There’s a hot topic going across the U.S. right now and it’s representation of different ethnicities and cultures in film. Asian-Americans are now rising beyond the nerdy sidekick. African Americans are now taking control of the narrative by producing their own. The standards for included minorities is now higher; it is no longer acceptable when someone considers “diverse” as “having that one black dude who dies in the beginning”.
But while many of bloggers, and writers in general, usually like to tackle this issue in their posts, that is not quite what we’re talking about. That is the portrayal of cultures and ethnicities within the country the film is set. I’m talking about films portraying cultures within the scope of its own country. I’m talking about films like Moana, Anastasia (the 1997 animated classic ;)) and the one that inspired this post Gehenna: Where Death Lives.
The question is essentially: Is the hobbit in Middle-Earth being portrayed correctly if the creators of a film are not from Middle-Earth? Or rather, can someone from Rivendell tell a culturally accurate story set in the Shire?
A few years ago, I watched this Finnish-German-Australian film Iron Sky that depicts the story of Nazis on the dark side of the moon. In the film, we see their portrayal of American culture that could easily be seen as offensive. Admittedly, the American stereotype as portrayed by another country’s film is usually greedy, fat, ignorant and obnoxious. Is that a correct stereotype? Is it fair? Is it offensive? Is it something you’ll rage about? Maybe. Maybe not. But this is the beauty of film, right? These cases are another person in another country’s imagining of what the culture and people are like. It’s not a research project and usually the location is just another player in this person’s imagination.
So is it a big deal? It depends.
Maybe to an American, it isn’t. Maybe when they see an obnoxious American in a foreign film, they aren’t so irritated. But why is it a big deal when a film like Gehenna comes out? Why is it a big deal that the speaking brown dudes in the film aren’t Chamoru? Why is it a big deal that Pepe* (our main brown dude) supposedly can speak Chamoru and is supposed to be a local but repeatedly says “mi madre”** when talking about his mom? Easy. Because it’s so easy for a person in Hollywood to say, “well we got like 4,000 films to show you what culture is like” but what do the Marianas have? And also, who’s watching a film by the Marianas?
For all we know, the caucasians are over there going “yeah, okay…good for them for being true to the culture”. I’ll give that it’s a better attempt than most. Sure, it wasn’t particularly accurate but at least they sort of acknowledged that Saipan’s history is complex. Pepe’s accent was….not close but it looks like there was some translation effort. This portrayal of culture in the film is someone else’s imagining of what Saipan’s culture is. They’re not trying to be anything better than that, which is totally fine and valid.
But the danger is similar to spreading gossip about someone who cannot defend himself. The culture is then taken at face value. When Pepe implies that the latte stone is not what history says it is, it’s a problem. When that old Chamoru guy, talking to Pepe about his ancestor’s warnings, wears a mask right out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s a problem.
It’s a problem because it opens other problems. Maybe not every American will take this film at face value but it could make another production company think that the Marianas is their “new, untouched” promised land where they can set their stories to their heart’s content. Suddenly, we have 100 different portrayals of what the Marianas are like and none from the perspective of people who are here.
This is a problem because this isn’t new. Before contact, Guåhan’s history was just for Guåhan. Then other people started writing about us. They called us*** thieves, they called us savages, they called our language inferior. For years and years, OTHER PEOPLE started telling us who we were and what we were like and they told their friends. Our portrayal was not our own. The culture became a confusion. Meanwhile, we were fed ideals and goals that were not ours. And to survive, we ate…leading to an identity crisis filtering through the island.
This issue of representation will continue as long as we believe we aren’t powerful enough to change it. This is why it’s so important to create our own content and share it with the world. This is why it’s important to support our musicians, our painters, our writers, our filmmakers. I don’t give a hot-dog if it’s not up to a standard you think you have. We get better by practice. We get stronger through experience. This is our time. It’s been our time.
Don’t be afraid. Let’s get our stories out there, already.
But let’s also work on solidarity, while we’re at it.
*Really? Pepe? Really?
** We do have a word for mother, my dude.
*** Proverbial “us” for those of you who know I’m Filipino, lol