Jack Niedenthal, president of Microwave Films of the Marshall Islands
Jack Niedenthal never intended to become a filmmaker – and he certainly did not plan to help create a national film industry. But the Pennsylvania native has been a leading force in bringing the Republic of the Marshall Islands into the cinema world through a series of critically acclaimed and award winning feature films.
Niedenthal (who is shown here filming Alson Kelen in a scene from his 2012 drama The Sound of Crickets at Night), first arrived in the Marshall Islands in 1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Although he had previously served in a number of liaison positions for U.S. productions being shot in the country, most notably the Oscar-nominated documentary Radio Bikini, his decision to begin his own film production company came via an unexpected conversation.
Q: What was the inspiration for Microwave Films? And was this the first time you created your own company?
Jack Niedenthal: The genesis of Microwave Films came about one day in 2008 when I was in a video rental store in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, with my youngest son, Max, who was 11 at the time. My wife is a Bikinian Marshallese, so my children speak Marshallese as their first language. Max was browsing through the racks and racks of the typical Hollywood fare when he stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Hey, Dad, how come there are no films in Marshallese?"
His question stopped me cold. I thought, "Imagine growing up all your life never having seen a film in your own language, set in your own country, dealing with issues that are unique to your own culture." I looked down at Max and said, "We're going to make a movie in Marshallese." His retort was the universal, pre-teen response to just about everything: "Yeah, right."
So at the age of 50, having never made a film outside of some amateur music videos, I went out and purchased a Sony PD 170 camera and some other film equipment, bought Final Cut Pro, and started to read manuals. Because no one in the Marshall Islands makes films, and because our Internet is not always fast enough to download instructional videos, I was forced to learn everything on my own by trial and error and experience in the field.
The early days were grueling and frustrating, and I'm sure that shows up in a big way in those initial films we produced. Our first film, Ña Noniep (I am the Good Fairy), was a children's story based on a mythical Marshallese fairy called a noniep. When we started on that first venture I viewed it as a "one and done" experience: We would make our film, show it in the local theater, create a DVD for sale to raise money for a private school in the Marshall Islands, have a little fun in the process, then sell the equipment and move on.
We finished that first film in early 2009, then put it in the lone local movie theater for what we thought would be a single weekend. Technically the film was poor, and because we wanted to give the kids in the movie as much screen time as possible, I left in as much as I could in terms of the edit (the film is 108 minutes long). The film opened in the theater and in no time it became a local sensation – the theater remained packed for three weeks in a row. When we released the DVD, it sold 2,500 copies within a few months. The children on the island had every line of dialogue and every song totally memorized, parents began to complain because the kids would watch the DVD nonstop all day long, and the children and adults in the movie became instant celebrities.
After all that success, despite the commitment of time it takes to make a feature film here (usually five months of mostly shooting on weekends), Suzanne Chutaro, our co-director and co-producer, and I decided we just had to do another film. Our second film, released in 2010, was Yokwe Bartowe, a story that involves a legend of an evil demon bird here in the Marshall Islands. This film received a huge amount of critical acclaim both locally and overseas. Again, the theater in the Marshall Islands was packed for weeks and the DVD sales again became a huge financial success for our local private school.
The experience of making movies encouraged everyone involved to step outside of their day-to-day lives, it became a passion for all of us, so we continued on our filmmaking journey. We have since made two more feature films, Lañinbwil's Gift (2011) and The Sound of Crickets at Night (2012), along with numerous public service commercials for our local TV station.
The Sound of Crickets at Night was featured in New York City's Moondance International Film Festival, where it won the Atlantis Award for Foreign Feature Films, as well as at the prestigious 32nd Hawaii International Film Festival, where it had two showings, and the Guam International Film Festival, where it won a Grand Jury Award. This month, it was shown in the 29th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii.
Microwave Films is not my first business venture. In 1995 I also helped create Bikini Atoll Divers, which operated a successful land-based, world-class scuba diving operation at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. During the 1946 U.S. nuclear testing of atomic weapons in the Marshall Islands, the US military brought in what would have been the world's sixth largest fleet of ships, including the 900-foot-long USS Saratoga aircraft carrier and the 700-foot HIJMS Nagato, which was Admiral Yamamoto’s flagship from where he launched the attack on Pearl Harbor in WW II. The U.S. military methodically anchored the ships in an array in Bikini's lagoon, then ceremoniously sank them with nuclear weapons that, in turn, created a wreck diver's paradise.
I managed this business for 14 years until the airline operating within the Marshall Islands became too unreliable in 2008. Now, Bikini's sunken ships can only be accessed four or five times a year via a live-aboard vessel as we have closed down the land-based operation. The filmmaking began shortly after the closing of Bikini Atoll's dive operation, when I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands. We only incorporated Microwave Films in 2012 because we began to get some commercial TV business. Everything the films had earned up until that point had been donated to charity.
Q:. What have been some of the challenges in starting and maintaining a film production company in the Marshall Islands? And conversely, what have been some of the high points of this endeavor?
Jack Niedenthal: The hardest thing about filmmaking in the Marshall Islands is dealing with the elements that are totally out of your control: weather, high tides (which cause a lot of wave noise because we are only six inches above sea level at a high tide), barking dogs, the occasional drunk guy who wanders too close to the set, horrific winds at certain times of the year, the sun moving in and out of fast moving clouds, etc. There are also issues with people's schedules not syncing up as our actors all perform on a volunteer basis, so that sort of relegates us to weekends of intense, sunrise-to-sundown filming. If equipment breaks down, even if is an XLR cable, it is not like you can run to the store and pick one up, so you take extra special care of virtually anything that has to do with the filmmaking. We have to solve all of our technical issues on our own.
At Microwave Films, we are hardcore, low-budget guerilla filmmakers, and that makes it tough when it comes to keeping everyone happy. Each of our feature films have cost roughly around $1,000 to produce, and most of that is spent on food and fuel.
The single highest point for me so far was the first showing of our film at the marvelous Hawaii International Film Festival in Honolulu last October. I had been going to that film festival for many years because I’m usually in Honolulu during October of every year due to my work with the people of Bikini Atoll. Over 70,000 people attend that festival in 12 days, they feature high quality films that are typically from all over Asia and the Pacific. The festival is slick, polished and professionally organized. Watching our film in HDCAM in a theater packed to the brim with about 300 people is about as good as it gets for an amateur filmmaker. The idea that we can round-up people in the Marshall Islands who are not professional actors or musicians, work hard to produce a story and a film that is worthwhile and meaningful, makes for an enormous amount of gratification. Watching people here, both young and old, fill with pride when our films show locally is also important to both Suzanne and I.
So often people here feel that the world is way too big for them. What we are attempting to do is show that the people of the Marshall Islands that their lives, too, are worthy of exploration in film – and that you don't have to use millions of dollars to make an interesting film.
Q: How have you been able to promote and distribute your films? And what kind of a feedback have you received, to date?
Jack Niedenthal: We have been fortunate in that at this time we are the only company here making Marshallese films. We get our DVDs professionally reproduced in the U.S. because we want Marshallese people here to see a DVD packaged just like you would any DVD coming out of Hollywood. One of the major purposes of this endeavor is to show people here that we can be as good as anyone else in the world even though we live on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We want to instill pride in the young people here, and our filmmaking is our contribution to raising the self-esteem of a small island nation.
Each of our films has sold over 2,500 DVDs. We price them at about $6 a DVD locally to cut down on the pirating. The minimum wage in the Marshall Islands is $2, so many people here can’t afford to spend even $10 on a DVD. I know 2,500 DVDs may not sound like a huge number to the outside world, but there are only about 25,000 people living here in Majuro, so these sales represent about 10% of the population. Imagine what the sales would be if 10% of Los Angeles bought your DVD?
Our first two films are also shown routinely on Oceanic Television throughout Micronesia. We now have a huge following in the Pacific region as our films focus on a local culture, which other islanders really seem to enjoy even if they don’t speak Marshallese (all of our films have English subtitles). The films are also available online.
Q: What is Microwave Films' connection with the Majuro Cooperative School?
Jack Niedenthal: I would say the biggest connection is that I am president of Microwave Films and, for the last four years, I have also been president of the Majuro Cooperative School. The Majuro Cooperative School is a passion of mine: it is a private, secular school that admits students at 15 different grade levels from pre-school through 12th grade. Since the school's establishment in 1976, the Majuro Cooperative School has been regarded as the best school in the Marshall Islands and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges [WASC]. Both Suzanne and I have children either currently attending the school or that have attended the school in the past. My grandson now goes there. Suzanne attended the school in its early stages 30 years ago. It is a marvelous little educational oasis in a country that struggles with the Western system of education. We have developed a school relatively free of racial strife in a small city where there is just a mishmash of cultures and racial issues. We emphasize community and academics. The school totally depends on grants and donations to stay in operation.
When I began filmmaking, I thought it would be a great vehicle to raise money for the school. We told everyone involved that all the sales and proceeds from the showings of the films and the DVD sales would go directly to the school's general fund. For the first two films, we didn't even bother to take out our expenses for the equipment and the costs of production. To date we have donated over $25,000 to the school. While this is not a great business model, my view is that those first films were simply a way of paying for our own filmmaking education and at the same time it gave us all a way to give back to the community. I'm proud to say that none of our films have lost money.
Now, because we have become more sophisticated in our filmmaking, we've had to upgrade our cameras and equipment. These expenses can no longer come out of our pockets (so said my wife and Suzanne's husband), so we are trying to recoup some of our costs from DVD sales, showings of our films and TV commercial production, though we still manage to donate to the school. We incorporated in 2012 in the Marshall Islands to handle this new influx of business.
Q: What professional advice would you give to someone who is interested in following your example and launching their own endeavor?
Jack Niedenthal: Ours is a clear example of a group of people just doing something they love first and worrying about the finances later. Although I will say that in the beginning, when someone in the film industry suggested that we start out making short films to make the learning experience more concise, we refused because we knew we couldn't sell a DVD or fill a theater with a short film. On one hand we made that first film to have fun and raise the self-esteem of the people of the Marshall Islands, but we also wanted to raise money for the school, so focusing on costs and net sales became critical.
On the artistic side, the most important advice I can give for starting up an enterprise that involves filmmaking is just stop talking about what you are going to do and get out there and push the red button on your camera.
Jack Niedenthal's Microwave Films of the Marshall Islands is online at www.microwavefilms.org.