Island Soldier (2017) [Hot Docs 2017]

Micronesians are a big part of the US military forces but get very little in terms of recognition or assurance that they will be taken care of if and when things take a bad turn.  Here the Nena family is followed through their sons’ and their struggles and joy with the process of them joining the American military, going abroad, training, going into service, et al.

Director Nathan Fitch follows the family and their loved ones as they go through this as well as shows the history that has led to many Micronesians going into service for the United States Army.  He shows their emotions and feelings through letting them express themselves and tell their stories with little directions or input.  The film grabs the viewer by being a direct and raw while avoiding to fall into exploitative drivel meant to bring tears to eyes.  The story shown is real, it’s impressive, and it’s personal.  The film brings the viewer into this family’s life, making them feel like you have known them for a long time, like they are family to them.  It’s makes the viewer care by not forcing them to, by letting them make their own opinions.

The film achieves this by keeping things simple with a simple look and music that fits without over powering the story being told.  The cinematography by director Fitch, with additional cinematography by Bryan Chang who also edited, brings forth the beauty of Micronesia and creates images that grab the viewer while the story and what is being told keeps the viewer’s attention.  The way their images are edited, weaving shots of the islands and their beauty with the interview or monologue style sequences which creates an almost dreamlike feel to parts of the film when they are talking about happy things.  When things are less happy, they still have an ease of watching which seems impossible but the style in which they are shot takes care of that.  This documentary could easily have fallen into the sad story or saccharine, but it avoids this by concentrating on the human element, but showing the people going through their lives, their hopes, their dreams.

These images are accompanied by music by Bing & Ruth and additional music by Dan Teicher and Max Avery Lichtenstein which adds an island sound to the film and helps guide the viewer through the emotions and feelings.  The music is beautiful and island-y (if that is a word), while it’s not too much or tacky.  It may seem stereotypical, but it good and it fits with the subject and helps keep a potentially heavy documentary more watchable.  As is oftentimes the case, the music helps set the tone and helps create something that the viewer will keep on watching.

Island Soldier is the type of documentary that many need to see as it has an important history lesson wrapped in humanity.  The way it goes about things works to get the viewer interested and keep their interest.  The Nena family is interesting and feels like many families most of us have met.  Their story is important as it is but one of many for the men and women in the service who need more support than they are getting and to help people understand parts of the system and its history that is unknown to more than it should be.