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To the Mauna: the 39th Hawai’i International Film Festival

Molokai Bound

Attendees of this year’s Hawai’i International Film Festival enjoyed the organization’s usual blend of contemporary world cinema, Hollywood Oscar bait, gala celebrations and various other initiatives, but it was events off the screen—and the festival’s response to them—that made 2019 a year to remember for many. The re-emergence of a powerful indigenous cultural movement, fueled by the fight against the proposed Thirty Mile Telescope on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea mountain and similar native land-rights issues on Oahu (HIFF’s home base), was the talk of the community when the festival took place in November and lent a different kind of atmosphere to many of its gatherings. “The beauty of the Mauna Kea movement, along with other movements gaining traction this past year,” noted local filmmaker Justyn Ah Chong, “is the reality of a collective awakening.”

Creative and communal sparks began flying around HIFF even before it began, with two emerging local initiatives on seemingly opposite sides of the spectrum gathering beforehand: the ʻŌhina Short Film Showcase and Lab, which helps young Hawai’ian filmmakers polish narrative works under the guidance of a Hollywood figure, and Good Pitch Hawai’i, the inaugural regional outpost of the international Good Pitch Project, which connects documentary filmmakers with funders, distributors, and social-justice-oriented activists and organizers. In other places, of course individuals focused on either Hollywood storytelling or social justice documents rarely meet, or do so only while dripping with disdain for the other’s chosen paths, but in Hawai’i there’s a far more open-hearted vibe. “I believe that the strength right now in Hawaiʻi is the sense of community that we all feel in lifting one another up and being there to support each other,” noted filmmaker and professor Lisette Marie Flanary, who helped organize the Good Pitch event and whose documentary feature, Tokyo Hula, premiered at HIFF. “So many organizations and efforts have been working to develop the film community here for a long time and the efforts of these endeavors are starting to pay off in noticeable ways.” 

A day or so after ʻŌhina Labs and Good Pitch Hawai’i wrapped up, HIFF began, taking their disparate strands and weaving them into a larger, just as vibrant worldwide tapestry. Long envied on the mainland for its Asian genre programming and ability to bring in some of that region’s largest celebrities, HIFF one-upped itself this year, with legendary Hong Kong director John Woo hosting a raucous screening of The Killer and reminiscing on a particularly unforgiving island storm during the making of Windtalkers. (“The weather is always the director’s fault,” he wryly noted). In town to begin Next Goal Wins, on the (mis)fortunes of the luckless American Samoan soccer team, HIFF favorite Taika Waititi popped up during the Opening Night screening of Jojo Rabbit, dishing on working with children (“I actually hate them”), and at one point crowd-surfing over several rows of bemused theater-goers to receive a lei. Also in town for that same project, actress Elizabeth Moss lent a particularly classy, socially committed tone to the annual HIFF gala while accepting the Halekulani Career Achievement Award, using her speech to highlight the continuing lack of Pacific Islander onscreen representation. (“Receiving a career achievement award means I can also fulfill my lifelong goal of retiring at 38,” she added). Writer of the film The Australian Dream, which won HIFF’s Audience Award for Best Documentary, the Indigenous Australian commentator Stan Grant received HIFF’s Pacific Islanders in Communications Trailblazer award, and delivered a similarly powerful message on the importance of using one’s voice to combat racism and injustice. 

A focus on women directors, particularly of genre films (Lisa Takeba’s Japanese high-school massacre epic Signal 100, or Mattie Do’s slow-burning Lao ghost tale The Long Walk), was another welcome highlight, as was another HIFF collaboration that returned after several year’s absence. The festival’s New American Perspectives sidebar, organized with the Vilcek Foundation, brought five foreign-born filmmakers and story-tellers to HIFF. Haifaa al-Mansour (The Perfect Candidate), HIKARI (37 Seconds), Isabel Sandoval (Lingua Franca), and Emily Ting (Go Back to China) appeared in discussion with their films, while chef/multimedia artist Jenny Dorsey led a special virtual-reality dining experience, Asian in America, at local institution The Pig & The Lady. Exploring “the complex narrative of the Asian American identity through food and drink, virtual reality, spoken word and poetry,” as her Studio ATAO website puts it, Dorsey and team led diners through a multiple-course meal interspersed with several animation-based VR segments, encouraging diners to share their own thoughts during an evening that spoke to the future of storytelling, and of the curated experience. 

HIKARI’s 37 Seconds took home HIFF’s Ka’ū Ka Hōkū Filmmaker Award, given to filmmakers on their first or second feature. A defiantly unconventional look at a young, wheelchair-bound artist whose dabbling in hentai (adult manga) leads to a full-on sexual awakening, the film merges the joyful absurdity of its protagonist’s journey with a sincere—yet just as joyful—portrayal of her daily reality. Another narrative stand-out was Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s American indie, Happy Cleaners, which follows a working-class Korean American immigrant family as they struggle to keep their dry-cleaning business afloat in New York City’s Flushing neighborhood. Some brilliant ensemble acting (and the understated direction of that ensemble) belies the film’s low-budget roots, while a measured script makes sure to not try to say everything—only just enough. Kim and Lee’s control of the drama, remarkable for first-time filmmakers, recalls Patrick Wang’s debut In the Family; let’s hope the duo have a similarly rewarding career ahead.

“This was our first trip to Hawaii and to do so to screen our film was thrilling,” Kim and Lee disclosed afterwards. “It was deeply rewarding to hear when folks shared with us how our personal New York story resonated with them. We were touched by everyone’s kindness and generosity, and it was a unique experience that set it apart from other festivals.”

HIFF’s unique aura was similarly noticed by its local artists.HIFF was such a treasured opportunity to really connect with local filmmaking peers and build new relationships with folks from all over the world, and to celebrate together our collective love for cinematic stories and our shared struggles and triumphs through it,” shared Justyn Ah Chong. An editor, filmmaker, and producer who also works for Hawai’i’s first indigenous broadcast station, ʻŌiwi Television Network, Ah Chong received second place award in the Made in Hawai’i competition for his visceral short Down on the Sidewalk in Waikīkī. Based on the writings of Hawai’ian poet and activist Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984), Waikīkī visualizes the swiftly disintegrating mindset of a Hawai’ian janitor-turned poet on the streets of Waikiki, his inner thoughts and fantasies turning even darker as he becomes a stranger in his own land. Ah Chong’s experience as an editor pays off here; rapid-fire cuts and at-times disorienting edits mirror the protagonist’s jagged psyche, while the sun-kissed cinematography adds a suitably over-exposed, burnt-in-the-glare atmosphere. 

The Mauna Kea and “Kapu Aloha” movement, and other re-awakening native rights struggles, have similarly empowered local filmmakers. “It feels as if the Mauna movement has ignited and inspired on a mass level a desire to relearn cultural teachings, practices and language, and to feel what it is to live these things,” revealed Ah Chong. For years the island’s documentary filmmakers have helped showcase the issues facing Native Hawai’ians and acted as a kind of witness to help document the culture and cultural voices of the land, with titles like Victoria Keith’s and Jerry Rochford’s The Sand Island Story (1980) considered milestones of their time. (The recent founding of the Ulu‘ulu Archive, a preservation project by UH’s Academy of Creative Media, will help archive and preserve such material). Intriguingly, Keith was profiled in last year’s HIFF favorite, Reel Wahine of Hawai’i, a web series by Vera Zambonelli and Shirley Thompson about local women in filmmaking. This year witnessed the debut of Season Two, which brought attention to another early visual chronicler of Hawai’ian culture, Myrna Kamae, who made over ten films in the 1980s showcasing Hawai’ian music, language, and now-legendary community elders and teachers.

Though neither the indigenous rights movement nor the documentary efforts to showcase it are new, the recent Mauna Kea events have certainly brought both back to the forefront of local consciousness. “HIFF had a different vibe this year, and a lot of that had to do with what is happening on Mauna Kea,” disclosed filmmaker Alexander Bocchieri, whose atmospheric short The Pit Where We Were Born won the festival’s Audience Award for best Made in Hawai’i film. “The movement on the Mauna is so much bigger than stopping the construction of a telescope. It awakened the public to the ongoing struggle for Hawaiians to have their voice heard when it comes to shaping our future here at home, and empowered indigenous people who have wanted to speak out against the ongoing colonization of Hawaii, through art/film/music; it has been inspiring to watch.”

A ghostly tale of family secrets, buried emotions, and past choices, The Pit Where We Were Born covers a man’s unexpected appearance at his family’s farm after a lengthy spell in jail. A slow-burning tracking shot establishes that the land where the protagonists are from (Oahu’s still-rural, and proudly Hawai’ian, Waianae area) is just as major a character, while Bocchieri’s elegant direction allows all interpretations of its mysterious narrative to exist. “To win the Audience Award at HIFF was so validating,” Bocchieri revealed. “I made the movie to start conversations about harm reduction and addiction, and to screen it to such a receptive audience here in the community in which the film takes place, I couldn’t have been happier with the result and more grateful to HIFF for showing it.

A similarly popular work with audiences, though one as light in tone as The Pit was dark, was the aforementioned Lisette Marie Flanary’s lively Tokyo Hula, the third in her loose “hula trilogy” that began in 2003 with American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai’i and continued in 2006 with Na Kamalei: Men of Hula. Casting a bemused yet respectful eye at the huge rise of popularity of hula in Japan, where an estimated two million people participate in it (a number more than the entire population of Hawai’i), the film follows several Hawai’ians as they relocate to that country to make their living through hula, and struggle (or not) over exactly it means to basically “sell” their culture to another. Interviews with hula’s Japanese fans—and a few devotees proficient enough to create their own schools—reveal the artform’s attraction, while other moments capture the commodification and danger inherent in the exchange; a particularly businesslike “smile coach,” though, nearly steals the entire film. 

Alika Maikau, whose short Mauka to Makai (co-directed by Jonah Okano) won last year’s Made in Hawai’i Best Film Award, followed that success by winning the award again this year with Moloka’i Bound, a streamlined tale of one afternoon’s conversation between a kid and his estranged father, shared while waiting on school steps for a mother to arrive. The film paradoxically takes its energy from its very stillness, juxtaposing its “one moment, one location” calm against the internal chaos of the three lives occupying it and capturing the uncertainties of a particularly working-class, Hawai’ian life continually lived on the edge. Like Bocchieri and Ah Chong, Maikau took inspiration from the Mauna Kea events and even visited the mountain to take part himself. “Mauna Kea has had an immediate impact on the way I approach my work,” he shared. “The Mauna was the first time I ever in my life chanted the Sun up, and because the protagonist’s journey in the film mirrors my own path to cultural reconnection, I was able to incorporate elements of that in ways that not only felt natural, but almost predetermined.”

Even filmmakers not screening work at this year’s festival were affected by the Mauna events. For Christopher Kahunahana and Nicole Naone, the powerhouse duo behind the long-gestating feature-length film Waikiki, the Mauna struggle hit particularly close to home and led both to switch from their own film’s post-production to become part of a grassroots media team assisting with shaping the narrative around the mauna. “Growing up on big island my father worked at Parker Ranch and I worked at Dahana Ranch–both located at the base of Maunakea,” Naone recalled. “As indigenous Hawaiians we are not from, on, or at this land–we are this land. Defending Maunakea is defending our right to exist period.”

“The movement to protect Maunakea has unified communities across the islands, captured the hearts of people worldwide and joined indigenous people across many fights, like that of Standing Rock,” shared Kahunahana. “It has been humbling to contribute as part of our small media team, and empowering to witness our work impact the larger narrative. As the real-life drama on Maunakea unfolds it has brought global attention to the challenges we face as Hawaiians, personally given me context to the social issues addressed in Waikiki and reiterates the critical importance of Native perspective in media.” 

<i>Standing Above the Clouds<i>

With Mauna Kea and the spirit of Kapu Aloha in the air, possibly the heart of this year’s HIFF was a free screening organized as a response and a chance to reflect, spotlighting three still-in-progress films devoted to the mauna, as well as a lengthy discussion afterwards. Jalena Keane-Lee’s Standing Above the Clouds follows several pairs of Native Hawai’ian mother-and-daughter activists on the front lines, expressing what the mountain means to them and, more poignantly, what to do when “they come for you.” Ciara Lacy’s This Is the Way We Rise showcases the work of Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a slam poet and professor who was at a creative crossroads until becoming inspired by the mauna. Interestingly, both films originally began as documentaries on their particular subjects, but the third piece, Mikey Inoue’s Like a Mighty Wave, is, in effect, more “mauna born,” created on the mountain to immediately bear witness to the movement, its mission, and its figures.

While coming at the events from different angles, each film was united not only by the theme but even on a literal visual level, with the same raw footage of protests, arrests, and speeches shared by all three filmmakers. (“That is unusual, and a lot of that is a testament to what the spirit of Mauna Kea is,” confided Lacy.) With the same footage echoing throughout all three works (the same protestors being arrested, and arrested again, and again), the effect became strangely powerful, as if what we were witnessing had not only happened before but will happen again. “This film is unfinished; it’s a work in progress,” one of the filmmakers insisted to the audience beforehand, a statement that could also be taken that the work—and the movement—was still marching on, never to be stopped.

The activist and subject of Standing Above the Clouds, “Auntie” Pua Case, who eloquently and warmly led much of the evening’s discussion, put it vividly. “You see how we’re in each other films. We’re three different films, but not really. We’re all one film. And so are all the others that have come that have made films on the mauna. We’re really all one film, telling one story.”  

With the support of HIFF, there will be many more films still to come dedicated to telling the many stories of the island in as many ways as possible. “The support of large institutions like HIFF are incredibly important to grass-roots movements,” reminds Naone, “and I am beyond grateful to the programming team for including Mauna Kea specific programming within HIFF 2019.” For Bocchieri, “it was really great to see HIFF really push [local] stories to the front; it feels good to have a home festival that ‘gets it’ and recognizes the significance of this moment. All three screenings of the Made in Hawaii films were sold out; it shows the people in Hawaii are hungry to see their stories be told, and to see part of themselves on the big screen.” 

Excitingly, more good news was revealed at the end of HIFF, with the announcement of an annual $30,000 grant from the Nichols Family Film Fund, for filmmakers creating works from and about Hawai’i. Hopefully this will allow filmmakers to make the final leap from short works to features. For Makau, “We’re all working towards shifting the perception of what a Hawaiian film can look like and feel like.” “My hope is that the next generation takes what we have given them, and what has been passed down to us, and makes it better and stronger and more alive than ever so that the stories can continue to resonate beyond our islands,” adds Flanary. reveals

“This feels like the start of a something really big for Hawaii and indigenous people, in terms of taking control of their story,” extols Bocchieri. “I can’t wait to look back on this in a year and see what this amazing event is going to evolve into.” “As filmmakers, we are one of the many artists using our medium to hold both a mirror up to our communities and an amplifier of our story to the world,” continues Ah Chong. “So the Mauna movement is really added fuel and substance for us to continue sharing our story with the world in a way that resonates, in the hopes that itʻll bring more understanding and support to create a better, fairer future for these islands we call home.”

This article would not have been possible without the filmmakers who shared their thoughts and wisdom. Mahalo.

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