“It is Being Told Now—Because It is Supposed to Be Told Now”: Christopher Kahunahana on Waikiki and Native Hawaiian Storytelling
With Waikiki opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 (official site here), we’re reposting Jason Sanders’s 2020 interview with Christopher Kahunahana.
A film with “a seventeen-day shoot and two+ years of post-production,” Christopher Kahunahana’s long-awaited feature debut Waikiki marks a coming of age for the emerging Hawaiian filmmaking scene. The first completed narrative feature film by a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) filmmaker, Waikiki follows a young indigenous woman, Kea (a mesmerizing Danielle Zalopany), working multiple jobs—hula dancer for tourists, karaoke hostess for drunks, Hawaiian-language schoolteacher for kids—just in order to hold on, but slowly starting to slip into darkness. Nightmares of an earlier childhood trauma merge with her journey through Honolulu’s shadow realms, her only solace the memories of her kupuna (elders), and the visions of a natural world that is part of her and her heritage—so close, yet so far away. Indeed, for every urban scene of a claustrophobic bar or a threateningly empty alleyway, of abuse, poverty, and mental disorder, there hovers another shot of ʻaina (nature), of the ocean or the rain in the mountains around Honolulu, following it down green cliffs as it flows into the city before it slows to a trickle in the city’s canals and gutters. (“That’s also one of the reasons we spelled Waikiki the ‘tourist’ way,” Kahunahana notes, “not its original spelling of Waikīkī, or ‘spouting waters.’) “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka. The land is the chief, the people its servants,” is our heroine’s last Hawaiian chant in the film, her yearning to reconnect to the land. Mournfully, defiantly, she chants it to the mountains, or at least to the high-rise apartments in front of them.
“On a basic level I wanted people to have empathy for people that they don’t know,” Kahunahana notes. The film peels back two layers: one of the “aloha spirit” of tourist boards and hotel bars, where beautiful smiles mask the mad scramble that is everyday life in one of the world’s most expensive cities, and the other of homelessness, where madness masks the beauty of a life that once was, and still could be. “You can say it’s political, but its spiritual, to the core of our being,” stated producer Connie Florez during the film’s post-screening Q&A. “This story is important. It no longer needs to be hidden.”
Kahunahana was kind enough to take some time out of getting ready for his Hawai’i premiere at the Hawai’i International Film Festival to discuss the film, its journey, and its relationship to Native Hawaiian storytelling and the harsh realities of contemporary Hawai’i. Some answers have been edited for brevity, while some have incorporated his responses during the post-screening Q&A.
Filmmaker: Chris, many filmmakers making their feature debuts gravitate towards simpler genres and tales, but you’ve gone for a psychological portrait of a woman—and a society—on the edge. What was it about this story that made you want to tell it now?
Kahunahana: I believe there are no simple answers or narratives. I’ve always been fascinated by the shadows, what’s behind the pretty smile, the story behind the story. I’ve never really been all that interested in the hero trope, I’m more curious about the journey. This story allowed me the opportunity to mix genre, experiment with place and sound as character. The literal translation of the Hawaiian word makawalu is “eight eyes.” This is a major simplification but essentially, makawalu speaks to the need to look at things from at least eight different perspectives. These perspectives arenʻt limited to humans but include the concepts of time, or even the natural elements of the planet. Our Hawaiian stories and legends don’t always fit into simple A-B-C structure. Two-dimensional villains or heroes, or even genders, donʻt really exist within my culture. The personification of place, nature, sound are all very normal within Hawaiian storytelling. It was important to me for the characters in Waikiki to stay true to that. For the lead character Kea, it was imperative to me that the audience be able to see through/behind/as/in spite of/in contrast to her eyes. Her flashbacks to traumatic events were left intentionally muddy as a means to present memory almost as a form of time travel, and to note the relativity of time. The idea of telling this story now was more a decision made by my kūpuna (elders) than anything else. It is being told now—because it is supposed to be told now.
Filmmaker: This story could have fallen into more typical narrative traps, like a “woman on the edge” commercial film with gratuitous sex and violence, or, alternatively as a kind of festival-ready “atrocity exhibition” of watching a woman suffer. The final product, though, is far less defined and far more surreal in many points. How did you stay true to your own vision of the film, and why was it important to tell it the way you did?
Kahunahana: What has been tricky for me is that my reality is quite surreal. The beauty of Hawaiʻi is well-known, however its pain and struggle is so unknown that for most it was surreal. Navigating my reality, Hawaiʻiʻs reality and the viewerʻs reality was an unanticipated challenge. Film was the correct medium to explore these issues because of film’s ability to bend space and time. In regard to the narrative itself, I knew the interior conversations the main character has with herself were as much of the story as the plot—that the protagonist also didn’t differentiate between what is real in the present and memory or psychosis. The challenge was always to balance those seemingly conflicting aspects, much like the main character does in the story.
Filmmaker: With such a long post-production process, you’ve gone through several test screenings with many types of audiences, all of whom have different ideas and pushback. On one hand there were those who wanted a more “understandable” or “audience-friendly” narrative, but it seems your own creative vision leaned towards a more open-ended, dream-like concept, with fewer answers given. Over the course of the entire post-production process, how did you balance all the different demands and voices while staying true to your own?
Kahunahana: Film and art in general is subjective. It’s been interesting to receive feedback from test screenings, to hear what worked for individual viewers. Over the course of post-production and screenings I began to realize that people were creating their own stories and connections to the material and images on screen. I loved that about the film and decided to retain as much of that wonder and variance as possible. I feel that the only value you can have is an artist is to create the opportunity for people to imagine and create space for them to dialogue either with one another or within themselves.
What you add to the conversations are your own individual quirks, differences, failures, POV. Everything else has already been done. If youʻre trying to mimic something to make your film more accessible, then what you’re really trying to do is make a product. I was using this film as a means to learn: to discover what I feel, what affects me, moves me and hopefully others. A tree does a horrible job at trying to be a rock or the wind or the ocean. Your value in the larger scheme of things is that we each are a unique and equal part of the whole.
The film became a real living thing which I spoke with daily, often more than physical people. When I listened it told me or led me to where it wanted to, needed to go. I began to accept that making the film was a journey: I wasn’t the leader, I just followed it. Even in terms of release schedule, I pushed to finish multiple times and years earlier, but it wasn’t done with me. It chose to be born now, finally, which I know I could not have scripted better. Luckily for me, I’m blessed with producers who really allowed me the space, trust to create not just finish.
Filmmaker: Beyond answering to funders and potential audiences, you’re also in the unique position of evidently being the first Native Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli director to finish a feature narrative film, which calls up an entirely different set of responsibilities and duties (one that 99.9% of your filmmaking brethren don’t even have to think about). How did that affect your approach?
Kahunahana: Film is a means of understanding and fictional narrative is my current medium. I’m just a link in a chain of storytellers. I just so happen to be the first, but really it could have been any one of the amazing Kanaka (Native Hawaiian) storytellers. I, as well as all Kanaka, are a part of a continuum that stretches way before us and way after us. My responsibility is to my kūpuna (elders) and the continuum…They are who I answer to.
[In terms of another takeaway for the film]: for Hawaiians and Native People in general, we are so connected to the land. The land is so important to us. When we remove Hawaiians from the land, it creates all these traumas, these intergenerational issues that keep resurfacing. Even when we try to deal with it in this current context of contemporary Hawaii, these things are deep-seeded—anger issues, abuse issues, violence issues that arise from not having that connection to land and culture. Another takeaway is that we need to return to this place where we value native understanding and wisdom in terms of connection to nature, otherwise all of us are screwed, if we don’t take care of this planet. I think in Hawaii we understand that, it’s an intrinsic part of our culture, and I wanted to show people that we all need to care for the land.
Filmmaker: Last year you and some other members of your team actually stepped away from the post-production process to join the Mauna Kea movement and related struggles for Hawaiian land sovereignty, lending your image-making and story-telling talents to that. Did that bring another focus or meaning to what you thought of the film, and what you hoped to accomplish with it?
Kahunahana: When you’re called, you need to listen. I was writing the script in 2014 when Kanaka stopped the ground-breaking on top of the summit and I knew I should be there, in whatever capacity I could support, but I chose to continue writing. That decision is something I had to deal with, question within myself. So when the kāhea (a “call out,” or call to action) came a second time, although in the middle of post I knew I had to go. I was fortunate in that one of my producers, Nicole Naone, also felt a deep calling to protect Maunakea, and we both made the decision to reside at the base of Maunakea and contribute in any way we could. We joined Nā Leo Kakoʻo, the media support team which battled daily the flat-out lies, racist depictions, and over-all falsities put out against kiaʻi (protectors) by the proponent of the Three Mile Telescope project. These experiences solidified for me the importance of controlling our own narrative.
Filmmaker: On a similarly related note, the film ends with the lyrics of a mele or chant by the Hawaiian composer/scholar Mary Kawena Puku’i, who helped preserve and collect many indigenous songs and chants in the 1960s and ’70s. Why did you choose that piece to close the film?
Kahunahana: Yes, Kea performs “Ke Ao Nani” by Pūkuʻi at the end of the film, which is the mele which young Kea is being taught by her grandmother earlier in the film. It’s a simple mele taught to keiki or young children, which like much ʻōlelo noeʻau has much kauna, or hidden meaning. I didn’t choose Ke Ao Nani so much as it presented itself as the correct mele for the film. I was looking for something and it made itself known, through one of my dear friends Dr.Noelani Arista, that it was the correct mele, and just so happened to be what the film was about thematically. It was all synchronous. Everything has its place on this earth, which tied in perfectly with the ʻōlelo noeʻau Kea teaches to her class. “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka. The land is the chief, the people its servants.” It closes the film because that’s Keaʻs journey back to connect with ʻāina, or earth.
Filmmaker: I wouldn’t normally advise first-time, low-budget filmmakers to create a film where one actor is onscreen for about 90% of the time, just because the odds are low you’ll succeed with what will also be a first-time, low-budget lead. But your lead actress Danielle Zalopany delivers a riveting performance. You ask a lot of her in the film, and there’s a lot of raw emotion within. What was your collaboration like, and how did you go about creating an on-set environment that could allow her to go that far, and be that vulnerable emotionally?
Kahunahana: Dani is amazing and I feel blessed to have gotten to work with her. Again, synchronicity. You get a sense that thing are moving in the right direction when things align. I feel that she was in a place in her life where she needed the film and Hawai’i needed her. Our film community needed Dani, as evidenced by all the roles she’s played since we shot Waikiki. We were missing someone to play a strong yet vulnerable wahine (woman). That voice was missing from our films.
The Kea role would be challenging for any actor. I knew from our first screen test that Dani had the strength, focus and chops for the role. I was concerned that some of the scenes could trigger deeper unresolved issues and wanted to make sure that she felt safe before proceeding to guide her through the stages of deterioration of the protagonist. I think this helped us create the trust necessary for the collaborative nature of a director-actor relationship. Her commitment is awe inspiring. She was all in all the time. She’d come straight from work, shoot all night or day, sleep in the van between takes and return back to work. I don’t know how she did it.
[On the film’s costar, Peter Shinkoda, who plays a homeless man:] When you sleep on the ground vs. sleeping in a bed, your body begins to look and move differently. Peter slept in my driveway for four nights to get his body adjusted to the role, and he was such a method actor that he even slept in front of the Iolani Palace for several nights among a group of homeless people.
Filmmaker: I know that before getting into filmmaking, you organized some underground film festivals, and started the well-regarded nightclub/arts space Nextdoor in Honolulu’s Chinatown. What inspired you to get into filmmaking? Also, were there particular filmmakers or films that inspired you the most, either to view film as an artform, or while making Waikiki?
Kahunahana: Photography was my gateway drug. Years back I worked in a black and white photography print lab-darkroom where I learned from a master printer photographer, Gene Nitihara. My film education really started with the Hawaii International Film Festival. Back then films were free, so my mom would have me stand in line for her for the next film while she was in the theater watching a film. As a kid from Waimānalo, the films I saw were like traveling. My mind and world view were forever changed by those moments in the darkened theater. Films like Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern were life-changing experiences for me. Through HIFF, I was introduced to the Movie Museum, where Dwight Damon allowed me to work my way through a directorʻs complete filmography. The cinephilic curated collections represented the best of world cinema: Soy Cuba, Pixote, Touki Bouki, Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Fellini. These were my teachers.
When I started Nextdoor in Chinatown, the electricity in that area had not been updated since right after the fires of 1903. Plugging in our soundsystem shut down power for the entire block. The intention was always to bring life into a city that seemed asleep. Sometimes that was through film and art, sometimes through music and booze. Learning how to make something out of nothing was huge for me. Thematically, the Chinatown neighborhood back then influenced Waikiki: lots of houselessness in the neighborhood, addiction issues, violence.
Filmmaker: For the film, were there other non-cinematic artistic influences?
Kahunahana: While I take note and inventory everything—every conversation, sound, light shift, whisper, relationship, etc—I try to only allow myself to be influenced exclusively by nature. As Hawaiians we are not on, in, at, or even of, nature. We are nature. He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwa ke kanaka— the land is the chief and the people are its servants. Iʻm essentially always trying to sift through the noises of the current time Iʻm in, to try to get back to a space of communicating with the sources that matter—pohaku, wai, kai, kamakani. Once in a while, a human or an art piece slips through the cracks like Butoh dance, or my grandmaʻs cooking, or a noguchi sculpture, but for the most part, I try to listen to nature.
Filmmaker: The film’s long post-production process took a couple of years, so there was also a lot of patience asked of your team and the community around it. How did you maintain momentum and positivity through the months, and what does the support of the local filmmaking community mean to you?
Kahunahana: Many of our crew members and cast went on to write, direct, produce and premiere films and win awards while I lived in the solitary darkness of post. In a huge way these filmmakers kept me inspired to keep going. I’m grateful to be a small part of a talented growing film community. All of our sensibilities are so different that each project solidifies the diversity and depth of our community. Itʻs a thrilling time, each film building on the success and momentum of the others. We can expect more feature films from Hawaii in the next few years.