Toward a native cinema

Hawaiian filmmakers and the power of voice


In May, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Doris Duke Theatre hosted a showcase of films by native Hawaiian filmmakers. Called the ‘Oiwi Festival, the event was, as far as organizers could tell, the first of its kind. That is to say, the first film festival ever to screen the work of native Hawaiian filmmakers exclusively took place this summer.

How that could be, what that says about the way Hawaii and Hawaiians are portrayed in cinema, and a conversation that arose out of the festival about the state of native filmmaking were the genesis of this report.

Is there a native Hawaiian cinema, one that might one day grow to take its place as an expression of the same rich Hawaiian storytelling traditions familiar to audiences around the world through the media of dance and song?

There is. As an artifact that describes a culture and projects its image back onto itself and out into the world, a native Hawaiian cinema does exist. Built on the foundation of early documentaries depicting moments in the Hawaiian struggle for self-determination, it is being reborn by two generations of filmmakers, many of them women, who are increasingly dreaming and planning for the emergence of the first full-length feature films directed and/or produced by Hawaiians. Those films have not yet been made, and the full emergence of a Hawaiian cinema clearly awaits them, but in talking to directors, screenwriters, film curators and educators both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian, it’s clear that, after three-quarters of century of seeing their story through a kind of funhouse mirror created by others, Hawaiians are increasingly speaking in their own voices, and projecting it themselves.

During the ‘Oiwi Festival, after a screening of Anne Keala Kelly’s Noho Hewa, a group of Hawaiian filmmakers sat on a panel discussion about the state of Hawaiian cinema. Present was PuiPau, whose work is cited by many Hawaiian filmmakers as seminal, along with Ann Marie Kirk, Kelly Arlos Pauole, ‘Aina Paikai and Kelly herself. The panelists discussed the level of financial support for native filmmakers–virtually non-existent–and possibilities for the future of the industry. Perhaps more than any other subject, they discussed the importance of Hawaiian voices telling Hawaiian stories.

The panel was moderated by Gina Caruso, director of the Doris Duke Theatre. In a conversation later in the summer, she described the process that led to the festival.

Merata’s message

Many of the Hawaiian filmmakers I spoke with for this story talked at length about issues of distrust and internal conflict generally among Hawaiians, and the toll these conflicts had taken on their efforts to explore the Hawaiian voice in film. Almost all of these conversations were off the record or on deep background and cannot be shared with readers. But my story would be dishonest were it to avoid this hard truth: Based on my reporting, one of the barriers to the flowering of Hawaiian cinema is serious disagreement among Hawaiians about who represents an authentic Hawaiian voice, which filmmakers should be accepted as legitimate, and how those artists should be compensated and appreciated.

One person described the Hawaiian community as in many respects “culturally self-censoring.” Another talked about the legacy of cultural exploitation and oppression and the resulting pain and conflict that surrounds the attempt to find one’s own voice.

“Our hearts are broken,” one said.

“We do not know who we are,” said another.

The pain surrounding these issues, both generally and specifically in the context of filmmaking, was evident throughout my reporting. That people did not want their names associated with these comments, out of fear of bringing further negativity onto themselves and others, is itself a statement of how deep that pain runs among many Hawaiians.

I am mindful of ways this issue–and the narrative that says “Oh, those Hawaiians, always fighting amongst themselves”–has been used by non-Hawaiians over the years to dismiss Hawaiian voices. I am especially mindful of my role as an outsider in all of this, and of the many ironies it presents in terms of a haole reporter telling the story of Hawaiians telling their own stories, etc.

That said, these issues of authenticity, identity and empowerment are very real. One filmmaker’s life had been, for a time, “ruined” by these struggles. Another, who does not appear by name in this story because the sensitivities involved, broke down in tears describing the way she is often attacked by her peers for the lightness of her skin and insufficient “amount” of Hawaiian. These conflicts, while politically and historically loaded, are at the heart of Hawaiian filmmaking at this moment. And while they may ultimately lead to healing, they are clearly a great burden to many Hawaiian filmmakers already struggling to make their voices heard.

As I was wrestling with how to address this part of the story, a young Hawaiian filmmaker called to remind me of the importance of Merata Mita.

Mita, a legendary Maori filmmaker and teacher, spent several years teaching in the Academy for Creative Media. The woman who called felt strongly that my story needed to mention what she said was Mita’s unfinished work. Mita died suddenly on May 31.

“Merata was not able to make the kind of difference in Hawaii that she wanted to, and it was because so many of us were not willing to hear her message.”

That message, the person said, was this: “Enough protocol already. Enough process. Enough asking for permission. At a certain point, you have to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I see.’ You have to tell your own story.”

–Ragnar Carlson

Caruso spoke of Reel Injun, a film by Cree director Neil Diamond about portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood films over time. “It’s about the ways indigenous Americans have finally said, ‘We have our own cinema and we are going to tell our own stories.’ For that community, it really started happening with Smoke Signals.”

Caruso confessed as much surprise as anyone that ‘Oiwi was the first festival of its kind. “Why it took so long to happen here, I can’t say. I just think maybe no one ever took it upon themselves to do it until Ann Marie Kirk took it on. Sometimes these things just happen at the right time.”

Kirk, the festival’s co-director and most tireless champion, has been making films for 20 years. She contacted Caruso last year about the possibilities for a native Hawaiian festival. With the support of the Academy’s board, the festival went up in May, featuring roughly 30 films over seven separate programs. They included Kirk’s own films Happy Birthday Tutu Ruth and her most recent project, the documentary Homealani, which explored the life and legacy of Kirk’s grandfather, who died shortly after her birth.

“‘Oiwi was about creating a space for these films to be screened,” Kirk says, “and also about creating an audience. And that audience is ready.”

Show me the money

The festival was heavy on documentaries, and Kirk points out that most Hawaiian directors have been working in that form, largely because feature-length, theatrical films are prohibitively expensive to produce.

That financing needs to materialize, she and other Hawaiian filmmakers say, in order for native Hawaiians to fully express their voices in film.

“It’s like anything, there’s a wide range of stories that you’re going to [eventually] see. It’s not just all about politics or historical documentaries. We’re talking about the evolution of storytelling from hula to digital media.

“Right now, there’s a lot of money out there for hula and very little, if any money for filmmakers. I don’t want to take anything away from the hula community, it’s just about people learning to support new media and investing in Hawaiian filmmaking. When it comes to the dominant storytelling medium, Hawaiians are playing catch-up.”

Virtually every filmmaker the Weekly spoke with for this story attested that her or his films were entirely or almost entirely self-financed. As a result, many of the films that make up native Hawaiian cinema lack the glitzy production values that would make them palatable to global audiences accustomed to lavish production budgets. Money–whether institutional or private–is essential in what is a very costly medium, and may be the key ingredient, but filmmakers like Kirk say it is not the greatest obstacle to the emergence of Hawaiian filmmaking.

That, she says, is the lack of recognition of the importance of Hawaiians telling their own stories.

Native Voices

The biggest barrier is the continued acceptance that it’s OK to have Hawaiian stories told by non-Hawaiians. We saw it this year with Kaiulani. That film, which was released to poor reviews and much controversy in Hawaii, was originally titled Barbarian Princess until an outcry from Hawaiians forced producers to shift direction. It told a story of one of Hawaii’s most beloved princesses and was conceived, produced and directed entirely by non-Hawaiians from elsewhere. “That’s difficult,” Kirk says. “I think so many positives have come out of ‘Oiwi, and one of the most important is this conversation we are having right now, that people are increasingly having these discussions about narrative and who gets to tell these stories.”

Kirk uses the metaphor of the canoe. “It’s not that there aren’t Hawaiians out there working in film. There are. But it’s about narrative and who is controlling that narrative. If you are working the camera, that’s great, we need more of that. But you are not steering the canoe. We need Hawaiians to tell our own stories, to steer our own canoe.”

The idea that Hawaiian stories should be told by Hawaiian storytellers is far from universally accepted. Caruso says that while the Academy’s board was supportive, she heard a lot of negativity elsewhere about the premise itself. “A lot of people rejected the idea of ‘Oiwi wholesale. One person, when they heard about it, literally said to me, ‘[Hawaiians] need to get over it.’ About a film festival! I said, ‘If you see these films, you may think differently.’”

Anne Keala Kelly, who spent 10 years making Noho Hewa, puts it even more starkly. “Our absence [from directorial roles and from the screen] is intentional, and it is constructed.”

Like Kirk, Kelly’s original and abiding passion is for feature films. She is a graduate of UCLA film school, and says she’s been trying for more than a decade to make a romantic comedy. “I had a screenplay, and I wanted to get it made, and then I realized that there is this something happening here.” This was the birth of Noho Hewa.

The film is an exploration of what it frames clearly as the American occupation of Hawaii and focuses on the desecration of Hawaiian gravesites and iwi kupuna. Noho Hewa debuted at the Hawaii International Film Festival and has screened across the Islands and in North America. It was awarded a special jury prize at the Festival International du Film Documentaire Oceanien in Tahiti.

“It’s the culmination,” Kelly says, “of everything I’ve seen over 10 years as a reporter and an activist.” She says the project took a lot out of her, and, ultimately, pointed her back toward her original vision, which is to explore Hawaiian issues through feature films.

“Now that I know what I know, I can be more honest in fiction,” Kelly says, “because the nonfiction landscape has become too dangerous. It’s better to do fiction and make people think about the issues, but also make them laugh. That’s better done in fiction. And that’s a different kuleana.”

Kelly, whose film explores the underpinnings of Hawaiian independence and as such generated considerable controversy inside and outside the Hawaiian community, says, “I’m not here to be a troublemaker, I’m not trying to piss people off. I want people to be entertained, and I want to shift consciousness.

“Our absence in theatrically released films is the success of the overthrow and the success of forcing Hawaiians to assimilate. In order to counter that, you have to ask, ‘What can I really accomplish?’ I have come around and now I’m working on a comedy. I couldn’t be funny with Noho Hewa– There’s nothing funny happening in front of the camera! So I had to think about what’s my best chance to get a theatrical film made and not sell out?”

She says the most moving experience of her film’s debut at the Hawaii International Film Festival was the crowd of Hawaiians lined up to get in. “They came to see other Hawaiians talking about this stuff on the big screen,” Kelly says. “And every time I speak to an audience, I tell them: We’re supposed to be on the big screen. We belong up there. I mean, maybe not if we were somewhere else, but we’re in Hawaii! We’re not supposed to be minstrel singers. We’re supposed to be the ones telling the story.

“Our absence needs to be reversed. I need to try to do that. And I think I can. But I don’t know if somebody with millions of dollars is going to step up and say, ‘I’m interested.’ But I’m game.”

Kelly isn’t looking for a handout. “I’m looking for someone with the resources to invest in my work and by doing that invest in Hawaiian filmmaking. And whoever does that is going make more than their money back–they’re going to make history.”

The protocol

Kelly explains the importance of Hawaiian filmmaking partly in this way. “The difference between a Hawaiian filmmaker and non-Hawaiian filmmaker is that the Hawaiian has to go through so many steps. Before I even write fade-in, I have to do the work in the community to make it OK for me to write the story. Because I am going to be held accountable. “

That accountability usually begins with what have become known as “the protocols.” While informal, the Hawaiian storytelling protocol is almost universally respected, and artists go to great lengths to ensure that they have connected with representatives of and authorities on various intellectual and cultural constituencies. For example, someone hoping to film a story involving an image of Ku that takes place in 18th century Nuuanu might speak to respected authorities on Ku artifacts, leaders in the Hawaiian language community, representatives of the Hawaiian families who have been in Nuuanu for generations, and so on.

And, sometimes, so on, and so on, and so on. The process can be extensive, and involve many, many hours of meetings and conversations before any other work is done.

To a large extent, Hawaiian filmmakers celebrate this process and, echoing Kelly, see it as one of the most critical distinctions between native films and those made by others.

“It’s almost like a rite of passage for Hawaiians,” says Ty Sanga, director of the Hawaiian language short feature Stones, which was awarded Best Short at last month’s Maui Film Festival. “To be a Hawaiian filmmaker holds a kuleana of making sure that things are done in the right way.”

The process, on one level, ensures that both the filmmaker and the community her or his film describes have an opportunity to work through as many conflicts as possible beforehand.

“I have to be able to look at my own people and hold my ground,” says Kelly. “I need to be able to mean it and own it in the deepest spiritual way. And the non-native doesn’t have to deal with that, and doesn’t have to be held accountable. Not in the same way. And for us, that’s a pretty heavy thing to have to carry.”

Often, it’s heavier even than that. The protocols work both ways, many Hawaiian filmmakers say, and also create openings for internal suspicion and resentments inside the community to come to the fore. In some cases, the protocols become become a kind of trap for filmmakers, bogging them down in questions of who is entitled to tell which stories, and, most fundamentally, whether or not the filmmaker is authentically Hawaiian enough.

“I come from ethnic studies,” says Sanga, “so I am familiar with issues like who is telling our stories, what makes a voice authentic, things like that. Those issues echo in my head intensely. We’ve been so commercialized. That’s why everyone is so precious about everything. I don’t know where the line is between being precious versus a voice not being heard, but it makes it difficult to tell some stories, definitely. Why it has to go to cutting out the voices of certain artists, I don’t really understand why it has to be that way.”

Ann Marie Kirk says that for her, the protocols are less important than the sense of responsibility.

“People ask, ‘What is Hawaiian filmmaking?’ I think that when you talk about what is a Hawaiian filmmaker and a Hawaiian sensibility, for me it’s taking that ego-driven element that is always present in the arts and pushing it back, to where the kupuna come and guide you. And I think we have a responsibility as filmmakers to make sure that the community is behind us.”

Learning to shoot

Kelly Arlos Pauole talks a lot about that responsibility. The Maui filmmaker recently completed Protect Our Waters, a documentary about the struggle over Na Wai Eha and the ways water symbolizes the relationship of the East Maui Hawaiian community with newer arrivals.

“There was no funding whatsoever,” he says. “It was just talking to friends, learning about some of the issues that’s going on out there, and shooting the thing out of the back of my vehicle.”

He shot most of it in 2008, and then, earlier this year, he got a call from Ann Marie Kirk. “It was maybe one month before the festival. She said, ‘Did you ever finish the video?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna need a couple months.’ She said, ‘Oh, can you do it in two weeks?’ And I did.”

Arlos Pauole also talks a lot about pono. The process through which Protect Our Waters came into being is an unfolding that he describes as “being in the right place”–a chance meeting with a friend leads to another introduction, and so on, until his dream of making films realized itself almost without his intention.

“I was talking to Eddie Wendt. And I kind of related to him, because I’m a veteran, and he’s a Green Beret. So he’s talking to me [about water issues on Maui] , and I’m listening to him, and while I’m videotaping, it just hits me. Boom.

“Now, I’m the third generation of my family that went to war for this this country. People say, ‘Oh, I hate America.’ I’m not even like that. I’m proud. But at the same time, I’ve always been about what is right. And he’s telling me all these things, and I’m like, ‘For real?’ And I go and verify it. And it’s true. We have this private entity in charge of our resources, and the way they transfer the water…it’s not fair. That’s not a fair shake.”

Arlos Pauole says the film came naturally after that. “From then until today, it’s been like that. The way everything came together, it feels like it was meant to be,” he says.

After finding the door to local distribution blocked, he and some friends formed a hui to distribute their own work. “I figure, we’re both from Molokai. If people want to see the real stories, why don’t we start making and selling these grassroots videos about the real issues?”

As a filmmaker, Arlos Pauole says his deepening involvement with Hawaiian issues was his turning point. “I was making a Road to Hana video, and then at a certain point, I came to think it was a sell-out. And that’s not what I want to be like. So I’m redoing it now. I want to be responsible. I want people to know that that road was once the king’s road, and that many of these places are sacred. Cater to the tourists, and at the same time keep the feel Hawaiian. Some people don’t want to hear about the issues. They want to escape from reality. But I think a lot of the tourists do want to know. And that’s what we trying to do. Give people one true reflection.”

Arlos Pauole knows his path to cinema may not be the most common one, but he says he knows he’s in the right place. “I’m still a police officer, 14 years now. Before that, I was in the Army for five. I went to Desert Storm at 18. And now, after all those years carrying a gun, I feel I can do more by shooting the camera.”

Toward a Hawaiian cinema?

Kelly Arlos Pauole and Ty Sanga came to filmmaking through different paths–one holds a graduate degree in film, the other is a career police officer who was taught informally and learned the rest on the fly–but both their voices are being heard thanks to the shift in filmmaking technology that began a generation ago with video and is now in full bloom.

Hand in hand with that revolution has been the emergence of the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawaii. Launched in 2002, ACM has begun graduating Hawaiian filmmakers with both the technical and the artistic skills to produce professional-quality work.

“Societies are defined by cinema,” says Chris Lee, who helped found ACM and is its director. “The world looks at you based on what your cinema looks like. And you can’t have your own cinema if you don’t have your own filmmakers.”

Lee didn’t have exact numbers on the number of native Hawaiian graduates on hand when we spoke last week, but he says the signs of progress are everywhere. Sanga, Kaliko Palmiera (Steve Mai‘i) and ‘Aina Paikai (Moke Action) are all ACM students.

“It’s a process,” he says of Hawaiian cinema. “It doesn’t happen overnight. But you’re starting to see the fruits of that. We wanted to complement our industry with one where we built the storytellers who could go on to hire people.”

Lee is currently hard at work on plans to extend and develop ACM’s programs to other UH system campuses. “We’re getting ready to launch at LCC and west Oahu and at Maui Community College. I think part of it is, you have to go where the filmmakers are to a certain extent. I’m also very involved in seeding creative media grants into local high schools. Stevenson, Waialua and Olamana.” Olomana High and Intermediate is the state’s school for students held in the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, which is home to a disproportionate number of Hawaiians. “That’s the one I’m most excited about,” he says, “because I know that’s where we’re going to have the biggest impact.”

Kirk believes Hawaiian cinema is at a turning point. “ I hope ‘Oiwi will continue to grow, and that the storytelling process continues to grow. In 20 years, does it look like where the Maori are at?” The New Zealand Film Commission and Maori TV have made the Maori a model for native filmmaking. “I don’t know. I do know that Hawaii needs a filmmaking community that has financial support and that has native voices telling our own stories. It’s an exciting time.”

“Times are changing,” says Sanga, whose film is shot entirely in ‘olelo Hawaii and explores a Kauai legend about the island’s first inhabitants. “Because of technology, especially now that we don’t have to shoot on film and go straight to digital, that ‘prosumer-level’ [a hybrid of the words professional and consumer] products are much more affordable–it’s allowing us to tell our own stories. And interest has exploded. We’ve been tired of other people telling our stories. Now that we’ve got the opportunity, the ability to do it ourselves, it’s bean a call to arms. It’s time.”

Anne Keala Kelly knows that for Hawaiian cinema to truly break out, it needs that one big theatrical hit. She believes it is coming.

“Billions of people know about Hawaii, they all want to come here. They just have limited narratives about it. They’ve got Hawaii Five-0. That’s how bad it is, they have to regurgitate something from 40 years ago. I don’t have anything against HawaiiFive-0. but you can see that the narratives are just repeating. It’s time for some freshtuff. People love Hawaii. They’re going to come out and watch film about Hawaii. As long as it’s good.”