Film Review: "Island Soldier"

Island Soldier will have a different effect on different people. Some will cry, others will get angry, still more will nod quietly, thinking, "Yes, this feels familiar." At the heart of it, Island Soldier is a human story. It's the story of individuals and of the collectives they come from -- or in some cases, escape from.

The island of Kosrae is the furthest east of all the Federated States of Micronesia, also known as the FSM. Like the rest of the region it was dragged into the modern world by its colonizers, the latest of which is the United States of America. So-called development has come at the cost of upended traditions and young people leaving the island in droves for "better" lives. One of the easiest ways out is via the United States military, which FSM citizens are eligible to join via the Compact of Free Association between the two countries. But is this life really better? This is one of the unspoken questions that haunts the central characters in the film: three soldiers -- one brand new, one on his third deployment to the Middle East, one killed in the line of duty -- and the family members they leave behind.

In Kosrae, there exists a type of pro-American fervor, a mixture of reverence for military service and a desire to return the favors the United States has granted the FSM. Not only that, but military service is a way to a new life - to a relatively huge paycheck and an education, should one want it. The US has successfully constructed the Kosraean path toward the American dream.

Although the Kosraeans who join the military are in some ways the agents of change in their own lives, they are also taking one of the few paths off the island. And throughout the film we see this juxtaposition, the difficult balancing act of modernity and tradition. We see this especially in the effect this dwindling of young blood has begun to have on the island and its culture. In one scene, a woman jokes: “Kosraeans really love french fries and cheeseburgers. They don't like the local bananas anymore…”

To some, this film may feel like it is making a political statement. To those people I counter that life in the islands is inherently political, thanks to our history of having to navigate lives demarcated by colonial powers. That the FSM, and Kosrae in particular, are a "recruiter's paradise" is merely a statement of fact. Any discomfort arising from that should be critically cast at existing power structures.

 Maryann Nena, at the grave of her son, Sapuro Brightly Nena, who was killed in action.

Maryann Nena, at the grave of her son, Sapuro Brightly Nena, who was killed in action.

Ultimately, the point of Island Soldier is that the stories are messy, that there are many points of view, and that the longer one gets to live, the more complicated those views become. This is reinforced by the organization of the film, which drifts from Kosrae to Colorado, to Afghanistan and back again, weaving together the lives of the soldiers and their families and their struggles to make better lives with what opportunities they have been given -- or what few options they have left.

Using his camera almost like a paintbrush, Nathan Fitch shows us what he sees and what the people of Kosrae see. He shows us what they feel and we are made to feel right along with them. This film is a love letter to Kosrae, to its beautiful people and its abundant lands and sea. But to tell the truth means showing the unavoidable, gaping wounds that so often come with modernization in the Pacific. To tell the story any other way, to beautify it, to sell the tourist version -- would have been a disservice. These stories are real. These people, these struggles are real. And it is important that they are now released into the world, to fill in another facet of life in Micronesia.