in the charger. Like a miracle, the green light blinks.

June 22 
After the day's shoot, I'm hanging out with Tongauea, the lead actress, and a few of her girlfriends. Tongauea tells me she and her female friends would like to meet my I-Matang (Western) friends "because I-Matang men don't beat their wives." The women around her agree. I tell them it's difficult to generalize, but Tongauea shakes her head. "Marriage is a sadness for a woman here," she insists. I don't know what to say. In the movie, Tongauea's character will reject the seaman as a husband because he's violent and choose Kiaua, the kind one, instead.

June 23 
I visibly lose my patience for the first time. Kirannata, a talented nineteen-year-old who plays the lead role of Kiaua, doesn't show up for the morning shoot. This isn't completely surprising. We've had to fetch him numerous times when he was late, but this is the first time we didn't meet our footage goals for the day. The I-Kiribati don't show irritation, but they all postponed chores to be here.

An hour after everyone goes home, I run into Kirannata on the road. I decide to make a strong impression.

"Where were you?" I ask.

"In Norauea fishing last night. I couldn't get back in time. The motorcycle broke down."

I reminded him that he knew about the morning shoot, and that he also knew how unreliable transport can be. Others stop in the road to listen to me rant. Public embarrassment is no small matter among the Gilbertese. It is said that a man once hanged himself after being accused of farting at a party.

I ask him whether he wants to stop being part of the film and whether he would like to tell his friends the movie won't be finished.

"Kabara au bure." Forgive my sin. He insists he's in it for the long haul.

Later, I lend him a watch.

June 27 
It's the last day of filming the dance practice scenes, and Kirannata is the first one there. We wait for someone to chase away the chickens making a racket nearby and tell some small children to please go play their noisy stick game someplace else.

Things go well for a while, but then a cloud of dread descends on the set as we begin to film Taratoka's lines. It's late afternoon, and I'm beginning to lose the daylight we'll need for the camera. It doesn't look good.

Yet, on the first try, Taratoka gets it right! Not only that, but he says his lines with gusto. Everyone breaks into applause and offers congratulations. For once I don't even mind the weeklong bout of diarrhea that has begun to make filming a lot more trying. Later I go to the local nurse's station and weigh myself: 139, down fifty pounds since I began this de facto fish-and-rice diet nearly two years ago.

Video hero's woes: Kirannata as Kiaua, despondent over postponed marriage

 Video hero's woes: Kirannata as Kiaua, despondent over postponed marriage


July 1 
Time to film on the water. I've been putting it off for nearly three weeks now, but I can't let this calm ocean go to waste. The real problem today is the leaky fishing canoe, which won't carry me in addition to the two actors. So I stand up to my armpits in the surf and hold the camera high. One false move and the last scenes of this movie will go unmade. Talk about a director's cut.

I'm flashing back to exactly a year ago when my wife and I tried to travel by ship to the capital. The waves were so high then that even the captain delayed setting out for open ocean. We ended up persuading him to take us and three other horribly seasick travelers back to shore, something we never did live down. Call it foolhardy or courageous, the locals never admit defeat at sea. We know three local fishermen who lost sight of land in a storm and drifted for three days. A teacher at my wife's primary school survived for a week with more than thirty other boat passengers. Their only source of drink: juice from dozens of cans of mackerel.

Today we manage to shoot the water scenes without any of the Waterworld fiasco Kevin Kostner experienced.

July 5 
At last we'll shoot the movie's climactic scene, in which Kiaua's dance team competes, and a confrontation takes place between Kiaua, his father, and the evil seaman. We've already asked dance teams in two neighboring villages to take part, and we've made a point of inviting every actor who has appeared in the movie.

Things go badly from the start. In the first hour, only a smattering of actors arrive. Then the sky grows murky, and it begins to rain. Hard. Soon it's so dark in the meeting hall that even kerosene lanterns don't seem to make a difference.

The dance groups from the other villages are late; I figure the rain has delayed them. However, an hour after the rain has stopped they still don't roll in. We video what we can and learn that my battery is nearly dead, even though we still have the whole afternoon to shoot. I try to save some juice for the dancers, who surely must be on their way.

I do what I've learned so well to do here: sit. When it is nearly noon, I see the truck rounding the bend, and my hopes soar. But when it's apparent the truck isn't stopping, I hop up and flag it down. It seems that the driver went to one of the villages first thing in the morning, but when the group wasn't there, he decided to leave and not bother with the other village.

"I went to your house to talk to you about it, but you weren't there," the driver explains.

"That's because I was here, waiting for the dancers."

He shrugs his shoulders. "Talk to the clerk." He drives away, leaving me right where I started three months ago. It was the island clerk--the head island bureaucrat representing the federal government--who nearly blocked the movie from happening in the first place, despite a unanimous vote by the local island council to proceed.

I pedal back to my house, fuming. Could it be that this movie was doomed all along, and I was too stubborn to see it? Why did fate wait until the last day to drop this load of coconuts on our heads? Finally I remember that it's still the Fourth of July back home, and in a fit of stubborn nationalism, I stick a small American flag on my bike and race back to the set.

This American initiative, however, will ultimately require a multilateral approach: the youths' leader, Tebukei, searches the island and finds the delinquent actor who plays the seaman. A ragtag dance group finally trucks in from one of the villages. As for the other absent dance group, Taake reminds me that I had captured their act at a celebration a few weeks ago; he persuades me to use that footage, ‡ la B-movie king Ed Wood. The rain has held off. Before the sun sets, all the actors are gyrating to Pacific techno to end the scene.

Exhausted yet jubilant, I fly to the capital the next day and learn, to my horror, that my camera is incompatible with the Australian video editing systems there. So I fly to the Marshall Islands, where I put our dog on a plane for the States and spend the next few days constructing about half the scenes from raw footage. The rest I'll have to finish when I return to America, but this much at least I'll be able to show on Marakei.

I'm nervous at first for the packed premiere, but soon my worries go out the sides of the house. The crowd and I laugh in all the same places.

Before they rewind for the first of countless times, I ask the venerable Taake what he thought of the effort. He clears his throat and says, "As the exquisite scenes unfolded before my very eyes, our movie struck me as somewhat of ... a miracle."

To which I reply, "Amen!"

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