Ka Wai Ola

A two-hour documentary film by ʻŌiwi filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez is among the films that will be featured at the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival this month.

The film, Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials, documents Alvarez’s personal journey of self-discovery after he learned in 2002 that a site in Puna on Hawaiʻi Island where iwi kūpuna were buried was being targeted for a housing project.

At the time, Alvarez was a novice filmmaker. He had first learned about the remains as a young boy a decade earlier after his brothers discovered them in a hidden cave in the forest. With ancestral roots in Puna, Alvarez learned he could claim the legal right to represent the iwi at the Hawaiʻi Island Burial Council in an effort to protect them, and the area, from development.

His efforts paid off and the development project in Puna was eventually shut down.

In the process, Alvarez has become a caretaker and protector of the iwi and, through an extraordinary series of events, was able to purchase four of the properties originally slated for development at a fraction of the price, while two other properties were gifted to him by the Williams family from California. He has cleared the land of invasive species and guards the area as a puʻuhonua (place of refuge).

His journey has caused him to become deeply invested in the protection of Native Hawaiian burial sites, and in addition to producing Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials, he has written three books on the topic.

“One of the kupuna actually put me on this journey. At first it was to get to film about the subject, but then it became a passion project,” said Alvarez.

As part of his research he met with various kūpuna and government officials, searched archives at libraries and museums, and visited burial sites on several islands. Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials premiered at the Maui Film Festival this past July.

Keoni Alvarez
Keoni Alvarez. – Photo: Courtesy

The project has been about advocacy as well as a journey of self-discovery for Alvarez. “I didn’t know anything about my Hawaiian culture,” he said. “I knew a little bit, but not in depth like what I know now.”

Alvarez noted that his purpose for creating the film was to bring awareness to Hawaiian burial traditions and their sacredness, as well as to stop the desecration of all Hawaiian burials in Hawaiʻi.

“My mission is to honor and respect my ancestors’ burials and burial grounds. Our Hawaiian race survived because of our kūpuna iwi legacy. We have to always remember our iwi kūpuna are our ancestors, they are the root of the Hawaiian existence…without our ancestors we have nothing.”

Alvarez is an independent filmmaker. He wrote, directed and produced Kapu: Sacred Hawaiian Burials. As part of the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival, the film will be shown virtually on Nov. 3 and at the Hilo Palace Theatre on Nov. 20.