Hawaii Rising: Creating Community at the 37th Hawaii International Film Festival
A sense of optimism flowed through the 37th edition of the Hawaii International Film Festival, held over ten days in Honolulu this past November. Last year’s version may have been sucker-punched midway through thanks to the election of Donald Trump, which knocked the wind out of many audience members and staffers here in this deep-blue, Obama-proud state. A year later the crowds and the energy were back, along with an even-stronger determination to not only hear new stories, but to committedly tell and help preserve their own. While the amount of made-in-Hawaii documentary and narrative features was only slightly over the festival’s usual amount, a first-time “Made in Hawaii” official competition section (spearheaded by new executive director Beckie Stocchetti) offered those titles a welcome, much-needed spotlight in front of the many other events and sections on display (this year’s included Japanese animation, environmental activism documentaries, culinary cinema and awards to Masato Harada, Bill Pullman, Taika Waititi, Simon Fuller and Giddons Ko). Audiences could still get their share of Japanese historical epics (such as Harada’s sweeping samurai clash Sekigahara), Korean gangster bullet battles (this time with female leads, such as the North American premiere of Lee An-Kyu’s A Special Lady or Jung Byung-Gil’s giddy The Villainess), and Taiwanese teen horror (Ko’s Mon Mon Mon Monsters), but this time it was the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander titles that stood the strongest. Judging from the surprising amount of multi-generational families attending — from little kids to parents and grandparents all scattered across the theaters — such works couldn’t have come at a better time. A year on from last year’s gut check, and Hawaiian filmmaking had returned ready to reflect, and support, its own.
Winner of the inaugural Made in Hawaii Award as well as the festival’s Audience Award for Documentary Feature, Ciara Lacy’s powerful Out of State examines the unique phenomenon of Native Hawaiian inmates who paradoxically discover their indigenous roots while incarcerated in mainland prisons. Following two of the men back to Hawaii and their struggle to reintegrate into their own families, much less society as a whole, the film uses their particular journeys as Native Hawaiians rediscovering their identity for a much more universal story on the difficulty of re-entering society. “This isn’t the film we wanted to make,” Lacy noted in a moving Q&A, “but it is the film we needed to make.” Chapin Hall’s cinematography elevates this passionate work of social justice into a work of true cinematic art; literally following its subject’s every move just a few feet behind their shoulders, it’s non-fictional filmmaking by way of the Dardennes, putting views directly in the steps of people trying to find a path back “home,” continually scrambling over — or stopped by — the obstacles in their way.
For Lacy, the experience of screening in her native Hawaii was a profound one. “We’ve had the privilege to show Out of State to a wide variety of our audiences far and wide, but it’s most striking when the viewer is a fellow native Hawaiian,” she describes in an eloquent letter to Filmmaker. “The layers embedded in the film’s visuals and story hit even deeper, and perhaps it’s because of the omission of native Hawaiians from the visual record. Historically, it’s been Hollywood’s choice to cast non-natives in the roles of Hawaiians. So what does a Hawaiian face on screen actually look like? Being able to show our people on the big screen at HIFF is almost revelatory, and makes me hungry to do more and better.”
A full house welcomed Out of State’s debut screening at HIFF, and continued with several more sold-out events. Young children (even, in a few cases, small infants), teens, adults, and retirees filled the buzzing crowd, creating a sense of community that seemed to welcome the film as well as its crew and subjects. Movingly, it was met with a standing ovation. In attendance were the two lead subjects; after sharing their stories in a post-screening Q&A, they finished with a traditional Hawaiian chant and salute to the audience, who stood and applauded back. “As a native Hawaiian,” Lacy recalled later, “I’ve understood the value of telling our own stories on a cerebral level but not on a gut level until we began taking Out of State to audiences, particularly as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival. The conversations we’ve had after screenings are the product of a mutual understanding, the kind of cultural knowledge that you hold deep in your core … This is the kind of impact and response that we could have never anticipated but means everything to us.”
A similar bond between community and cinema greeted the debut of another local work, Alexander Bocchieri and Stacey Hayashi’s narrative feature Go For Broke: An Origins Story, which chronicles the beginnings of the U.S. Army’s famed all-Japanese American 442nd regimental combat team, which formed in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Screenings, whether the Closing Night affair at Honololu’s historic Hawaii Theater or the neighbor-island showing at Kauai’s gorgeous art-deco Waimea Theater, boasted the kind of sold-out, lines-around-the-block-and-back-again audiences that all filmmakers dream of; if it seemed like half the island turned out for the showings, that’s possibly because seemingly half the island helped make the film. Most first-time filmmakers with a (very) limited budget and no studio support probably wouldn’t choose to debut with a 1940s-set war film, complete with complicated battle scenes and a few hundred extras in period dress, but that’s exactly what director Bocchieri and writer/producer Hayashi did; what’s even more shocking is that they pulled it off, creating an epic in miniature that’s as polished and entertaining as any Spielbergian Hollywood blockbuster.
“Go For Broke was a really ambitious production, but once we put the word out that we were making a film in Hawaii about the 442RCT, so many people came from all over the island to make sure this story got told,” marvelled Bocchieri to Filmmaker. “I do not believe that a film on its scale could have been made on the limited resources we had, anywhere else in the world. Hawaii is a special place.” Chronicling a group of several committed young Japanese American men (including future U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye) as they battle racism and indifference to form groups that later turn into the 442nd combat unit, the film is a love letter to the drive and determination of its subjects, and to the power and passion of Hawaiian — and American — immigrant culture. “The events that take place in the film could not have happened anywhere else,” noted Bocchieri. “And that is the main reason people from Hawaii had to be the ones to make it. I directed the film, but I feel like my main job was to get out of the way of my collaborators … who had their own experience of being in Hawaii to bring to the table. And all those little pieces came together to form something that feels authentic.”
With an ensemble cast of a dozen or more actors, Go For Broke also provides a spectacular showcase of Asian American acting talent. Chris Tashima (Americanese; Strawberry Fields) is arguably the most experience, recognizable presence, but lesser known talents such as Kyle Kosaki, Cole Horibe, Peter Shinkoda and Jabez Armodia all excel in their meaty roles, and are well-directed by Bocchieri, who indeed knows when to put the camera tricks away and just let his actors shine. Impressively, the film avoids any kind of “white savior” complex that a Hollywood film may have felt necessary to add on; there’s no Kevin Costner type who comes in and rescues the men, or teaches them how to “really fight.” Here, it’s all men and women of color who think, fight, and succeed together. Judging from the reception at a special high-school screening I attended, the film isn’t just a showcase of Asian American talent, but future Asian American heartthrobs, as several scenes of shirtless, gym-toned hunks getting in fighting shape were met with squeals of delight from the audience.
For Hayashi, the film’s debut was a culmination of a decade and a half of dedication; her connection to the 442nd began with a graphic novel she created years ago, and with interviewing, working with and befriending the surviving veterans (two of whom, now in their mid-90s, were movingly able to attend the premiere). To get the film made, she relied on the support of the island, from neighbors who helped create costumes to noted Hawaiian restauranteurs who supplied food for the crew and extras, to current military personnel and Hawaiian politicians, all of whom were similarly excited to get the story of the 442nd told. “It was incredibly meaningful to have our World Premiere as HIFF37’s Closing Night Selection….It was the perfect venue to thank [everyone] for all their support,” Hayashi noted to Filmmaker. “It’s been a labor of love (and many times abject despair) for me these 16 years, but to see that love and aloha reflected right back at me and our production always makes me cry tears of gratitude. It’s proof of the underlying message of our film — aloha can change the world.” Never one to set the bar low, Hayashi envisions Go For Broke: An Origins Story as merely the first part of a succession of 442nd stories, each chronicling a further stage in the unit’s history; judging from the reception here, there’s certainly an audience, and a hunger, for more stories like it.
The production values and success of Out of State and Go For Broke: An Origin Story had the Hawaiian filmmaking community hopeful, but a title still in post-production was the focus of even more excitement. Local filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana, a Sundance Native Lab Fellowship graduate whose abstract, brilliantly shot sliver of a short film Lahaina Noon premiered at HIFF in 2014 and had everyone buzzing with its singular vision, had a cast-and-crew, rough-cut screening of his new feature, Waikiki. Though more traditionally narrative than the trance-like Lahaina Noon, Waikiki still keeps that film’s slightly mesmerized grasp of reality to underline one woman’s attempt to maintain control amidst the dreams, fakery, and all-too-real nightmares of modern Waikiki. The film’s poster (the current one, at least) speaks volumes: a close-up of its Hawaiian heroine, with a plastic dance-club lei teetering on her head like a cheap crown of thorns, staring vacantly and almost in tears at the camera; it’s uncertain whether she’s in Paradise or Hell. No matter the final post-rough cut state of the film, Waikiki will be worth seeing for that very heroine, the theater actress Danielle Zalopany, who makes her feature lead debut here. Onscreen in nearly every shot, her every gaze imbued with a combination of beauty, pain, and longing, she delivers a star-making performance that’s utterly remarkable for its raw energy. Along with actor Moronai Kanekoa, who delivers a similarly eye-catching performance in Brian Kohne’s Maui-set, post-Vietnam tropical noir Kuleana (also a HIFF premiere), Zalopany serves notice that the acting talent in Hawaii is becoming as note-worthy as the filmmaking.
After the festival, I asked Kahunahana for his take on the apparent rise of Hawaiian independent film. “Hawaii filmmakers who have been trained on big Hollywood productions are now more than ever producing, launching, writing their own feature projects,” he explained. “I think itʻs hit a tipping point where there are enough independent films being produced to start getting noticed.”
“In regard to Native Hawaiian films, storytelling has always been an important part of our culture. Telling and learning stories informs who we are,” Kahunahana continued. “While there has been a long tradition of documentary films from Hawaiian filmmakers, I feel that more and more young fimmakers are moving to narrative fiction and from short form to features. In the Hawaiian schools they are teaching new media technology alongside cultural knowledege. As a Hawaiian filmmaker it is neccesary to present a more authentic and complex view of ‘paradise.'” Here’s hoping that Waikiki, and other titles to come, do just that.
Hawaiian films weren’t the only works to find audiences here, of course; for some films and filmmakers, the reception was more like a homecoming than business as usual. Feted with the festival’s first-ever Pacific Islander Trailblazer award, New Zealander indie icon Taika Waititi took time off from flogging his Hollywood hit Thor: Ragnarok to return to HIFF. With multiple HIFF appearances under his belt (or his pineapple romper, which he wore amidst the tuxes and black ties during the awards gala), Waititi seemed at ease and at home, welcomed by and always joking with multiple staff members, and local filmmakers and friends. (It didn’t hurt that he has an even stronger connection to Hawaii: his second daughter was born in Kailua). Waititi’s presence, and position as “one of us” who made it big in Hollywood yet retained his ability to remember and welcome people he last saw here years ago, energized the last weekend of the festival. (We’ll have a full interview with him up soon). Waititi’s wife, producer/director Chelsea Cohen, also attended, in part for the U.S. premiere of her collaborative work Waru, a moving omnibus work of several short films by Maori women directors that together address the killing of a small boy. Waru was one of two titles representing a miniature indigenous New Zealand wave; Tusi Tamase’s haunting realist fable, One Thousand Ropes, combined housing block realism with Pacific Islander ghost tale, and deservedly won the NETPAC award for its “search for authenticity in representing the lives of Samoans today.”
Even those who hadn’t directed a big-budget studio hit received some memorable aloha in Hawaii, thanks to the festival’s outreach to the island’s many diverse communities. A Singaporean film made in Okinawa, shot in English, and directed by the Asian American Christian Lee and the Asian Australian Jason Chan, the foodie romantic comedy Jimami Tofu found a rousing reception here, thanks in no small part to the festivals’ links to the local Okinawan Hawaiian community. Screenings were packed with members of various Okinawan Hawaiian associations, with one group hosting a particularly raucous post-screening celebration at a local tofu factory, complete with Okinawan pork, awamori alcohol, lion dance performances, folk songs, and the ubiquitous jimami tofu, all topped off by the guests linking arms with the filmmakers to belt out an impromptu, rather lengthy rendition of “Hawai’i Pono’i” (the state song) together. Two kids, barely out of junior high, ran about photographing the event; one of HIFF’s cuter stories, they were young teens who Lee and Chan had met at a local high school and kindly invited on a whim to be their “official photographers.” (“They reminded me of us,” Chan said, “so I wanted to pay it forward.”) Looking around at the multi-generational crowd, with older women in wheelchairs linking arms with their great-granddaughters, filmmakers and festival staffers swaying along with tofu factory employees and amateur lion dancers, everyone humming along to the state song, even this jaded reporter couldn’t help being moved.
A love letter to Okinawa and especially Okinawan cuisine, Jimami Tofu follows a jilted Singaporean chef who finds himself on the island, a sudden apprentice to a grizzled veteran cook. Romance, in the form of either a distractingly glamorously necklaced food critic or a more-down-to-earth local diver, is also in the air, but food is the main attraction here, and Lee and Chan frame each dish like von Sternberg framed Dietrich. It’s no surprise that the film was not only picked up by an airline content provider to show on flights to Okinawa, but it actually inspired one airline to create a direct Singapore-Okinawa flight.
“We really had no idea that there would be a huge groundswell of local support that would sell out our screenings. That completely surprised us and blew us away,” recalled Lee. The film went on to win HIFF’s Audience Award, which for Lee “more than confirmed that HIFF was a magical festival for us.” Just as importantly, Lee and Chan were able to use their film’s reception here as further proof of Jimami Tofu’s marketability. “HIFF is such a great platform as a bridge to the West for Asian films. Jimami Tofu is unique in that it’s an Asia film in English, so North America is very much a target territory for us,” Lee notes; the success at HIFF gave the duo confidence to move forward with U.S. plans.
A particularly touching union of community and cinema occurred during the screenings of Nathan Fitch’s Island Soldier, a documentary on the little-known phenomenon of Micronesians serving in the U.S. military. Following a handful of young men from the island of Kosrae, Micronesia, as they join the military and train on the mainland, and also documenting the families they leave behind, the film is a powerful look at an island culture virtually unknown in the U.S., and raises some fascinating questions about independence, dependence, and colonialism. Capturing send-off parties, family gatherings, even funerals, Island Soldier benefits from Fitch’s camerawork, empathy and connection to their subjects, while Bryan Chang’s deft editing does well to underline both Kosrae’s breathtaking natural beauty and its more prosaic, end-of-the road isolation that forces so many of its youth to leave.
Island Soldier’s HIFF screening was packed with multi-generational families, many hailing from Micronesia and even Kosrae (total population: 6600). Honolulu, of course, is about 2800 miles from Micronesia, but due to the Pacific’s vastness (and emptiness) it’s still one of Kosrae’s closest urban centers; indeeed, Micronesians make up one of Hawaii’s fastest-growing immigrant communities. It’s a point that Fitch and Chang know all too well. “It was incredibly gratifying and moving as filmmakers to bring Island Soldier back to the Pacific,” Chang noted. “A huge aspect of the film’s story is just how far and isolated the Micronesian islands are from the rest of the world. Many Micronesian soldiers and their families end up in Hawaii in order to receive the medical benefits they can’t access back home. So it was a truly amazing experience to look out at our audiences at HIFF and see the Micronesian community represented in the crowd. This film was made for them.”
“Since Island Soldier came out of relationships forged over the two plus years that I lived and worked in Micronesia, it was incredibly powerful to get the chance to screen the film for an audience of Pacific Islanders,” Fitch added. “As the newest immigrant group in Hawaii, Micronesians are facing a certain amount of stigma and discrimination, so it is our hope that Island Soldier can help expand the dialogue about their place in the United States.”
As the film began, the connections — and the power — that HIFF provides to its community became clear. It’s the power that cinema has to connect people, A young family of four took their seats behind me, after saying hello to a group nearby. “Hey look,” the father whispered to his young kids, as the screen showed the first glimpse of the island from above, all blue waters and green mountains. “That’s where we’re from.”
Thanks to Eseel Borlasa and Tracy Nguyen-Chung for press support, to the many filmmakers for their thoughts, and to Anderson Le, Aaron Hansen, and the rest of the HIFF staf for the aloha.