Story by Julia Steele
Photos by Olivier Koning
In the movie The Land of Eb, the character of Jacob crisscrosses the barren landscape south of Kona in a 1968 International Scout, a truck that is a lot like him: a stalwart, battered workhorse with its own tough dignity. Jacob drives men to pick coffee beans and kids to band practice. He travels north from his bone-dry compound at the southern extreme of the island to fetch water, and he gets his children to church and himself to the doctor. He is a new immigrant to the Big Island, a Marshallese man whose home atoll was all but obliterated, and as we watch him move through the film doing everything he can to hold his family and community together, we go deep inside the Marshallese experience in Hawai‘i: These newest immigrants to the Islands have been hammered by poverty, discrimination and illness in the wake of the upheaval that followed when their home became the world’s largest nuclear testing ground. In Hawai‘i the Marshallese have struggled to retain their culture and create new lives. The story is all there in The Land of Eb, seen from the inside out, told through Jacob.
Jonithen Jackson, the actor who plays Jacob, shares a great deal with his character. Like Jacob he moved to the Big Island from the Marshalls, looking for a place to forge a better future for his family. The story Jacob tells at the beginning of the film is really Jonithen’s own: He looks into a video camera, speaking in Marshallese, but the subtitles explain: “Our story … starts before,” he says somberly, “when the Americans moved us from our island, Enewitok, and put us on the small island of Ujelang. When we got to Ujelang they left us without food, without water, and most of us that went to Ujelang starved. One day my grandmother, who was old enough to understand, she looked up into the sky, and she saw a big light that filled the heavens. At this point she knew that the bomb had destroyed our island. She knew we couldn’t return. …”
Jacob stops, overcome by the memory of the hydrogen bomb that the Navy detonated in Enewitok in 1952—an explosion that has also reverberated through Jonithen’s life. He was born on Ujelang in 1956 and grew up there. In 1980 the United States cleared people to move back to Enewitok after all of the irradiated topsoil and debris had been scraped off the island and encased in a massive concrete dome. Jonithen moved back—though the nuclear specter was always there. Forty-three nuclear tests were carried out on Enewitok between 1948 and 1958, and to this day, Jonithen notes, time spent in areas around Enewitok results in an increased reading of radioactivity in the body.
On Enewitok, Jonithen trained himself to fix all of the equipment the military had left behind; after six years he moved to the Marshallese capital of Majuro and found work as a mechanic. He was called back to Enewitok to maintain the power plant and there decided he wanted to make a better life for his children; under the terms of a post-testing political agreement, all Marshallese were given the right to immigrate to the United States. “I will go first and find the place,” Jonithen told his wife, “and then I’ll be back for you.”
He went to Bellingham, Washington, but it was too cold. He went to Honolulu, but it was too crowded. He arrived on the Big Island in 1991 and stayed at Uncle Billy’s Hotel in Kona. When he walked around everyone was friendly. Strangers called out, “Hey bruddah!” with a smile. “This is the place for us,” Jonithen thought, though the Kona side of the Big Island— with its vast stretches of glistening lava rock, the newest land in the Pacific—is very different from Enewitok, which has a huge lagoon and is, like all atolls, among the oldest islands in the Pacific.
In Kona Jonithen got a job fixing buses for Polynesian Adventure Tours. He worked as a cook at Burger King and also picked coffee, oranges, macadamia nuts—whatever he could find. His wife arrived, and she worked at Burger King, too. His kids came. Others in the Enewitok community came. Jacob became a modern-day Pied Piper, such is the power of his vision, fortitude and can-do conviction: There are now six hundred people from Enewitok living on the Big Island, all having followed since Jonithen’s arrival two decades ago.
Jonithen found two lots of land in Ocean View— desolate, vog-choked—and he scoured garage sales for what he needed to build houses and transform the site into a Marshallese commune. Slowly they built a new homeland. “In our culture, in my life, in my way, I’m always thinking about everybody,” Jonithen says. “If there are no people in my place, I’m not happy.” His real passion, though, is to tell Marshallese stories and histories, and the best way he saw to do that was to make movies: He is a man with a genius for jerry-rigging and a zeal for film that would make Georges Méliès proud. He began buying cameras, usually broken ones because they were cheaper, but he preferred it that way: By fixing them he learned about their inner workings and mastered them. When a young woman from South Africa named Janine Åberg, a student from an evangelical college in Kona, came to the compound to donate computers and teach dance to the children there, Jonithen told her that he was interested in making movies. She went back to the school and spoke with a man in its film program, a young director named Andrew Williamson. Andrew drove south to Ocean View to meet Jonithen, and, to borrow a line from another film, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.