- Ainikien Jidjid ilo Boñ, and: Batmon vs Majuro, and: Jilel: The Calling of the Shell, and: Lañinbwil’s Gift, and: Ña Noniep, and: Yokwe Bartowe
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Jack Niedenthal, when discussing his films at festivals in Hawai‘i and Guam, enjoys telling the story of perusing rental video titles at the E-Z PriceMart on the Marshallese atoll of Majuro in 2008 when his eleven-year-old son, Max, asked, “Dad, how come there are no films in Marshallese?” A good question, he said. So he set out to make one. “Imagine growing up all your life,” he would continue, “never seeing a film in your own language, set in your own country, dealing with issues and values that are unique to your own culture.”
During filmmaker panels, Niedenthal balks at describing the process as reinventing himself. “I’ve always been a storyteller,” he says. “Now I’ve become one with a camera.” Niedenthal first arrived in the Marshalls twenty-seven years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer. He learned the language and legends of the community of atolls and islands the indigenous inhabitants call “jolet jen Anji” (gifts from God). On Kili he married into the diaspora of Bikinians displaced by nuclear testing, becoming their Trust Liaison to the United States. His rich store of Marshallese mythology and folklore was now supplemented by stark contemporary tales of a people’s deprivation of homeland, body, and spirit.
Niedenthal’s first cinematic venture was Ña Noniep, a tale of middle-school student friends Liki and Miko, whose budding romance is put on the skids when an auto accident kills Miko’s family. Although not to blame, Liki’s father was the driver of the other car. Nonetheless, Miko’s grandmother, Lijimu, places Liki under an evil spell. The noniep, an invisible but persistent sprite, works hard to protect Liki and to try to break the spell. Nonieps are youthful spirits, however, and don’t have the full powers of a rianijij, or sorceress, like Lijimu. Miko’s love for both Liki and her grandmother, combined with the noniep’s benevolence, creates the power to convince Lijimu to lift the curse and accept Liki and his family into hers. The themes of good and evil, young love thwarted and reunited, revenge, and redemption carry the story well beyond the Marshall Islands’ borders and earned the film a nomination in the 2009 International Youth Film Festival.
Ña Noniep played for three weeks to turn-away crowds at the lone Majuro theater. dvd copies were greedily consumed on the outer islands and by the Marshallese expat community in Arkansas. Randon Jack and Lulani Ritok, who played Liki and Miko, became Island celebrities. Although almost archetypically grandmotherly, with a bright sense of humor, Netha Gideon became regarded as the real Lijimu, with Islanders crossing the street to avoid her and sharing anxious whispers about her reputed magical abilities.
Niedenthal accomplished all of this [End Page 589] in a microbudget diy filmmaking style using a standard definition prosumer camera, available and ambient...