The Insular Empire: America in the Marianas

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Funds Needed for Completion: $ 92,570.0
Estimated Completion Date: 01/31/2009


What is it like to be a colonial subject of the greatest democracy on earth?

Six thousand miles west of California, the Mariana Islands are a part of America that most Americans know nothing about: a part of America that calls into question the very core ideals of American democracy. For over sixty years, the Marianas’ indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian people have been fighting, and dying, under the stars and stripes – yet they cannot vote for the US commander-in-chief. The Marianas’ youth are dying in Iraq for America, but they have no voting representation in the legislature of their nation. The United States is currently preparing a massive military buildup for the Marianas’ southern island of Guam. But the people of these strategically vital American islands - which have been key to America’s “defense of the free world” for over a century – today remain second-class citizens, in a nation that prides itself as the world’s beacon of democracy.
The Insular Empire is a personal story about believing in the American dream, even while being denied the rights and privileges that most Americans take for granted. Part political tragedy, part personal history, The Insular Empire follows four indigenous characters on a journey to discover how America came to control this ‘insular empire’ in the Pacific. It is ultimately a story of loyalty and betrayal, about a patriotic people who literally gave everything they had to the United States, receiving in return a hollow promise of American freedom and democracy.
Pete A. Tenorio was a young Chamorro boy on Saipan when World War II ravaged his island, and he came to manhood in the thrall of the US military. Devoted to all things American, as a young man he willingly sacrificed his islands’ sovereignty to make them a part of ‘the American political family.’ Today, he represents the Northern Marianas in Washington, DC – where he is now forced to beg bureaucrats for his islands’ most basic needs.
To help his family survive after the war, Carolinian farmer Lino Olopai worked first for the CIA and then for the Peace Corps. Seeing these different sides of the American character has left him deeply conflicted about what America has to offer. Today he eats at McDonald’s, goes bowling, and teaches the islands’ youth the ancient indigenous art of celestial navigation.
As Miss Guam 1967, Hope Cristobal got a privileged glimpse into what the rest of America looked like – and how things could be better back in the Marianas. As a teacher, mother, activist, and local senator, she has been struggling for decades to restore dignity and the right of self-determination to her Chamorro people. Today, her daughter is continuing this struggle at the United Nations.
Carlos Taitano, a 90-year old rebel patriot, wants to be a full-fledged American before he dies. After serving as an officer in the US Army under General MacArthur, he led a revolt that gave the Chamorro people of Guam US citizenship. Today, he craves ‘the ultimate goal of every American citizen’: US statehood for the Marianas.



Project's Financial Needs

Total needed to complete The Insular Empire is $92,570. These funds will be used to pay for:

Off-line fine-cut editing

Animation and maps

Title design and graphics

Archival rights and duplication fees

Original musical score (by award-winning composer Todd Boekelheide)

Color correction

Narration recording

Sound mix

Online editing and masters

Closed captioning

Producer/Director salary

Associate Producer salary

Other financial Support

The Insular Empire has received $116,352 in cash contributions from the following:

Pacific Islanders in Communications

NMI Humanities Council

Guam Humanities Council

Skaggs Foundation

Pacific Pioneer Fund

Open Meadows Foundation

Private individuals

These funds were used to cover the costs of pre-production and production. The project also received approximately $92,000 worth of in-kind donations, including free or steeply reduced fares on rental cars, plane tickets, hotel rooms, meals, etc. An additional $70,000 was contributed towards research and production costs by the many people who either reduced their fees, or deferred their compensation.

To raise completion funds, six new proposals are currently in the hands of potential funders, and more are being written. As the US military continues with its planned build-up of the Marianas, time is increasingly of the essence. Please contribute!

Current stage of production


Estimated Completion Date



No one likes to think of the United States as a colonial power. Yet there are currently over four million people living in the U.S. non-state " insular areas" - strategic colonies and commonwealths that, while part of the "American political family," are not equal players in the American political process. These areas are Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (or CNMI), and Guam. Each of these places is poorer than the poorest of the fifty states. All of the insular areas face common problems, ranging from weak economies based largely on tourism, to ecological degradation due to U.S. military and corporate pollution, to fundamental questions of national and ethnic identity. American "Insular" Democracy While full participation in national political life has long been a defining characteristic of American democracy, it is defined in such a way that requires residency within one of the fifty states. Residents of Guam, the CNMI, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are U.S. citizens. (The residents of American Samoa are U.S. "nationals" who, though they can move freely between Samoa and the mainland U.S., and though they form large communities in several American states, face difficulties in establishing rights of state residency or citizenship.) But even those islanders who hold American citizenship are not complete citizens: in Guam, for instance, citizenship is not constitutionally guaranteed, and can be withdrawn by an act of Congress. None of the insular areas has a voting representative to Congress. The CNMI has no congressional representative at all. And no resident of any of the insular areas may vote in presidential elections. Despite this lack of representation in national politics, the federal government maintains a surprising degree of control over the islands, in many cases reserving for itself the right to override local legislation. This power has manifested itself in a diverse array of controversial situations: from military deployment to environmental legislation, from the economics of free trade to the endangerment of indigenous cultural forms. The Insular Empire will take a close look at two of America's insular areas: Guam and the CNMI, which together make up the Marianas Archipelago. These islands are home to over 200,000 U.S. citizens and nationals who maintain a unique and often conflicted relationship with America. As of 2007, seventeen U.S. citizens of the Marianas have died in Iraq, serving a U.S. Commander-in-Chief for whom they were not permitted to vote.This mortality rate is over four times higher than any state in the union. Most recently, the US Congress has enacted legislation federalizing the CNMI's wage and immigration laws, and the US military is currently planning a massive military build-up on the island of Guam. Yet the US citizens of these islands have had no say in these matters. Challenging the democratic principles of U.S. governance in significant ways, the stories of the Mariana Islands raise troubling and important questions about American identity, democracy, self-determination, and civil and human rights.


Opening and Title Over upbeat tropical guitar music, a quote appears: “A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges. Turn your attention, therefore, first to your remotest provinces.” - Benjamin Franklin, 1773. A brief montage shows images from American history: the American revolution, the Liberty Bell, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But as the voices of children recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, the music turns darker. We see US soldiers from Guam serving in Iraq, and the narrator explains that the indigenous people of these tiny American islands are loyal US citizens… who can’t vote for their commander-in-chief. A fast-cut montage of archival footage shows America’s dominance in the islands over the past century. Over a montage of each of the four main characters, the narrator asks the film’s central questions: Are the Marianas American colonies? Who are the people of the Marianas? How do they feel about being a part of America? And how did America come to have these ‘insular’ areas – or colonies – when it’s supposed to be a democratic republic? An animated map then flies from California to the Marianas, highlighting both the vast distance between the US mainland and the islands, and the Marianas’ strategic location near Southeast Asia. Clips from a local newscast show Dick Cheney’s recent visit to Guam, where the Vice President proclaims that “Guam is in the heart of a strategic area” – but makes time to meet only with US troops, and not with local officials. Act One: The Typhoon of War At the dedication ceremony for a World War II memorial honoring the indigenous people of the Northern Marianas, Pete Tenorio points to the names of his family members, and talks about losing his sister and his grandfather during the war. Pete’s story takes us directly into 1944, when America invaded first the Northern Marianas, and then Guam. Stunning archival footage depicts the devastation of the war, which transformed the islands’ physical and psychological landscape forever. We come to understand the war’s impact on the Marianas, and the trauma inflicted on the local people by the Japanese occupation. We also learn about Pete’s earliest childhood memories – memories that will shape the man he will become: the death of his father, and the generosity of the American military. On Guam, Carlos Taitano drives past a mural of the stars and stripes, painted on the side of a jungle-clad mountain. He pounds his steering wheel as he says, “The ultimate goal of every American is statehood!” A Captain in the US Army under General MacArthur, Carlos returned to his native Guam after World War II, where he found his father shining military shoes for pennies. Through Carlos’ story we learn that after the war, the US military took 2/3 of Guam’s land, leaving the local people penniless and dependent on the military for their survival. But after the trauma of the war, most of Guam’s Chamorro people – including Carlos - remained loyal, even grateful, to the Americans. Act Two: Too Good To Be Cast Away At the Guam Cathedral museum, Hope Cristobal is setting up an exhibit on the history of the Marianas: first as a Spanish colony – and then later as a colony of the United States. Hope describes growing up in Guam’s American school system – where she was physically punished for speaking her native language, and forced at an early age to separate her Chamorro and American identities. Her story is informed by a segment on the history of America’s 1898 acquisition of Guam. “What is there in the flag to reflect the aspirations of vassal colonies, which are too good to be cast away, but not good enough to be admitted to the sisterhood of states?” – William Jennings Bryan, 1898 Living under US military occupation for fifty years, the Chamorros of Guam continued to send petition after petition to the US Congress – asking for a civilian, “American” form of government. Act Two ends with Carlos’ election to Guam’s ‘advisory’ congress, and his decision to try a new way to change things. Frustrated by his island’s colonial status, and emboldened by his experiences as an American officer during the war, he organizes a congressional walkout, and gets it published in major US newspapers. The highly-publicized ‘revolt’ succeeds in getting U.S. citizenship for his people – but his moment of triumph is brief and devastatingly hollow. While Carlos appears successful, we soon learn that the Guam Organic Act, which granted the Chamorros of Guam US citizenship, also solidified their colonial status. The cost of their new passports is the island’s precious land – which the military can now legally claim for itself. And as the Cold War heats up, the Marianas become a US military stronghold, isolated from the rest of the world: a water-borne iron curtain between the US and Asia. Act Three – Becoming American Driving his rusty pickup truck across the northern island of Saipan, Lino Olopai takes us on a tour of the places he worked as a security guard for the CIA during the 1950s. Lino describes trying to improve things for himself and his family by adapting to the new, American way of life – and the tough choices he was forced to make in the process. During the 50s, Hope and Pete are also trying to assimilate to the new American lifestyle: Hope perfecting her English, and Pete winning a scholarship to get a high school education on Guam – where he is lucky enough to be placed in the home of a high-ranking Air Force family. But when the security clearance is lifted from the islands in 1962, the islanders’ horizons begin to widen. Lino goes to work for the Peace Corps, and with their encouragement he learns to speak up for what he believes in. Hope becomes Miss Guam 1967, and her travels to the Miss Universe pageant open her eyes to the outside world. And with the help of his Air Force family, Pete goes to college in Hawai’i, where he tries to join the ROTC – but his dreams are thwarted, because he isn’t a US citizen. Pete returns to the Marianas, where he decides to run for local office – and once elected, he begins working to bring the Marianas closer to the US. Act Three ends with Pete successfully negotiating a Covenant with America, making the Northern Marianas a Commonwealth of the US, and the northern islanders US citizens. But this, too, will be a hollow victory - and a classic turning-point in our character’s life. Like the Organic Act of Guam, the Covenant essentially solidifies the northern Marianas’ colonial status, and confers only 2nd class citizenship. Still, Pete is reluctant to let go of his dream of America. “It was,” he admits, “not a perfect arrangement. But it was a very promising beginning. And that promise starts with being a part of America.” Act Four – Liberation Day After the Covenant is passed, Lino leaves the Marianas: first to discover his indigenous heritage in the Caroline Islands, and then to learn ‘what America is all about’ in Honolulu. Today, Lino is back in the Marianas for good – but he is still conflicted, as he sees the islands still struggling for their place within the American political family. Skyrocketing land values have wreaked havoc on the islands’ traditional society, and an evening with Hope’s family reveals that, far from becoming more prosperous as a result of their new American identity, the islands’ indigenous people have instead become marginalized, suffering high rates of disease, poverty, violence, and suicide. Hope decides to become an activist, and eventually a Guam Senator, in an effort to change things. In a sequence showing her UN ‘petitioner’ ID badges, we see Hope’s persistent attempts, year after year, to seek help from the international community on behalf of the people of Guam – whose island still remains on the UN’s list of “non-self-governing territories,” or colonies. Pete, meanwhile, has now achieved the highest political office in the Northern Marianas: Resident Representative to the United States. But without access to the halls of Congress, he is relegated to begging bureaucrats at the Department of the Interior for clean water and economic support. In a telling scene inside the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs, Pete asks for money to build a water reclamation project. As his heartfelt request is met with challenges, indifference, and platitudes, we see Pete’s rock-solid faith in America finally beginning to crumble. Carlos, now a respected elder, still believes that the only way to achieve true democracy in the Marianas is through closer ties to the United States. But on a tour of the old Guam Legislature building -- the site of his political revolt -- he is surprised when a young woman disagrees with his desire for statehood. A heated debate between them opens up new questions about what is ultimately right for the islands. As the sun rises over the islands, Carlos, Pete, and Lino each head off to the islands’ annual “Liberation Day” parade, celebrating the 60th anniversary of America’s World War II invasion. Liberation Day is the biggest holiday of the year, and most of the islanders have turned out for the event, waving American flags and watching a relentless string of American military processions. But Hope refuses to attend, commenting from home that, “for the most part, people here love the military. They have nothing else to love.” As beauty queens and ROTC soldiers bring up the rear of the parade, Act Four culminates with a montage of indigenous soldiers today serving in Iraq. Just as they did in Vietnam, Marianas soldiers are continuing to die at a rate four times higher than any state in the union. Haunting music plays under their greetings to their families back home: “Mom, don’t worry about me…” “The hardest thing about being in Iraq is being away from my wife and my kids…” And finally, a soldier who fights back her tears with a forced, “Happy Liberation Day, Guam!” Act Five – Our Time to Paddle Forward Today, the US military is planning a massive new buildup in the Marianas – a buildup that is expected to increase Guam’s population by almost a third. But as a non-self-governing territory, Guam has no say in the matter. Yet the film ends on a hopeful note – because the enormity of the buildup is forcing many islanders to reconsider their relationship with America, and to look to their roots for new paths of possibility. Lino decides to teach the islands’ youth the ancient indigenous art of celestial navigation; and Hope’s daughter, Hope Jr., decides to continue her mother’s struggle. There are tears in Hope’s eyes, as she listens to her daughter reading the petition she plans to present to the United Nations. Over shots of Lino sailing a traditional canoe in a turquoise lagoon, we hear Hope Sr.’s voice reciting an ancient Chamorro proverb – a warning, to both colonized and colonizer: “Greater is the fault of he, who knows, and allows the injustice upon himself.” In the film’s Coda, brief intertitles and shots of our characters add an additional note of hope, explaining what they are continuing to do today.

Target Audience

It is important for Americans everywhere to have the opportunity to witness, up close and first-hand, how expanding America’s empire comes at a cost to the American ideals of democracy, freedom, and justice. The Insular Empire is therefore designed to appeal not only to the marginalized communities of the Marianas, but also to a broad national audience. It will be of interest to those interested in World War II and American history; to indigenous communities everywhere; to those with an interest in cultures and peoples of the Pacific; to people interested in issues of empire and decolonization; and to people who are interested in creating social change in America and preserving America’s democratic ideals.

Production Personnel

Vanessa Ingle Warheit (Director/Producer/Editor/Camera) Vanessa Warheit has worked as a director, producer, editor, and cinematographer of non-fiction video since 1999. Her independent film credits include Producer/Director/Editor for Constructing Experience: The Many Lives of Treasure Island, which aired on PBS and NBC; Associate Producer for the national PBS documentary Great Wall Across the Yangtze; Additional Cinematography for the ITVS documentary Daddy and Papa; Researcher for the PBS documentary Golden Gate Bridge; and Researcher and Assistant Editor for the HBO documentary Paragraph 175, which won top awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Vanessa was recently an editor for the CBC series The Week the Women Went and Post Supervisor for the TV series BodogFight. She has directed, produced, and edited educational documentaries for corporate clients, and she has lectured at the college level on documentary film theory and practice. Vanessa holds a Master's in Documentary Film & Video Production from Stanford University, and a BA with honors from Bryn Mawr College. Todd Boekelheide (Composer) Todd Boekelheide has been composing and mixing music since 1978. He won an Oscar for mixing the music on "Amadeus" in 1984, and he has scored many feature films, including "Dim Sum" and "Nina Takes a Lover", as well as numerous documentaries, notably "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse". In 1999 he won an Emmy for his score for the documentary "Kids of Survival: The Life and Art of Tim Rollins and the KOS". Up-to-date credits information can be found at Samantha Grant (Sound Recordist/Research Assistant) Samantha Grant Wiesler is a freelance shooter for ABC World News Online, and a producer for PBS’s Frontline/World, Al Jazeera International’s People and Power, NPR’s Marketplace and Weekend Edition, and Current TV. She was Director/Producer/Reporter for the award-winning “India: A Pound of Flesh” (2006), and she has been working as an audio engineer and sound recordist for corporate and broadcast clients since 2000. Since 2003, Samantha has been producing and directing her own documentary project, Church of Craft (, which she was invited to present as a work-in-progress at the Sundance Independent Producer's conference. She holds a Masters in Journalism with a focus on documentary, from the University of California at Berkeley, and she is the co-founder of GUSH Productions ( Cinta Matagolai Kaipat (Associate Producer) Cinta Kaipat is a lawyer, politician, filmmaker, and activist from Saipan. She co-directed the documentary film "LIEWEILA: A Micronesian Story,” tracing the history of Spanish, German, Japanese, and, presently, American colonial rule in the Marianas, through the story of Ms. Kaipat's ancestors’ emigration from the Caroline Islands to the Northern Marianas in the 1800's. LIEWEILA has been shown in film festivals all over the world, and it has been adopted into and made a regular part of the Northern Marianas Public School System curriculum. It is also being used in several American mainland universities. Ms. Kaipat served as a Northern Marianas legislator from 2006-2008, and she is currently Deputy Secretary for the Northern Marianas Department of Labor. Kailey Patton (Animator) Kailey Patton is an artist and animator who lives and works in Vancouver BC. She holds a degree in Animation and Media from the Emily Carr Institute (now the Emily Carr University). Her previous work includes the short film for children Kao, as well as illustration for profit and pleasure, and myriad other small self-driven media projects. Her work can be seen at Amy Robinson (Director of Research/Associate Producer) Dr. Robinson holds a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University, with expertise in imperialism and globalization. She has designed and taught lecture and seminar courses on the history of the British Empire. Dr. Robinson served as Curriculum Designer and Director of Publishing for the educational consulting firm of Silver, Strong and Associates/Thoughtful Education Press, where she assisted in the development of new curriculum products, and conducted research on pedagogical issues such as learning styles and multiculturalism. Robinson has also contributed writing and research on international peace issues to the NGO Global Exchange. Helen Slinger (Story Editor) Helen Slinger is a seasoned writer, director, and story producer. She has written and story-edited a legion of documentaries, including Stranger in Our Home, Walls of Silence,, and The Rock and Roll Kid. She recently show-produced the series Ancient Clues for Discovery, and recent documentary writer/director credits include Embracing Bob’s Killer, Alexandra’s Echo, The Bully’s Mark, and Shadow Warrior - the biography of Greenpeace Founder David McTaggart. Slinger's projects have won Gemini nominations and the Edgar Dale Award for excellence in non-fiction screenwriting, and she has been recognized by numerous festivals, including the Vancouver International, Girlfest Hawaii and Columbus International Film & Video Festivals.

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