Hawaiian Soul

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The Making of a Short Film About George Helm

(L-R) Mataio Sibayan, Lohiao Paoa, ʻĀina Paikai, Melia Kalawe and Kolea Fukumitsu. – Photo: Courtesy

Seven years ago filmmaker ‘Āina Paikai and his friend, Kaliko Ma‘i‘i, talked about making a movie about Hawaiian folk hero George Helm. The long-time friends had always wanted to work on a project together, but Paikai was full time at ‘ŌiwiTV while Ma‘i‘i was working full time with Hawai‘i 5-0 and both had young families. Still, Paikai couldn’t stop turning the idea around in his head. He read Rodney Morales’ book, Ho‘iho‘i Hou: A Tribute to George Helm and Kimo Mitchell and, just to challenge himself, began writing a movie script.

That seed of an idea all those years ago has blossomed into a narrative short film written and directed by Paikai called “Hawaiian Soul,” a biopic on the life of George Helm which he hopes to premiere on Moloka‘i next month. The movie title is borrowed from the name of the song written by Jon Osorio and Randy Borden on the day in March 1977 that the search for George Helm and Kimo Mitchell was called off.

Helm and Mitchell, both members of the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO), were lost at sea after setting out for Molokini from Kaho‘olawe on their surfboards in the early morning hours of March 7, 1977. Their disappearance launched a massive search, but they were never found. Helm, a charismatic leader, was one of the founders of the PKO and a major force behind the emerging aloha ‘äina movement. Helm was also a gifted musician and talented falsetto.

It is George Helm the musician, not the activist, who is the focus of Paikai’s film. “The movie deals more with his musical aspirations,” shared Paikai. “But it also shows how he used music to gently present his message of aloha ‘āina which, at that time, was really radical.”

Helm was raised on Kalama‘ula Homestead on Moloka‘i. The family farmed and it was this upbringing that was foundational to Helm’s understanding of aloha ‘āina. The Helm ‘ohana was also extremely musical and his passion for music was cultivated when the family gathered together in the evenings to play music. As a teenager, Helm was accepted to Saint Louis School in Honolulu on an athletic scholarship, and it was there that he honed his talent as a musician and singer under the guidance of legendary teachers John Lake and Kahauanu Lake.

The movie follows Helm from childhood to adulthood, and explores his musical and ideological evolution. While the film includes vignettes that one might expect to see in a story about the iconic leader of the aloha ‘āina movement, the movie stays rooted in Helm’s music. Paikai’s premise is that it was music that ultimately allowed Helm to find his voice and become the man who is remembered today. “I realized that it was because of his musical talent that his activism was possible,” explained Paikai who maintains that it was Helm’s stature as a musician, along with his natural charisma, that provided him with a platform to speak out against the bombing of Kaho‘olawe.

Despite his vision for the film, Paikai had no personal connection to the Helm ‘ohana and no way to approach the family with the idea. But then destiny intervened. Paikai was on staff at ‘ŌiwiTV, and as part of the team who filmed the epic Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage, he met several members of the Helm ‘ohana who were also involved in the project, including Kekama Helm (the son of George’s brother Adolph Helm) with whom Paikai sailed on the 29th leg of the voyage, from Rapa Nui to Tahiti. As it happened, Kekama was also a good friend of Paikai’s ‘ŌiwiTV boss, Na‘alehu Anthony.

“On board the canoe you become family,” Paikai said. So with a friendship cemented in the shared adventure of sailing across miles of open ocean, Paikai cautiously shared his idea with Kekama. Back home, they continued the conversation and Kekama eventually set up a meeting with some of Helm’s siblings. At that meeting Paikai was able to introduce himself, his intentions, and his script to the family.

The Helm siblings were receptive to the initial idea and as the project picked up momentum, there were additional meetings and conversations with other family members, everyone testing Paikai’s sincerity and motives. But once the ‘ohana was satisfied that Paikai’s purposes were pono, they wanted to be involved.

In addition to approaching the Helm ‘ohana with his idea for the film, Paikai also approached the PKO, sitting down to talk with Dr. Emmett Aluli to make sure he was also okay with him telling this story. “The PKO was almost as critical as the Helm ‘ohana in terms of making sure that we were doing the right things for the right reasons,” recalls Paikai. “Of course, the PKO is George’s child in a way, so the members feel very close to him. These are the people who still go to the island every month to continue the work for which George sacrificed his life.”

PKO members and advisors for the film included Kaliko Ma‘i‘i, the friend who initially collaborated with Paikai on the idea of the movie so many years earlier, and Laiana Wong, another PKO member, who also helped to produce the film.

With a script in hand and the support of the Helm family and the PKO, the next obstacle was funding. Then in 2017 Pacific Islanders in Communications created a “Digital Shorts Fund” open for the first time to narrative filmmakers. Paikai wrote a grant proposal but was unable to secure funding in the first grant cycle, so the project sat for another year. Undaunted, he applied again the following year with a stronger proposal and was awarded a grant in late 2018.

Paikai spent the first half of 2019 assembling his cast and crew and working on pre-production. The film itself was shot in about seven days last October, primarily on Moloka‘i with a few scenes on O‘ahu. “That’s actually kind of long for a short film. Normally short films are shot in three to four days,” shared Paikai.

Casting the film was a community effort. While there are professional actors here in Hawai‘i who Paikai could have hired, he felt that, for this particular story, he needed to find actors from among the Helm family’s network of friends. That is how they found their lead, Kolea Fukumitsu, who plays George as an adult. Kolea is the son of Keoki Fukumitsu, a seventh generation kalo farmer and a contemporary of Helm’s who was active in the Aloha ‘Āina movement in the 1970s and 80s. Kolea’s son, Kamakani, plays George as a child.

Referring to George Helm and Kolea Fukumitsu Paikai said, “It’s uncanny how much they look alike. Once I saw Kolea’s picture I was like ‘I think that’s the guy.’ And then he submitted his audition tape expressing why he wanted to do the film and I thought to myself ‘he gets it’ and I knew that I wouldn’t have to explain what we were trying to accomplish with the film or why it was important. He was living the lifestyle that George dreamed of for our children. It was just the perfect fit.”

The film’s three other principle actors who play PKO leaders Walter Ritte, Loretta Ritte and Emmett Aluli are: Lohiao Paoa, Melia Kalawe and Mataio Sibayan, respectively. All three are from Moloka‘i and all have connections to the real people they are portraying. “These folks were the magic four who actually helped to inspire these events, so we wanted to honor them as well and make sure it was okay to represent them in the film. The fact that they are all from Moloka‘i helps to keep the story true to their island and to the people who lived this,” Paikai explained. “These people are still here and needed to have a say in the story, and about the actors selected to portray them.”

Paikai rented the best equipment possible and flew the crew to Moloka‘i. Altogether about 50 people worked on the project. In addition to Paikai, his crew, and the four principle actors, there were 12 additional featured actors from Moloka‘i and a few dozen extras on O‘ahu for a Waikīkī scene. On Moloka‘i the crew stayed at Kekama Helm’s home on Kalama‘ula Homestead where George was raised. The Helm ‘ohana took it upon themselves to prepare meals for the cast and crew, and in the evenings they all had dinner around a big table under a tarp in the backyard and played music until 2:00 a.m. Then after catching a couple hours of sleep, they’d be up at 4:00 a.m. and begin shooting at 5:00.

“We were immersed into the lives and homes of the Helm ‘ohana,” Paikai shared. “It was such a priviledge.” While the film schedule was intense and somewhat arduous, for Paikai and his team the production process on Moloka‘i was nonetheless joyful. “The long days were tough and all that, but it was just outstanding. Everyone enjoyed themselves and I think we really created a bond, this familial relationship.”

In any production, unforeseen problems and challenges arise. Perhaps it was the spiritual connection of the cast and crew to this film and to Helm himself, but the problems Paikai encountered filming the movie were nothing more than minor inconveniences. “It’s kind of laughable when I think about all of the things we didn’t have going into production,” recalls Paikai. “But then, for whatever reason, the things we needed showed up. After a while I realized that whatever we have is what we need. It was like our kūpuna, or maybe George himself, guiding us and giving us these, like, tokens to make sure that it all worked.”

Some of the cast and crew on the Moloka‘i set. “I think we really created a bond of this familial relationship, so that now forever when I work with these people, we still have that, and always carry that together.” – ʻĀina Paikai – Photo: Courtesy

Telling a story that began sixty years ago is an ambitious venture for any filmmaker. “The obvious challenge of doing a period piece is that it’s always more expensive and more difficult to make it believable,” said Paikai. At the top of the list are things like wardrobe and production design. Paikai was able to tap a wardrobe professional, Charlie Kaeo, who used his connections in L.A. to help get clothing from the 1960s and 70s. On Moloka‘i the ‘ohana and friends working on the film were able to find and borrow an old VW bug and Toyota truck. And the Waikīkī scene where George plays music for the tourists was filmed at La Mariana, a restaurant and bar near Sand Island with a retro mid-twentieth century Hawai‘i vibe.

The resulting film is a labor of love, a gift to the Helm ‘ohana and to the people of Hawai‘i. “This story is for a Hawai‘i-based audience,” said Paikai. “It works on several levels. It’s for the kūpuna who remember George and his music and charisma and fell in love with him. And it’s for the folks in my generation, the mākua, who see him as a hero, almost a mythological figure. And it’s for the youth who maybe don’t know who he is and need to be introduced to this man who was so talented and inspirational. I believe this film will resonate with the people of Hawai‘i as well as with other Pacific peoples dealing with their own native rights and aloha ‘āina issues. I think all indigenous people can resonate with this film.”

Ultimately, Paikai hopes the film will cultivate a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, aloha ‘āina. He has a long term vision of rallying the community via community screenings of the film and an impact campaign. “My hope is that the film will inspire. The message of aloha ‘āina was something George wholeheartedly believed in and wanted to share in order to change the mindset of our people; and that, he eventually did,” Paikai said. “We are living in a time where we are proud to be Hawaiian and more active in fighting for what we believe. George Helm was instrumental in changing the consciousness of our people.”