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Beyond the Blue Horizon:

Filming on Lamotrek Atoll


© Eric Metzgar, Ph.D.

First posted: 26 February 1998
Photos added: 3 May 1998
ast edited: 23 September 2005


Lamotrek Atoll

In 1977-78, after six months into a fourteen-month stay on Lamotrek Atoll, I ceased to maintain clarity of purpose. It did not make much sense for me to continue the film project that I had begun with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency of the United States government. The following essay is a personal account written in 1979 of the problems I encountered in the course of making a documentary film about the traditional arts and skills of Lamotrek, an Outer Island of Yap in theFederated States of Micronesia. It should be noted that in the nearly twenty years since this paper was written, I have returned to Lamotrek on three separate occasions, the last being a visit in 1990 for the purpose of making another film and conducting dissertation research. It is my belief that the events and experiences described below are as relevant now as then to the purpose of carrying out ethnographic film work on Lamotrek as well as other Central Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific.

wa l.s.

Outrigger Approaching Lamotrek


Caught Up In Something Else

One day while staring at the coral cuts on my feet in my bright orange, all-purpose, plastic washtub, I realized that I did not know what I was doing. It had become a regular habit for me to boil water and soak the cuts I had received when spear fishing in the lagoon. I wondered when I was going to get over such childish clumsiness. After all, the islanders knew how to handle themselves on the coral reef. When was I going to learn?

Looking out the doorway of my palm-thatched hut in the morning, I saw that it was going to be a beautiful day. The tops of the coconut palms shone in a gold line all along the crescent beach. The inner lagoon near the shore was lying undisturbed and the smoothness of the water seemed to glow in unison with the land. Only the clouds moved ... and my feet in my washtub. Maybe it was this ironic juxtaposition of images, or the depressive prospect of running out of coffee with no cargo ship due for another three months, or the fact that I had not picked up my camera in two weeks.

lamo view north

Lamotrek North View

Whatever ... there was not only something wrong with my feet but with my state of mind in general. I thought I was an ethnographic filmmaker. I thought I had developed methods to interpret a culture on film, but they were gone, used up, burned out.

author filming

Filming New Year's Celebration

After spending six months on  Lamotrek, I had filmed many of the traditional arts and skills that were being practiced on the island but a theme to connect them still eluded me. I seriously wondered if I should continue filming. The question swirled around in my head but found no answer, so I poured more hot water into my bright orange, all-purpose, plastic washtub and continued to rub the coral cuts on my feet.


Go With The Flow

I had a conflict: to use my film equipment to continue documenting the culture or to forget the film and join in the island activities. An islander would tell me, "Come, this is the work we are doing." Or another would ask, "Did you hear what the men have decided that we are going to do?" And the most provocative question of all, "When are you going to take your wife?" The invitations to assimilate were constant, as if I could easily forget the reason why I had come to Lamotrek.

making fishtrap

Making a Fish Trap


Dancers Practicing


Skirt Weaving

beach bird

Bird Carving

beach gos

Spirit Figure Carving

I had fallen into the island rhythm and it was getting harder and harder for me to find the time and energy to continue filming. I would get up at six in the morning, climb the coconut trees given to me for making palm wine, collect the fermented juice, and cut the palm blossom so the sap would continue to flow.

gashi making

Collecting Coconut Sap

Then I would go to Lamotrek Elementary School where I was teaching English, Math, and Social Studies to 7th and 8th graders. My role as a teacher on



magowe adzing

Chief Magowe

Lamotrek had been arranged for me by my sponsor-father, Chief Magowe, (above)  who was also my mentor in learning the language and folkways of Lamotrekan culture.

During the school lunch break I would return to my hut at the northern end of the village, climb "my" coconut trees, and collect the fermented palm juice . This would give me an opportunity to visit the men’s canoe houses along


Canoe House


Replacing Supporting Posts

the way to see what activities were taking place that day. School would end at three o’clock in the afternoon, after which I was free  to pursue whatever I liked. This usually involved fishing, working in the canoe house, or if the situation warranted the effort, shooting film. Around four o’clock in the afternoon the men would start drinking the palm wine that they had collected in the morning. They did this in various canoes houses while engaged in a variety of work-related activities such building canoes, making fish traps or

wa fixing

Repairing Sailing Canoe Hull

ali working

Replacing Coco Fiber Lashes

coconut fiber rope. I would return to my hut to eat supper before sunset, climb my coconut trees again to collect a second batch of palm wine, then bring it to a canoe house in the early evening where a "men’s circle" would gather. There we would drink, talk, ask questions, and sing island songs until it was time to go to sleep.


At a Drinking Circle

After a while, it was difficult for me to get on with the process of filmmaking. I had to find ways of talking myself into putting film in the camera rather than getting involved with participating in the men’s activities. The collective pressure to assist in community projects was constant. To dismiss or deny the individual responsibility that I had to the island was, in the Lamotrekan scheme of things, like denying the existence of the community. Every individual that was capable was expected to contribute to the general welfare of the community in a multiplicity of ways, not just teaching ... or making movies.

pounding taro

Preparing Taro

wa hauling

Hauling a Canoe


Filming the Lamotrekans

Sitting with both feet in my bright orange, all-purpose, plastic washtub, I pondered the events of the past month. I had recently made a conscious effort to stop joining in with the daily routine of making palm wine and other community work projects in order to pay more attention to producing the film that I had come to make about Lamotrekan arts and skills. It almost goes without saying that devoting one’s energy toward the making of a movie is dramatically

illig woman

Lamotrek Woman    


different from all other Lamotrekan activities. It is a type of production that a Lamotrekan would not have trouble conceiving but would probably have difficulty carrying out. He or she would likely be faced with the conflict of having to stand aside from the community and his or her obligation to be involved in the numerous subsistence activities. It would also take tremendous will power because the personal desires of individuals tend to be, for the most part, sublimated to the needs of family, clan, and community.

I forced myself to continue filming but found that I could not ignore the social behaviors that were inexorably enculturating me to Lamotrekan norms and mores. The process of making a film alienated me from the community because it had little practical value in the eyes of the community and consequently little support. My idea to make a film about traditional Lamotrekan arts and skills that were in danger of being lost was a concept too abstract for most islanders to fathom. Indeed, it was only because of Chief Magowe’s interest in the preservation of island traditions that I was allowed to stay on Lamotrek and carry out my research. Otherwise, the prevailing island consciousness seemed to say, "What does it matter? Why document that which no longer has any practical use for us?"

wa at sea

Sailing Canoe at Sea

Filming the people of Lamotrek posed a challenge. I found that permission to film adults needed to be asked beforehand, otherwise, the response might be one of shocked surprise or blatant disapproval. Once the camera was turned on, the adult males usually reacted with taciturn ignorance of its presence and the adult females were embarrassed to the point of hysterical laughter. Permission did not need to be asked, however, from adolescents since I was twenty-nine years old and therefore, according to Lamotrekan norms "did not need to listen to them." The teenage boys treated the occasion as a chance to show off but were so self-conscious that they were hard to work with. The teenage girls would never give their approval for fear of being observed "talking to me," behavior which was interpreted in public as a willingness to engage in intimate behavior. Children always got excited when I got out my camera and would do almost anything I asked, but they were also totally unpredictable.

         wa covering  

Protecting Canoe from the Sun



Sailing Canoe at Rest

Naturally, the adults were the first ones to be reckoned with in trying to do any serious filmmaking and here I tread a fine line. I was faced with a problem of getting support to carry out my film work but in filming individuals who seemed cooperative I found that I risked alienating them from future, meaningful communication. This problem was eventually ameliorated by becoming a participant in as many community activities as I could, and in the process, learning to speak the Lamotrekan language. Nevertheless, one can shoot several hours of film, capture the performance of a dance or the making of a canoe, and still have nothing more than a demonstration and the mood of the participants involved. It seemed useless to continue just documenting the arts of Lamotrek — dances for enjoyment, celebration, and rituals; songs and chants for navigators, medicine men, canoe builders, and lovers — on and on, they never seemed to end. Was there no theme that could bind these art forms together?

Cleverness Is A Virtue

Like a person who is wary of stepping into a tide pool for fear of disturbing the natural processes within it, I had sought to maintain a working relationship with the community. But on a small island of 300 people without electricity, where the only real diversions are your family, friends, and neighbors, "to make story" is a common method of passing the time. I was soon being tested on two accounts: my ability to decipher true stories from untrue ones, and my cleverness at misimis.I think it is unduly harsh to say that misimis is outright lying although it certainly can be defined that way. More often, it is viewed as telling a "white lie" which is accepted by everyone and used, more less, for defensive or protective purposes. For example, if you are walking on an island path and someone asks you if you have cigarettes at your house, you may misimis by saying that you don’t have any even though you do. If you did acknowledge that you had cigarettes, then you would be socially obligated to share them. The same goes for food and other possessions. A reverse form of misimis is also used. If someone walks by a group of people eating, the people eating will usually call that person to join them; but proper etiquette requires unrelated individuals to decline the offer with a misimis by saying that they are full, even if they may, in fact, be hungry.Misimis is commonly employed to embellish an otherwise straight forward event, to elaborate an emotion, the size of some object, or simply to startle someone for a good laugh. Some of the wildest stories centered around romantic encounters and secret trysts. Being single, I was certainly game for talk. The women would advance their ideas concerning my suitability for marriage and the men would relate stories of my encounters with certain ladies despite the fact that these stories were untrue. Fact and fiction soon blended to the point where I did not know what the Lamotrekans really thought about me. I thought my behavior had little to do with the image the community had created.The community’s interest in having me stay on Lamotrek was a provocative notion. I already felt that the people on Lamotrek lived a good life. I liked the intensity and the fact that almost everyone developed a multiplicity of talents including practical food gathering skills, a multilingual capability, the making of aesthetic crafts, the composition of songs and dances, and the ever-present creation of humor. After awhile, I came to feel that my filmmaking attempts had gone about as far as I could take them. With this realization my fears and resistance to becoming a more active participant in the social life of the community disappeared. At this point I resigned myself to the inevitable conclusion that the film recordings I had made would only amount to a straight-forward documentation of some little known island arts and skills. I had lost the will to remain the staunch observer, standing aside from the mainstream that called me closer and closer.


The Spirit Connection

I gave up filming for a couple of months and immersed myself in the culture. I engaged in a wider array of social and work-related activities which included more fishing and involvement in sailing expeditions to other islands, and I started collecting folk tales and myths. During this time, I also found that all the talk about my marrying and settling down on the island had little to do with reality and everything to do with misimis. Now the tables had turned. I watched as supposedly "interested" young ladies now avoided me. This response reminded me of occasions when I would be walking down an island path and a small child would suddenly start crying and run away. If a parent was near, they would often smile as if to say, "How cute" and then tell me that their child probably thought I was a ghost because of my blonde hair and light-colored skin.Many times I had been asked if ghosts ever visited my hut at night. It was obvious to me that Lamotrekans believed in ghosts. Not many men nor women would venture alone at night for fear of them. For a brief moment, I entertained the absurd notion that the ladies who were avoiding me thought I was a ghost. Then I recalled a story that Chief Magowe, my sponsor-father, had told me. This story, as it turned out, became the key to solving my problem.In a myth about a specialized ocean fish trap, a spirit named Yarogonga lives in a log drifting on the open sea. Eventually an ocean current carries it onto the shores of Lamotrek where Yarogonga reveals himself to a woman, talks her into getting married, and has a son by her. He teaches his son how to make a fish trap that is designed to be attached to large, drifting logs. He also teaches his son the magic for using the fish trap. Recalling this story, I suddenly realized that knowledge of making this specialized fish trap was connected to the spirit world. I began to see the relationship of mythological deities with a system of specialized skills called rong, and I started to understand that a craft, decoration, dance or chant would often be employed for magical protection or empowerment. In the Lamotrekan belief system such magic permitted the exercise of skills such as canoe building and navigation to be successful, a sailing canoe would be fast, travelers would arrive safely at their destination, rain would come, strong winds would go, turtles would crawl ashore, sharks would not bite, schools of fish could be called, and enemies would be unable to strike a blow.

It all seemed so simple now. When editing the film, I could isolate a specialized rong skill because a patron spirit was connected with it and then I could identify the art forms associated with its application. Now the film I wanted to make had a focus: the traditional arts and skills of rong are connected with the mythological deities that are credited with their origin. These deities were literally the "creative spirits" behind the performance of many arts and skills practiced on Lamotrek.

From the Film "Lamotrek: Heritage of an Island "

taro patch

Women working a taro patch

stick dancer

Men Stick Dancers

martial arts

Martial Arts

tiripo horn

Magic for Weather control


Magic for Navigation   


Weather Magician Ritual



There are numerous tales of persons "going native" on isolated islands. Certainly, after six months on Lamotrek with little contact with the outside world, I was going through some psychological changes. Remaining fixed in my purpose, I was caught in a vicious cycle — in order to continue filming the culture, I had to maintain separateness; in maintaining separateness, I felt alienated and alone. As long as the film work had direction and meaning, I did not mind being considered a misfit in Lamotrekan society; but without the inner sense that the film was making progress, there was no choice but to give up the fight and join the dance. The change in perspective was an important one. Indeed, without it, I doubt whether I would have started collecting the folk tales that later played such a pivotal role in my recognition of the mysterious pattern that had eluded me. Moreover, I suspect that if I had not had at least a year’s stay on Lamotrek to work these problems out, that I never would have finished shooting the film that I had come to make ... beyond the blue horizon.



Two video productions were made from the film footage recorded in 1977-78 . The first, an ethnographic assembly with songs, chants, and dialogue translated into English:

"Lamotrek Atoll: Research Film Footage of a Traditional Carolinian Society" Color, Sound, 195 minutes, 1983. Distributor: Triton Films.

The second video production is an edited version based on the thematic structure outlined above:

"Lamotrek: Heritage of an Island" Color, Sound, 27 minutes, 1988. Distributor: Triton Films.

Portions of the film footage recorded in 1977-78 have also since been included in the following video productions:

"Spirits of the Voyage" Color, Sound, 88 minutes, 1996. Distributor: Triton Films.

"Women’s Changing Roles in Micronesia" Color, Sound, 32 minutes, 1994. Distributor: Micronesian Seminar.

"Voices of Pohnpei, Parts I & II" Color, Sound, 60 minutes, 1995. Distributor: Micronesian Seminar.

"Beneath Paradise." Video, Color, Sound, 41 minutes, 1995. Distributor: Micronesian Seminar.


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