Movies, documentaries and television shows filmed in the islands are quite numerous, perhaps due to the unrelenting beauty of Hawaiian lands and seas which are oft-sought after idealized landscapes for Hollywood films. Glimpses of Hawai‘i are captured through the lens in blockbuster features, sacred Kualoa transformed into an amusement park where the newly resurrected dinosaurs of Jurassic Park menace tourists, or perhaps you recognize local faces and places in movies like Godzilla (1998, 2014) and King Kong, Skull Island. It may not be such a stretch to imagine Hawai‘i in the future as a dystopian nightmarish place like Waterworld or a site where the world begins again, post-apocalypse in Cloud Atlas. So many people have gotten Lost, enamoured in their view of the islands as paradise, that it seems fitting that this show too chose Hawai‘i as its backdrop
However compelling these tales might be, often these stories have little to do with the place and people who call Hawai‘i home, fewer still are the films that relate a Hawaiian experience of life in the islands, past, present or future. Standout films in recent memory like the Descendants, Aloha, and even the newly announced film, The King, which seeks to tell a story about Kamehameha‘s rise to power, have been written and directed by those who are not of känaka maoli descent, and though powerhouse stars are box office draws, these too are simply “playing Hawaiian.”
Though Hawaiian writers, producers, directors and actors are markedly few in the industry, there are a number of Hawaiian creators and performers that give us cause to hope for the future of Hawaiian storytelling through the medium of film. Last year, the film Out of State, produced by Beau Bassett and Ciara Lacey, who was also the film’s director, was awarded major prizes at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, San Diego Asian Film Festival and Portland Film Festival among others. The documentary shed light on the painful journey of Hawaiian men shipped off by the state to serve time in a private Arizona prison, while there they rediscover their connection to tradition through language and hula.
At this year’s HIFF festival, another feature length documentary, Moananuiäkea: One Ocean, One People, One Canoe, directed by Na‘alehu Anthony, celebrates the Höküle‘a’s worldwide voyage in bringing together people all around the world around questions of indigenous environmental knowledge and sustainability. It is perhaps the only Hawaiian-made film in the running for this year’s Made In Hawai‘i award. Hawaiian documentary filmmakers and producers compelled by the need to tell stories, and to mitigate the pain of historical trauma, have led the way in film; included in this distinguished group are Anne Keala Kelly, Elizabeth Kapu‘uwailani Lindsey, Ty Sanga, Hinaleimoana Wong, and of course the late Abraham Puhipau Ahmad.
Perhaps we will see a new wave in Hawaiian-based cinema after the release of Disney’s Moana in the Hawaiian language which featured the vocal talents of Kaipulaumakaniolono Baker, Kelikokauaikekai Hoe, Nicole Scherzinger, Kalehuapuake‘ula Kawa‘a, ‘Auli‘i Carvalho and the work of ethnomusicologist Aaron Sala and Hawaiian Theater Professor Tammy Haili‘öpua Baker.
The only kanaka maoli to produce and direct a feature film that he also wrote is Chris Kahunahana. His film, Waikïkï, marks the emergence perhaps of a modern Hawaiian cinema. The film focuses on the conflicting realities that vie for our attention as Hawaiians struggling to live in the overbuilt environment of urban Honolulu. Attending a private screening of the film for funders, I was mesmerized by the most recent edit of the film which is set to be released in 2019 and is seeking funds for a final phase of production. Engaging questions of homelessness in one’s own homeland and intergenerational trauma, the film will no doubt speak to many people of their own conflicting experiences of alienation and aloha in the islands.
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