A Conversation with Lulu Deboer
I met Lulu Deboer at the Peace Corps Connect Conference in Austin, Texas in 2019. Lulu was there to talk about Kiribatis, climate change, and the feature documentary Millenium Island that she has been working on the last couple of years. We had a really interesting conversation about her experience growing up as a Peace Corps Kid in rural Texas and how her biracial identity has influenced her approach to filmmaking. Check out some highlights of our conversation:
Hi my name is Lulu Deboer. My given name is Kaeruru. And my father was an American Peace Corps volunteer. And he married a Kiribatis woman my mother. So here I am today. A product of the Peace Corps, as it were, or as you kindly call them Peace Corps kids. I've heard them referred to Peace Corps babies as well. I suppose there's a whole generation of us I suppose out there.
So. My mother's from the small island called Kiribatis. Like on this very far edge of the map. Over there. And Kiribatis is no longer part of the Peace Corps, but it was back in the day.
Kiribatis is a small atoll island. I would say that the Peace Corps and America in general has been fairly good to their country compared to the other countries in the region. So, yeah, Kiribatis is an interesting place. It's actually the subject of my upcoming feature documentary Millennium Island. So if you want to see more of them, find my on YouTube.
Growing up in Rural Texas
My father's originally from Iowa. And my mother is from Kiribatis, Tabiteuea is the specific island. And they have like a warrior caste ethos about mother goes down. And my family actually moved to Texas when I was seven and I like to think of Texas as the state of guns. So it's a pretty interesting way to look at conflict. Yeah. We actually spent most of my childhood in Gilmer Texas, which is a small town in rural East Texas about. Population 5000. And it was a very interesting experience growing up in a small town in rural America being bi-racial as it were There's really no Kiribatis people around that area. The language was really only spoken in my home between my grandmother my mother and I.
The family unit was made up of my mother and my father my grandmother with me and my little sister. And my younger sister, she’s the middle sister. I have another one now. But that was like a couple of years later. My middle sister is actually. My first cousin on my father's side so my father's sister’s daughter. She as a first cousin in Kiribatis culture is considered a direct sibling and we adopted her when she was 2 and gave her a Kiribatis name. She was originally named Ashley. And we named her Kerita and we called her KK for short. And now that she's grown up though she's she's reverted back to being Ashley. So I think that that's an interesting departure we took as siblings. I was really curious in my college years about reconnecting with Pacific culture and going back to that part of the world. And she was really curious in her college years on reconnecting with white American culture. And what that meant for her growing up. And I always find it pretty interesting that the two of us even though we grew up in the same circumstances are treated very differently in public.
Growing up Bi-racial
Well America first and foremost just has a long history. You know it was a country built on slavery and genocide. So, there's a lot of issues that this young nation of 200 years has to contend with and those issues carry into everyday lives and many American citizens. So growing up in East Texas there's kind of like three categories you could be in like white, black or Latino. And because we were neither of those are like some combination we just “other”. Obviously my sister was white, she was considered part of the white margin and then when her and my father and I would go around town the three of us they would assume I was the adopted sibling. And so it us an interesting kind of way of looking at that.
One time though I was with my father and my sister in Iowa. And I guess. my father's community in Iowa knew about him getting a Peace Corps, for you know some exotic wife off in the islands. So they assume that that wife was me at age 16. So that was a really awkward moment in church when people were like Oh so this must be your lovely wife. And I'm like No I'm his lovely 16 year old daughter. So awkward. It's interesting because I think Peace Corps is full of those idealistic young people and they come back and they have all that bright idealism and then and they make decisions based off of that that could affect their whole life. And then once that idealism fades away a bit into the...conforming back into the American culture, they start to realize that there are a lot more problems that they ever even anticipated. So I don't think my father really knew what he was doing by creating a bi-acial child in America. I still think to this day he doesn't quite understand the challenges.
I was in the marching band and so our small town of Gilmore was celebrating the jamboree, which is like the biggest festival of the county. He and my little sister walking around trying to get a sandwich. They walked into a sandwich shop and we were invited to stay for a meeting is a closed meeting, a private group. And they said Oh sorry. The sandwich shop is closed but you can stay for our meeting. Turns out it was like a KKK affiliated group called the Brothers of the Confederacy which was actually a pretty big group in my small town and they gave a scholarship to all the high school students. When my dad came home he brought back that brochure home as a kind of a souvenir, and he was Like ha ha this is so funny. And that just struck me with a lot of fear. It wasn't funny. So that’s kind of an interesting environment.
Reconnecting with Pacific Culture: Lulu's "Peace Corps" Experience
So physically I guess I'm usually interpreted to most Americans as Latina. For whatever reason. People see the Texas connection. Statistically I'm like OK that's a fair assumption. See I was kind of raised in that guise and didn't really have much contact with other Kiribatis people. It was really in 2000. During the millennium celebrations. I was the first time I actually saw Kiribatis on television, the islands themselves and I like kind of had that feeling that there's more out there than the small town of five thousand people. So that was kind of the impetus as it were. Like the jump off movement and at the young age in my life I was like you know what I want to do something about Millennium Island. It just felt like that little island on TV really inspired me to go back. And then….
The climate change dialogue started picking up as I went through high school and college. And it was more and more of this rhetoric of doom and gloom. Like our islands are sinking. Climate change is going to wipe us out. The sort of like ticking clock. That I feel like oh well if I need to reconnect I need to do it now because there might not be a later. It was a big inspiration to go back. I guess. In some form I did follow in the steps of my Peace Corps father, and I went back to Kiribatis for two years. I actually wanted to join the Peace Corps but they didn't go to Kiribatis anymore so I was like well I'll do it myself some other way. So I followed in his footsteps went back for two years.
Identity, Filmmaking, and that White Savior Feeling
So for work I'm a filmmaker. And I graduated from Stanford with a bachelor's of arts with a Major in film, and a minor in music science technology. So I knew very very quickly that that was my medium to express things most fluidly and going back and making a documentary called Millennium Island about this narrative really opened my eyes to the way that we talked about identity and narratives.
So when I was working with the American Indian Film Institute, I studied very much this idea of the anthropological documentary and the idea of one culture filming another. And what does that mean if one culture has more power or with the other and how does that affect the films that are being made. Almost, like overwhelmingly so, documentaries made by outsiders tend to be more negative, sadder, doom-and-gloomer, a little bit leaning towards the poverty porn spectrum, these are liberal documentaries. Whereas indigenous films tend to be a little bit more hopeful a little bit more. Focused in their approach to what they want to see done. And a little bit more positive about the communities in general. So I definitely saw that happen with Kiribatis as a case study in climate change narrative, and for the longest time in my film I was struggling with a theme that. A lot of Peace Corps struggle with this sort of white savior complex of “I am Western, I'm well educated. I know better let me save you”. Right? So I went in there with like really good intentions like okay let me go there, listen for a year and see how I can help.
And I did that and then I got a bunch of opportunities from like Tesla's non-profit write-off “Give power.” So they were like a solar panel company that really want to do something out there, and I tried to collaborate with them and tie them in with the Kiribatis government. And I realized I was always going through that whole process like yes I might put one solar plant on one island and feel good about that. It might not be what the country needs but I was like so hell bent on getting that white savior feeling of like I did something years and something tangible. Let me go talk about it. And that really comes across in the five minute piece that I presented. These are like the words at the end. “If I your humanity fails to save you just remember I loved you”. Because I felt like it was my responsibility with all this privilege coming from the West to try to save something. And fast forward a couple years, a little more introspection I'm like that is not necessarily the right approach. Like the Pacific Islanders have their own way of dealing with this problem and so I've been listening more and more to what my mother is doing on how to move some of these solutions and I think. I don't really have the clearance to tell you at the moment but eventually like maybe next year you guys will hear about it. There's a whole like deal going to help with some of these climate refugee crisis issues. So I thought that that was an interesting thing too and once you see something you can't really unsee it. So once I noticed those tropes and tendencies within myself. I definitely notice them in other films.