Filmmaker Spotlight: “AINIKIEN JIDJID ILO BOÑ (THE SOUND OF CRICKETS AT NIGHT) w/ Jack Niedenthal & Suzanne Chutaro

In the GIFF Filmmaker Spotlight, GIFF interviews writer/director Jack Niedenthal and director Suzanne Chutaro about their feature-length film “AINIKIEN JIDJID ILO BOÑ (THE SOUND OF CRICKETS AT NIGHT)”  (Screening Saturday, Sep.29, 5:50pm at the Micronesia Mall Theatres. (CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS AND MORE INFORMATION)

GIFF: This time last year, you were at GIFF to screen “Lañinbwil’s Gift”, which took home the “Best of Festival” Award. And now, one year later, you’re back with a new feature-length release that’s already won at the Moondance International Film Festival in Manhattan, will screen at GIFF and will also be screening at Hawaii International Film Festival next month. It all sounds like a lot to take in, in just a matter of weeks! Tell us about the experience.

JACK: One of our sub-goals for this particular film is universal acceptance.  We had over 1,200 people watch our film in Majuro over the first weekend of premiere showings early in September, so the local acceptance of the film, which is so important for us, was very successful. Winning the Atlantis Award for Foreign Feature Films at the New York based Moondance International Film Festival, and being official selections for both GIFF and the Hawaii International Film Festival, tells us that people outside the Marshalls also like our film, which is very meaningful for us because the story content in this film is about the people of Bikini Atoll and we want the outside world to know about this story that is so unique to the Marshall Islands.  The showing in New York was awesome.  The audience included many old faces, family and friends from the Marshall Islands as well as strangers, so it was gratifying when the extended Q & A session after the film revealed that the audience found the film, and more importantly the Bikini Atoll story, compelling.

SUZANNE: It’s borderline fun and crazy. You find yourself in the middle of it and you say, “What were we thinking?” But, we’ve already come so far, so we’ve got to keep pushing forward and then when you add the international acceptance it just makes all the work so rewarding.

GIFF: I can’t get over the fact that you’ve written, produced, directed and wrapped a full-length feature film in the span of less than one year. A year is the usual time it takes for filmmakers just to get their screenplay straight. Do you decide to go into production when you feel the time is right, or when you got your ducks in a row?

JACK: I began writing the screenplay the day after the opening night of our last film (May 21, 2011).  I write constantly, the stories are not the hard part for me, the hard part is filming and editing.  We began serious filming in January when we knew we had the holidays and other family events and commitments out of the way.  Our secret, if you will, is once we start we stay totally dedicated.  We began filming during the first week in January and did not miss a single weekend until we finished filming in late May.  We also filmed during some Thursday and Friday late afternoons and early evenings.  When the edit began in early May, I did not miss a single day until the middle of July, doing a minimum 4-6 hours a day AFTER work and then all-day, 12 hour sessions on the weekends.  I know this sounds crazy considering this entire project was accomplished during our “spare time,” but this determination helped us to stay focused on the task at hand.

SUZANNE: I think if Jack had his way we’d have started filming after we returned from GIFF last year. I’m usually the reason for the delays. Between juggling our real jobs, our families and other commitments we usually wait until we have a “lull” in our schedules, and like Jack said, once filming starts we become totally dedicated and then everything else has to be worked around our filming schedule. We can only get away with this because our families are very supportive and we do our best to not let our “extra curricular” activates effect our real jobs too much.

GIFF: Your films seem to have a certain honest quality about them. What is your formula when writing/producing your films? In terms of audience, who are you writing for?

JACK: The focus for our films is mainly on our local audience in the Marshall Islands, it always has been, with an emphasis on children because half the population of the Marshall Islands is under the age of 15.  It is so important that we have a child’s perspective in all of our films, which for me means adding a dose of fantasy, humor and wonderment to what could have probably been a successful, straight up drama.  Right now, our films are all the Marshallese people have in the way of movies performed in their own language set in their own country.  The films are honest because we use common people, not professional actors.  These are people who don’t know how to “act,” they only know how to be themselves, and we encourage them to be as natural as possible.  This is Suzanne’s finest quality: if she hears something that does not look or sound natural, we do it again (and again and again).  This makes for a very honest production, it gives our films soul.

SUZANNE: I think Jack living here in the Marshall Islands for as long as he has, being married into the community and him working so closely with the Bikinian community gives him that added edge — or that honest quality you refer to in our movies. Jack’s scripts for these movies that we’ve done to date capture the essence of life in the Marshall Islands, and as he said, these are not actors we are using. So when we’re filming, once we explain what the scene is about, the people acting already understand what it is that we want to see —  they don’t necessarily need to go into “character.”

GIFF: Explain to us the significance of the title for the film.

JACK: People often associate sounds and songs with certain places and events in their lives.  Once, many years ago when I was on Bikini with a group of old men, I heard one elder remark that the sound of crickets at night is what he missed most about being away from Bikini; he mentioned that he actually found the constant, ever-present chirping of the crickets soothing.  Last year, I was out in my own yard on Majuro late one night just sitting under a tree relaxing, accompanied only by the sound of the crickets (I live way out of town in the jungle, so they are LOUD). It was then that the old Bikinian man’s comment popped into my head. I remember a smile spreading across my face. In that single, beautiful instant I had my title, and a good portion of my story.

GIFF: In general, what new lessons have you learned while making “Ainikien”?

JACK: That a little 10 year old girl can become a huge, uncontrollable diva in a matter of a few short weeks!  By the time we were finished shooting, my normal routine while driving home our 10 year old movie star, Salome Fakatou, included a stop at a DVD rental store so I could rent her not one but 2 DVDs, then a stop at an ice cream store to get her ice cream, and if it was still during the afternoon, she would normally demand a lunch with a cookie for desert!  All kidding aside, she was a lot of fun to work with.  Even in just the short time we worked with her, we watched her grow as a person, this was very gratifying for me.  We also learned a lot about lighting and filming with our new HD camera.  It was astonishing how much more we were able to do technically because the equipment we had was so much better then before (an old Sony SD camera).  I also learned not to film in January or February because of the strong winds that are prevalent in the islands during that time.  For our next film, even though the story is already finished, we won’t begin shooting until March or April.

SUZANNE: The story is already finished!? Gosh, I’m still getting over the ‘hang over’ from creating our own movie theater at the Marshall Islands Resort last week! Jack is a Nazi-film producer!

GIFF: Share with us one behind-the-scenes story that sticks out in your mind the most.

JACK: What sticks out most for me was the early development of two of the main characters in the film. The ancient character of Wodejabato is actually played by the former Mayor of Bikini Atoll (and therefore my boss at the time we were filming) Alson Kelen.  Alson is completely bald as he routinely shaves his head. At the time we were recruiting actors last year, he came into my office one day. I said, “Alson, look, we are going to do a Bikinian story and you and I need to be in the film. The only hitch is you will need to wear a grass skirt throughout the production.”  He sort of scratched his head and said. “Well, okay, that’s a big commitment, but what are you going to do?”  I replied, “I’m not going to shave or get a haircut for 8 months because I want to look the exact opposite of you as we are essentially playing 2 forms of the same mythical creature. Part of what I want this film to teach is:  You never know who is standing beside you, so don’t prejudge your fellow human beings.” When Alson heard this, he laughed and said, “I’m in.”  That was a great moment for me, not everyone says “Yes” to our requests to be in our films.

SUZANNE: We Marshallese are a superstitious lot, so when I told my mother that we were doing a story about the Bikinian legend of Wodejabato she freaked out and told me not to. Her reaction had worried me a bit. Then, during a visit to Guam I told my good friend Brenda Waltz-Dolan, who is a Bikinian, that Jack and I were doing the story of Wodejabato, she freaked out too and warned against me even mentioning the name: so Worejabato then became “He who must not be named.” By then I was thinking, “Uh oh, what have I gotten myself into this time?” This is a Bikinian legend that not many of us Marshallese outside the Bikinian community know about, so throughout the production of this film I’ve had the Marshallese side of me worried about bad juju. But in a way I feel if we don’t record or celebrate our legends — be they good or bad — then we’ll lose them forever so here we are doing a story on a traditional Marshallese legend that is specific to the Bikinians and in addition we’re doing a story on the nuclear legacy of the Bikinians, so in a sense I think this is a noble cause which I hope will cancel out any bad juju from “He who must not be named.” Fingers crossed!

GIFF: How did you go about selecting the soundtrack for “Ainikien”? It’s really good stuff.

JACK: The same core group of young people have sung in all of our films.  They are truly amazing.  They create and perform the songs in both Marshallese and English.  Usually, a few months in advance, I go to the main song writer, Nelu Debrum, who is now in 11th grade, and I relate to him the story I have created. He then composes the songs to go with the story.  People will notice that often the songs have no instrumentation, just voice.  I do this because it lends a certain mood to the film and because I believe that the most beautiful instrument on the entire earth is the Marshallese singing voice.  People here are astounding singers.  The young woman who has sung in all of my films is Lulani Ritok, she is the 16 year old granddaughter of former RMI President Kessai Note. She has a voice that can knock the top off a building.  Joseph Katjang and Jorkeim “JB” Bunglik accompany her and composer/singer Nelu DeBrum on most of the songs.  For the last 2 films I have also used the songs by a band called Ri-Karere Ran (which loosely translates into “A Mix of People”), which was a band in the Marshalls from the early 1980s that included both Marshallese and Americans.  Marc LaPlant, the lead singer, has actually lived and worked on Guam for many years.

GIFF: How does the local Marshallese community take to seeing their home on the big screen and showcased around the world?

JACK: They are very proud of what we have done.  I get emails and comments all the time to this effect from Marshallese people living all over the world.  The Bikinians in particular, are very proud of this film.  Our premiere showing had many Bikinians in the audience as they formed most of the cast.  From the moment the film began until it ended they laughed and cheered wildly, not only at seeing themselves and their legend and history told on the screen, but just from the sheer magnitude of what had been accomplished by them and for them.  In my mind a major purpose of all art is to inspire others: I hope our films will eventually inspire other Marshallese people to tell their fascinating stories via film.

SUZANNE: It’s lots of fun to see our friends and neighbors up on the big screen, and it gives us Marshallese something to be proud of.

GIFF: If there’s one thing you’d want your audiences to take away after seeing this film, what would it be?

JACK: That island people, while they may at times appear to outsiders to lead simple, innocent existences, can lead extremely complicated and stressful lives when they are overcome by an intense combination of family conflicts and larger, world events.  This is what many nuclear victims in the RMI go through on a daily basis.

SUZANNE: That the U.S. nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands is still an unresolved issue.

GIFF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JACK: I would like to thank Kel and Don Muna and their families for being so supportive of our projects.  To be honest, my “muse” during the edit of Crickets was the Guam International Film Festival deadline.  I wanted so badly to get our film done to honor this marvelous event that is so important for those of us who are Pacific film artists.  Every spare hour I had in my day found me sitting behind my computer going, GIFF, GIFF, GIFF, July 13th!  I don’t know if I could ever push myself like that again, but it was a good learning experience because it showed me what the far edge of my limitations looks like. It was so nice to have our film get accepted again by GIFF.

SUZANNE: “Komol tata” Kel and Don Muna for accepting this film for this year’s GIFF. It really is an honor to be selected and I hope it gives the Marshallese community on Guam something they can enjoy as a “postcard” from home.

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