Keeping it real with filmmaker, educator and festival co-founder Don Muña

Illustration of colorful characters and an image of filmmaker Don Muna.

Where I’m From: Don Muña

Natural splendor is a part of everyday life for Guam-based filmmaker and educator Don Muña, who co-founded the Guam International Film Festival (GIFF) 10 years ago with his brother Kel. Here, tropical breezes flow across sandy, palm-lined beaches and through lush, verdant landscapes on the US commonwealth of the Mariana Islands. But Muña, who is Chamoru American, wants to tell stories beyond the “promotional postcard” version of his island, beyond its reputation as a US military outpost.

Guam’s identity, and the stories that shape it, are still unfolding, according to Muña. This is exactly why it’s important to him to bring the themes that have shaped his life — broken homes, creative ambitions, generational secrets, finding purpose, to name a few — into the films that he makes, as well as the narratives that he champions as a festival organizer.

Adobe had the opportunity to speak with Muña about the world of possibilities he envisions for fellow Chamoru and Pacific Islander creatives, an ambition that’s at the heart of his contribution to the film Where I’m From. An Adobe project that brought together the voices of Asian and Pacific Islander artists, “Where I’m From” each contributor to explore all the ways that they define themselves and their creativity.

How did you get started as an artist?

I don’t really consider myself an artist. I’ve always just liked putting things together. My brother Kel and I are the youngest of eight kids in our family, and we would spend a lot of time doing weird stuff to entertain ourselves, like making stop-motion claymation home movies with our old VHS camcorder. That was my beginning of getting involved with the technical aspect of creation. My brothers Kel and Mike and I had a band, too: Kel on piano, Mike on drums, and I did the singing and songwriting. We recorded our songs on an old double tape deck karaoke machine with a single RCA input and one microphone.

How did you end up working in film?

Kel and I make a good team, and we had a desire to make our own film. I like to say he’s much more disciplined than me as a creator, while I take on more of a technical role. When we were teens, Kel got a job at the local TV and radio station, KUAM. He worked his way up and hired me. Kel introduced me to Photoshop and web design — this was in the 1990s, so it was really fresh. He wanted to explore film school, but we were a broke family at the time, no resources, no connections. We didn’t know much. Kel got into film school at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida, and I decided to make my way out to the mainland. We started a videography company, and through one of our first gigs, we learned about online marketing. Internet forums and MySpace were really popping off. There were all these cool ways of connecting online, and we saw these platforms as a way of helping us create a film of our own.

Was it a very DIY process?

Yes. We pooled whatever resources we had to slap out a film together the best we could. I had written a short story about dark family secrets and daddy issues that I thought would be relatable to people on Guam. That grew into the screenplay for our first film, “Shiro’s Head,” which debuted in 2008. We shot it entirely in Guam, and it ended up making waves throughout the Pacific Islander community. We got to go to festivals in Hawaii and LA, got good national press, then awards — we never thought it was possible. At film festivals, it was amazing to meet people like us, making movies independently. When we came back from that experience, we said, “There’s got to be more than just us on Guam.”

What were the first years of GIFF like?

We launched the film festival in 2011, and we set our sights on building a film industry in Guam. From the beginning, it was not at all hard-to-find folks who wanted to submit their films. It was surprising, our first year we received over 300 film submissions from over 50 countries. At our peak, just before COVID-19 hit, we received 800 films. There’s an influx of artists and creators and people who want to see Guam and spend their production dollars on Guam. Our community can benefit from this, and we’re actively pursuing the development of the Guam film office to bring more economic and artistic opportunities home. In this day and age, you should be able to “make it” from your hometown and be able to create the work that you want to create.

How do you feel now that GIFF has reached the 10-year mark?

Ten years is a display of our commitment. We’ve established ourselves and shown we’re serious about advancing Guam’s film industry. I want to get people to stay in Guam and draw more people here. While we were making our second film, “Talent Town” (2014), a documentary, we interviewed dozens of local creators and the collective consensus was that they feel like they’ve hit a ceiling and feel underappreciated. But we can still survive as artists. We don’t have what we feel we deserve yet, and we’ve got to make it happen.

What is the story that you want to tell about Guam?

We are so much more than what is being depicted in movies and TV shows, like military bases and beaches. Telling our own stories would help us as citizens of Guam, as Chamorus, as Guamanians, and give the world a better sense of who we are individually. Guam and the Mariana Islands give me this feeling as if the islands belong to me, so I feel as if I belong, and I’m needed to share my positive energy with my islands and our people.

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