- Tonga: The Last Place on Earth dir. by Phil Travis
Against the backdrop of increasingly fraught relationships between US immigration and criminal justice policies as experienced by Pacific Islanders, including Tongans living in the United States, Pacific Islanders in Communication and pbs Hawaii bring us a disturbingly shallow and distorted documentary of Tongan gangs and US deportation called Tonga: The Last Place on Earth. Produced and broadcast as part of the second season of Pacific Heartbeat, a series that promises a “glimpse of the real Pacific,” what Tonga: The Last Place actually does is perpetuate the same racialized animus that has enabled the United States’ media and juridical and regulatory systems to stigmatize a generation of immigrants as dangerously criminal.
While the producers and director of this film deserve credit for attempting to present the experiences of diasporic Tongans, and perhaps other Pacific Islanders, with the US criminal justice system in the context of broader American politics of immigration and citizenship, this program well demonstrates why sensitivity to historical, social, and cultural contexts is absolutely critical for clear, balanced dialogue and documentary reporting. Tonga: The Last Place on Earth joins other contemporary televisual representations like the series Jonah from [End Page 310] Tonga in Australia to frame Pacific Islander (and, specifically Tongan) young men as pathologically violent. In these contexts, such framings foster transnational moral panics that justify discrimination and unjust treatment of Tongans in diaspora including the criminalization and deportation of an unprecedented number of immigrants. If nothing else, this documentary reminds us that Pacific studies should be attentive to an important genre of broadly circulating media—popular television programming. While Pacific Islanders in Communication and pbs Hawaii should be lauded for much good work and for circulating stories about the contemporary Pacific, popular journalism runs the risk of being spectacular and damaging to Pacific Islander communities in diaspora and in homelands.
Written and directed by Phil Travis, Tonga: The Last Place on Earth is produced by The Mission, inc, a television and film production company whose body of work runs from reality tv to feature-length thrillers. The opening suggests a gaze both unfamiliar with and insensitive to Tongan social and cultural contexts, making it indistinguishable from a number of touristic videos. With this exoticizing gaze, the montage cuts in images of a failed paradise. A close-up of red hibiscus stands in for a culturally authentic past, virginal and amenably feminized, in contrast with rusty abandoned vehicles and half-naked children. Such stock images reveal a stance that has no grasp of Tonga as a real place. This representational nullity is only worsened when a patronizing and omniscient voice-over begins a heavy expository “whitesplaining” of US deportation in terms of ethnic criminality, opting to omit any reference to the juridical or policy background that underpins contemporary deportation.
The core of the program includes a series of seemingly haphazardly gathered interview snippets. A handful of deported immigrants in Tonga, including one woman, are lined up in the filmic equivalent of a “perp walk,” a shaming spectacle with deep Euro-American roots. The interviewees are apparently asked questions exclusively about their convictions. Viewers never learn what questions were used because the film completely edits out the presence of any interviewer. There is absolutely no context to discern how these stories were extracted—a troubling fact in itself, considering the ethical and human rights issues of displaced persons. These forced (and in some cases literally captive) interviews are contrasted with stiff statements from disciplinary agents of the state in Salt Lake City, who gloss over contexts in an attempt to establish that Tongans are deported for “gang violence, murder, and other serious crimes.” These interviewees include detectives from the Salt Lake Gang Task Force, a Polynesian social worker, and an African-American immigration attorney. Meanwhile, diasporic voices, such as those in a tearful interview with the mother and sister of a deported...