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The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands

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The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands

Donald Rubinstein reviews The Insular Empire: America in the Mariana Islands, directed by Vanessa Warheit (2010, 59 minutes)

The Insular Empire is intended to unsettle American viewers’ widely-held notions of their country’s history as a non-colonial or even counter-colonial power. As the film opens to martial bugle-and-drum music, the voice of the female narrator intones, “As Americans, when we hear the word ‘colony,’ we think of the British Empire and our fight for independence.” In a succession of quick cuts, we see mythic images of the American story: grainy old black-and-white film footage of cannon explosions and soldiers running towards us, carrying the flag of the 13 American colonies; a tightly-framed shot of the Liberty Bell swinging forward, its cast metal word “Liberty” filling the screen; a meeting hall with several dozen men wearing old-fashioned waistcoats and white ascots, signing the American Declaration of Independence with quill pens; and the Statue of Liberty silhouetted against the sky, her torch flaring into flame.

The narrator then continues, “But in some parts of America, the word ‘colony’ has a very different meaning.” The grainy black-and-white footage fades and the screen is filled with an image of tropical allure: the prow of a bright yellow wooden outrigger canoe glides over iridescent turquoise lagoon waters. Suddenly the camera takes us underwater, as if to reveal the historical realities beneath the placid surface, and we see the shattered fuselage of a war plane lying on the sandy bottom. A succession of images follow quickly, telescoping several decades of island history into 30 seconds of film montage: black-and-white footage of a war plane flying overhead, bombs dropping and exploding; brown-skinned Chamorro soldiers marching in dress parade carrying the US flag; young Chamorro girls in school uniforms, marching in front of Government House; Chamorro school children standing inside a classroom and dutifully reading from their English Basic Readers; then a sign in bold black letters declaring “ENGLISH ONLY WILL BE SPOKEN HERE.” We view all of this in the first 60 seconds of this 60-minute PBS documentary, before the opening credits scroll across the screen. This film packs a message, and it wastes not a moment in making its point.

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