When the god Lowa created the world, he sent the artists Lewoj and Lanij to paint colorful patterns onto all the living creatures on Earth. According to Marshallese lore, the people of the Marshall Islands learned from the artists to create order by using colors to denote identity, rank, and duty amongst themselves. Living in isolation from the rest of the world, for millennia the Marshallese preserved this palette of colors unique to their way of life. The people of these islands today, however, face unprecedented challenges in navigating the defining colors of their past and discovering what it means to be Marshallese in the 21st century. The forces of globalization, cultural and economic imperialism, foreign military interests, and climate change all converge in the Central Pacific where the Marshallese are trying to forge a path towards ‘development.’
‘The Undiscovered Country’ explores the clash between tradition and modernity by fusing three art forms: documentary film, cell animation and theater. Combining the perspectives of Marshallese fishermen, students, politicians, activists, foreign educators, and anthropologists with the teachings of traditional Marshallese stories (bwebwenato) and the worlds of Marashallese adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest, this documentary examines the impact of ‘development’ on Lowa’s colorful world.
I found The Undiscovered Country enormously engaging and thought provoking. I loved how this film cut to the bones of the characters who live in a culture-jumbled society on an island in the middle of the Pacific. Jack Niedenthal, filmmaker & trust liaison for the people of Bikini
The Undiscovered Country” is a provocative work with notable aesthetic and intellectual merit. Blending striking animation, rich dialogue, and smart camera work, the film offers a rich collection of views and perspectives on the promises and pitfalls of ‘development’. Students in my seminar on “Indigenous Knowledge and Development” at Dartmouth College were challenged by “The Undiscovered Country” to think more deeply about the meanings of development and how place informs different perspectives on globalization, industrialization, and the effects of modernity. I highly recommend this film for classes tackling these issues at the undergraduate and graduate levels! Dr. Kenneth Bauer, Lecturer, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Program, Dartmouth College
The film doesn’t offer answers, but it raises many questions about the impact of western culture in the Marshall Islands. The interviewees have much to comment on this subject and local viewers, especially, will find it both an entertaining and thought-provoking film to watch. Giff Johnson, Editor, Marshall Islands Journal
From the authors
Even though no film is without a point of view, The Undiscovered Country is our attempt to present a balanced mosaic of perspectives on development, education and the role of indigenous knowledge in shaping the future of the Marshall Islands. By portraying the complexity of the challenges this island nation in the Central Pacific faces in reaching ‘development,’ we hope to raise questions about the role of tradition in the advancement of society, the impact of globalization on human diversity and the environmental consequences of Western-style modernity: questions the entire world grapples with on the brink of the third millennium. Through our lens, the Marshall Islands become a microcosm representing all humanity, a space for reflection on the future direction of our shared world.
The work on the film started in 2008; it was not until 2012 that we reached a final cut. Originally conceived of simply as an exploration of the impact of foreign volunteer teachers on the Marshallese education system, the film gradually grew in its scope, encompassing issues of economic development, environmental justice, cultural imperialism and globalization. As the themes explored in the film grew more complex, so did its form: cell animation, 35mm black and white stills, archival footage and excerpts from Shakespearian plays gradually came to supplement the original documentary footage in a multi-layered narrative style. Rather than treating the different themes as discrete subjects, the film attempts to contextualize each issue by focusing on the relationships between them.
The result is a colorful mosaic of seemingly unrelated yet deeply interconnected realities. It is our hope that this mosaic will help to provoke a discussion about issues we believe are crucial to the age we live in.
Peter Sutoris, Director/Producer
Nuith Morales, Animator
About the animation
Even for such short pieces, fully realizing all the animations in the film took about six months, not taking into account the process of finding (or writing) a story to animate and visualizing it. The drawing process was as tedious as animating tends to be–I drew 8-16 frames for each second of film, using a very personalized form of cell animation and a wide variety of mediums to layer multiple frames at a time. In many ways, the documentary aims to illustrate the lack of a constant, simple answer to the questions it poses, so, in the animation, I often worked on different kinds of paper of varying translucency and let their overlap determine the opacity of each drawing. This meant that the way one sheet of paper rested on the other had a noticeable effect on the way two drawings interacted with each other. This was my way of relinquishing control and letting the inconsistency in the materials determine important elements of the film. Other times, when the variance created by the physical thickness of each frame wasn’t important, the layering was achieved digitally. But regardless of the technique I employed to create layers, each frame was originally hand drawn and photographed with a DLSR camera.
The opening animation is based on an oral Marshallese legend that tells of the time the Marshallese first settled on the atolls. According to the story, Lowa created beautiful islands and creatures to inhabit them, but his creatures all looked like each other and, without anything to tell them who they were and unable to tell a stranger from their own mother, creatures wandered lost on the islands. Lowa then called down Lewoj and Lanij, two artists who painted each creature differently from the next. With those colors and patterns, creatures knew who they were and who others were in relationship to them. Thus the people were able to form villages and find their place within each clan.
I chose this story because in our quickly globalizing world in which culture can no longer be locally defined, many of us grapple with questions of identity. The Marshallese were once given ‘colors’ by the gods, but must now redefine what those colors are, or should be, in the context of the new ‘global village.’
Nuith Morales, Animator