'Island Soldier': Film Review

Island Soldier Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Nathan Fitch
An affecting chronicle of gentle lives and quiet outrage.

A debut documentary explores how a remote Pacific island nation has become a "recruiter's paradise" for the American military.

Nathan Fitch begins his first feature-length documentary, the sensitively crafted Island Soldier, with scene-setting views of the pristine beauty of Kosrae, the easternmost island in the Pacific nation of Micronesia. Then a military contingent unloads a flag-draped coffin from a plane. The flag is American.

Through the stories of three Kosraean soldiers and two struggling parents — one mourning her son killed in combat, the other watching with sadness as his youngest child signs up for the Army — Fitch's film examines the ways geopolitics shapes lives in Micronesia, a former U.S. territory that's still deeply tied to this country, and whose citizens can serve in the American armed forces. Hope for a better future, sorrow for lost ways of life and a quiet sense of outrage course through the eye-opening chronicle, a selection of DOC NYC.

Thirty years after its Compact of Free Association gave it sovereignty, the Micronesian government still depends on American aid, and its people, like the residents of many economically challenged stateside regions depend on the military as a primary employment option. But though Micronesians are welcomed into the U.S. Armed Forces, as noncitizens they enjoy none of the usual services and benefits at the end of their stints. Serving chiefly in the infantry, they suffer a higher casualty rate than their fellow soldiers.

Filmed over the course of six years, the documentary follows one soldier's training in Georgia and Texas, and includes footage shot among troops in Afghanistan. That material establishes Pacific Islanders' role in the frontline of American wars, and underscores the financial need that leads them there. Kilfrank Sigrah, a married father of young children who is headed for Afghanistan after two tours of duty in Iraq, loved his work as a teacher in Kosrae, but his salary was "chump money" (the average Micronesian income is about $2,000 annually), and he sees his military service as a path to the American dream for his family.

But it's on Kosrae, population 6,500, that the documentary makes its strongest impression. The country's history of colonial subjugation — by Europe, then Japan, then the U.S. — is a disquieting undertow to the tranquil setting. Director Fitch, a video producer for the New Yorker who handles DP duties here, brings the extraordinary blues of ocean and sky into bold relief, and is keenly attentive to the emotions that play across the faces of his subjects.

Chief among them is Maryann Nena, mother of Sgt. Sapuro Nena, the 25-year-old soldier whose coffin arrives home at the beginning of the doc. His death in Afghanistan resonates profoundly in his community. Through videos, the film brings his gregarious personality into focus, just as his grieving mother and the rest of his family do everything they can to keep his memory alive. When Maryann and her husband, Brightly, a Navy vet, seek financial assistance from the local VA office, the indifference of the American government is made achingly clear.

Seeking a remedy for that indifference — namely, benefits for the noncitizen soldiers — another Kosraean soldier's father, a fisherman, farmer and pastor named Madison, adds "activist" to his list of vocations. He raises money for a trip to a conference in Washington. The camera follows his hopeful walk to the audience mic to pose a question of the speaker. He arrives just as the end of the session is announced and the sound is cut.

Though at times the film seems to drift, the very personal impact of historical and economic forces comes through with a powerful melancholy. In perhaps the most poignant moment, Maryann thanks a visitor for the American flags he's brought to a family memorial for her son, adding that they make the event "more patriotic."

Production companies: Atoll Pictures, Pacific Islanders in Communications, the Humanities Guåhan, Meerkat Media
Director-director of photography: Nathan Fitch
Screenwriters: Nathan Fitch, Bryan Chang
Producers: Nathan Fitch, Fivel Rothberg, Bryan Chang
Editor: Bryan Chang
Music: Bing & Ruth

86 minutes