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Rivers and Eyes: The 41st Hawai’i International Film Festival

River of Small Gods

An indigenous filmmaking focus and the ever-blossoming local film scene helped the 41st edition of the Hawai’i International Film Festival Presented by Halekulani return to an almost-normal state of in-person bliss this November. After a year and more of pandemic uncertainties and isolation, attendees shook off the social rust with varying degrees of success, while fears about being amidst crowds were somewhat abated by Honolulu’s vigorous vaccine requirements and HIFF’s strict 50%-capacity limits. The festival fittingly opened with the world premiere of Isaac Halasima’s documentary Waterman, on the astounding life of Native Hawaiian surfer/Olympian/celebrity Duke Kahanamoku; hit its stride with a sold-out “welcome home” screening of local director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s Sundance darling I Was a Simple Man, and finished with a major announcement that bodes well for the future of indigenous Hawaiian filmmakers. In-between there were enough appearances by major Hollywood creatives to make it seem like half of Los Angeles had relocated to Oahu, including Maui-born director Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), showrunner/writer Dana Ledoux Miller (The Newsroom; Narcos, and graduate of UH-Manoa’s Academy of Creative Media), writer and Oahu native Susan Soon He Stanton (Succession), actor/director Justin Chon (Blue Bayou, and a recent transplant to the state), director/producer Bao Nguyen (Be Water), legendary cult-movie director—and Hawai’i O.G.—Albert Pyun (Cyborg; Nemesis), and more. Tying all the threads together, though, was HIFF’s commitment to a local film scene whose diversity of approach and content shows no sign of slowing down.

An intriguing blend of archival footage, contemporary interviews, and live-action reenactments, Waterman dives into the larger-than-life story of Duke Kahanamoku, a Native Hawaiian born in 1890 (before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom) who—among other things—popularized the Hawaiian art of surfing worldwide, became a world-record holder in swimming, was a five-time Olympic medalist across three separate Olympics, tried his hand at Hollywood, saved multiple men from drowning as both an official and unofficial lifeguard, was Honolulu’s Sheriff and unofficial celebrity greeter for many years, and became the face of “aloha” in the 1950s and ’60s as the Territory of Hawai’i became a state, all as a proud, brown-skinned, indigenous man. Narrated by Aquaman himself Jason Momoa, Waterman moves through a century of Hawaiian history and culture as gracefully yet powerfully as Duke would glide through the water; the premiere, on the Great Lawn of Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, appropriately featured an appearance by Native Hawaiian Carissa Moore, the newly crowned winner of the first Olympic Gold Medal in surfing. 

Similarly connecting history and identity across decades was visual artist Taiji Terasaki’s innovative “mist-media” installation Kaimana, which accompanied the film at the museum. Set up in an impromptu outdoor walk-through “gallery,” Kaimana projected archival footage of long-ago Hawai’i and the old Waikiki Natatorium onto streamed curtains of mist, beautifully underlining the ephemeral nature of memory, nostalgia, history, and time. 

Kahanamoku battled both institutional and informal racism throughout his long life, whether as a dark-skinned man during the Olympic Games or even back home in Hawai’i, where white-run clubs refused entry to Native Hawaiians. Two local short narratives zeroed in on similar moments in the state’s history, whether from the 1930s or just several years ago. (Unfortunately, the role call of discrimination against and exploitation of Native Hawaiian culture isn’t just confined to some long-ago past, but to recent times, and even to right now, as the December 2021 U.S. Navy contamination of an Oahu water system makes clear). Keli’i Grace’s powerful Ala Moana Boys revisits the notorious Massie Trials of the 1930s, when several indigenous and Asian youth were framed for the rape of the wife of a naval officer (with one later being kidnapped and murdered through orders from the woman’s mother); period set designs and costumes add a polished touch to this topical film noir. Déjà Cresencia Bernhardt’s more intimate revisiting of Maui’s recent sugar mill closures, Last Hawaiian Sugar, uses a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world of toxic masculinity as an allegory for the complicated relationship between Hawaiian life and the sugar industry; cinematographer Anne Misawa’s focus on the lush greenery that often protects our young heroine, and the stripped and barren red earth that the industry has destroyed around her, speaks volumes.

Other narrative shorts avoided historical re-enactments and period flair for quieter, more observational tales still rich with the everyday fabric of Hawaiian life. A hushed, quiet allegory poised somewhere between dream and nightmare, Bradley Tangonan’s River of Small Gods follows a young, working-class indigenous woman on the brink of unemployment and homelessness who, suddenly and strangely, is offered a job with more than strings attached by a mysterious artist: to illegally harvest the culturally sacred rocks of a dry riverbed. This Faustian bargain—economics against the environment, profit over culture—is made tactile through Tangonan’s smoky, seemingly uncovered-from-a-burial images (shot with several vintage Leica R lenses), and through the extraordinarily controlled physical performance of lead Danielle Zalopany, whose star turn in last year’s Waikiki turned so many heads. Eternally trying to squeeze through blocked passages—the apartment door locked by her landlord, the tiny seat of the truck she finds herself sleeping in, or the cave that could be a grave—our heroine has no way up, and no way out. “She embodies many of the conflicts inherent in surviving in Hawai’i,” Tangonan noted in an interview with Directors Notes. “How does everyday survival interfere with social and spiritual well-being?” A film both of the earth and of ghosts, River deservedly won the Best Made in Hawai’i Short Film Award.

Mitchel Merrick (formerly Mitchel Viernes) followed up his award-winning 2018 short Kalewa with Ka Ho’i – The Return, a compact dramatization of the daily grind and grinding-down of an elderly Korean War veteran that soon flows into a tale of life, death, and the afterlife. A winning combination of naturalism and folk tale, Ka Ho’i underlines how the legends of “Old Hawai’i” are still alive, even amidst today’s corner stores and low-slung homes. ” Being from Hawai’i largely influences my work because I love telling stories of the people and place that I love,” Merrick shared with Filmmaker. ” Allowing my own experiences as someone born and raised in Hawai’i to shine through the stories I tell is helping me not only remain authentic, but also develop my own voice as an artist as well.”

HIFF’s Centerpiece was Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I Was a Simple Man, celebrating a hometown return nearly a year after its Sundance premiere and other virtual screenings. We’ve covered Simple Man before and again (and there’s a new interview hopefully coming soon), but suffice to say that the screening was one of the more joyful moments of the festival, where cast, crew, and supporters could finally come together in person to celebrate their achievement, and most memorably to share that achievement with everyone else in the filmmaking community. Along with Tangonan, Christopher Kahunahana, and Alika Maikau, Yogi represents the more introspective, ephemeral side of this Hawaiian New Wave, approaching cinema less through narrative or character than as a way to capture the essence of a place, and drawing inspiration more from Apitchatpong Weerasakathul or Tsai Ming-liang than Hollywood. “We use compositions and sound design that do not favor the human subjects but instead always try to capture the entire world, interconnected,” Yogi notes in the film’s press kit. 

“I am proud to be a part of a vibrant, diverse generation of independent filmmakers in Hawai‘i who are excavating the stories of our home in a manner that is honest, creative, and formally unique,” Yogi continues. “Like new wave cinema movements from all over the world, we see the future of the cinema of Hawai‘i as one that is in dialogue with international cinematic and artistic traditions, using alternative grammar and processes to create a uniquely Hawaiian cinema that will both interrogate and commune with those universal truths that make us all human.”

HIFF also welcomed back former Honolulu resident Brett Wagner, whose 2008 “Polynesian noir” short Chief still stands as one of the best made-in-Hawai’i shorts. A marital melodrama wrapped within a rural Texas thriller (or vice versa), his newest feature Big Bend places two families, each with their own failing interpersonal dynamics, in the middle of the isolated Southwestern landscapes of Big Bend, Texas, then adds an escaped convict. A more genial Scenes From a Marriage, only with sweeping desert vistas and rattlesnakes, Big Bend takes its own sweet, sun-baked time on relationships, depression, and male/female roles, with ever-more rewarding results. 

Documentaries at HIFF also boasted of multiple approaches and aesthetics; for years, many used cinema as a way to bear witness to the stories, lives, and histories of those so often ignored or passed over; after all, if you didn’t celebrate and honor the lives of elders, community figures, or local activists, who would? Highlights of that film-as-collective-memory approach included the collaborative work Okagesama de ~ Hawaii Nikkei Women’s Trajectory, a collection of interviews with and stories of some of the first female Japanese immigrants to Hawa’i; Gemma Cubero del Barrio’s intimate The Island in Me, which takes a very personal approach in showcasing two women of different generations who rediscover their connections to the Polynesian island of Pukapuka; and Reel Wahine of Hawa’i: Season 3, which flips the camera around to spotlight the many women filmmakers of the state. Of special note was the Ulu’ulu Moving Image Archive of Hawai’i’s digitization project The Pau Hana Years, which made available a fascinating PBS series from the 1970s that showcased local gatherings, musical events, and community organizations across the islands.

Justyn Ah Chong’s Pili Ka Mo’o merged that “bearing witness” concept with a focused political and cultural edge, zeroing in on the land-rights struggle of one indigenous family whose community burial sites are threatened with development by Oahu’s massive Kualoa Ranch (the site of countless Hollywood films and series). Native Hawaiian land rights (or the formal lack thereof) form some of the greatest struggles for the indigenous community, from the telescopes of Mauna Kea to here, amidst the Jurassic Park and Lost backdrops of the windward coast. Digging into the dirt to capture the daily battle of organizing for respect, the film also makes sure to look towards the sky, showcasing the eternal beauty of the mountains and landscapes that are around—and part of—the community. On an extra-textual level, one may also notice that Kolea Fukumitsu, one of the featured activists, had actually appeared in an earlier film produced by Ah Chong, ‘Aina Paikai’s Hawaiian Soul, lending his non-professional talents (and doppelganger looks) to the lead role of Native Hawaiian activist/singer George Helm. (Meanwhile, you could also glimpse the real-life Helm in The Pau Hana Years, performing at an event in Moloka’i!) 

Two shorts this year intriguingly opened up certain non-fiction concepts even further, Malia Adams’ I Will Be Your Breath, which takes an almost magic-realist approach to the historical documentary testimonial; and Ty Sanga’s He Kau Heahea a hi’iaka, which expands what was ostensibly a hula performance documentary into a vivid, fantastical series of environmental tableaux, With Breath, Adams reads from her great-grandmother’s own diaries on learning the Hawaiian language; as that story is told, however, vines and flowers are seen slowly entering her home, and by story’s end, her home has become a jungle, surreally reclaimed by native land. Sanga’s piece grew out of a desire to document the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, but due to the pandemic the performances couldn’t be filmed indoors, a fortunate necessity that instead inspired him to stage the performers and dancers in the open air, in many of the spaces their songs would be referring to. Here, forests hold singers and chants, and tides contain dancers and movement, all again linking the culture to the land. The songs and hulas themselves all contain themes of climate change, adding a secondary level of understanding to the images and setting.

“Culture and āina (land) are major themes in my stories because they define us as Native people,” Sanga shared with Filmmaker. “So far our films have only explored the tip of the iceberg.” “When I started nearly 10 years ago, the industry was not ready for Native Hawaiian or Asian American stories,” he recalled. “My meetings were very different back then. Now Hawaiʻi is a hotbed of diverse talent and narratives that Hollywood needs. We’re starting to see Hawaiʻi filmmakers change the face of cinema and HIFF is becoming the festival that nurtures that community.”

This year HIFF also pointedly expanded its range of indigenous programming, offering up not only Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander works, but some major titles from indigenous artists on the mainland. Sterling Harjo (Reservation Dogs) received the festival’s Halekulani Maverick Award, and gave an illuminating talk after his newest documentary Love and Fury. Following several indigenous artists, writers, and creatives around the house, the neighborhood, and the globe as they amiably discuss Native identity, Native art, and what exactly any of that means, anyway, the film felt like—in the best way possible—the cinematic equivalent of an Anthony Bourdain show, where you feel like you’re somehow hanging out as a friend with some of the most interesting people around, but instead of food as the main connection, it’s culture and creativity. Harjo cited legendary documentary filmmaker Les Blank as an inspiration during his talk, and Blank’s ease with the camera—and with his subjects—is mirrored in Harjo’s. You can see how these artists could be the adult versions of Reservation Dogs‘ teenage protagonists, or at least the role models for them, showing how it’s possible to make your own weird way in this world, without ever having to conform or bow down.

Cree-Métis filmmaker (and former director of Toronto’s acclaimed imagineNATIVE festival) Danis Goulet also appeared in person with her feature debut Night Raiders, a dystopian science-fiction thriller that follows a mother-and-daughter on the run from a not-so-far away (or not-so-long-ago) surveillance state that preaches “one country, one language, one flag,” and inters all children into caged “schools.” A catchy-enough three-word logline could be “indigenous Hunger Games,” but that may actually be a disservice to the filmmaking verve and activist intelligence of Night Raiders. Its always-rolling narrative drive is more reminiscent of early James Cameron or 50’s-era Sam Fuller than big-budget science-fiction Hollywood’s recent sprawl, yet it still manages to fold in direct references to Canada’s infamous history of residential schools and indigenous-language bans, plus imagery that draws upon recent protest movements from Idle No More to Standing Rock. (More like a Hunger Games reimagined by Alanis Obomsawin and early James Cameron, then.) Goulet later participated in a brilliant HIFF “Film For Thought” virtual discussion with UH-Manoa professor Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, which took a deep dive into indigenous representation, identity, and approach to filmmaking.

A strong assortment of Pacific Islander indigenous titles added to HIFF’s curatorial strengths this year, from New Zealand’s supernatural anthology film Teine Sā: The Ancient Ones to the climate-change-oriented We’ve Only Got This World, one of the few narratives from the island nation of Vanuatu. The festival even streamed several episodes of the ground-breaking New Zealand series, The Panthers, a fictional revisiting of that country’s Black Panther Party-inspired group Polynesian Panthers, along with a conversation with several of the project’s creatives. (While HIFF was mainly in-person this year, the festival still strove to provide several streaming options, as well as the “HIFF Talks” iniative that featured several strong virtual discussions and Q&A’s).

A surprise announcement at HIFF’s closing-night reception connected the festival’s strong support of local filmmakers with its growing interest in connecting indigenous creativity worldwide. Led by HIFF Artistic Director Anderson Le, the festival announced its first-ever production project, Makawalu, a feature-length omnibus film that will bring together eight Native Hawaiian (kanaka maoli) filmmakers, each responsible for one segment of the anthology. Literally meaning “eight eyes,” or more broadly “different perspectives,” Makawalu draws from the playbook of New Zealand production group Brown Sugar Apple Group Productions, the team responsible for such festival hits as Waru and Vai; in fact, BSAGP founders Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton are on board as executive producers here. Much like Waru and Vai, Makawalu gives participating filmmakers a setting—in this case, a luau taking place on the 4th of July, with weather used as a linking image —and a filmmaking structure: one ten-minute continuous shot, to be completed in a single ten-hour shooting day. 

“We were inspired by their groundbreaking work and the playbook they developed with Waru and Vai….We are fortunate and honored to have them onboard,” noted Le.

A range of established and just-emerging filmmakers, the participating directors are Justyn Ah Chong, Kekama Amona, Taylour Chang, Ciara Lacy, Erin Lau, ‘Aina Paikai, Ty Sanga, and Katherine Wong, each selected for their respective bodies of work that subvert the popular Hollywood depiction of the Hawaiian islands. “Makawalu expands on HIFF’s ongoing and evolving work to be a year-round conduit of industry access, services, and career development for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander media artists,” stated Beckie Stocchetti, HIFF executive director. “These filmmakers are at a critical juncture in their careers and we believe in the importance of supporting their continued success and growth. HIFF is proud to take this vital step in creating sustainable, catalytic opportunities to amplify Hawaii’s creative industry.” 

In addition to the New Zealand production team, actor/producer Daniel Dae Kim, who has made Hawai’i his home after years of starring in Lost and Hawaii Five-O, will also assist in the project, lending his acting and producing knowledge to the filmmakers; his production company, 3AD Media, also helped underwrite a five-day retreat immediately after HIFF at the Halekulani hotel. “Many of us who live in Hawai’i already know the talent of our kanaka maoli filmmakers, and the Makawalu Retreat is a powerful way to showcase their artistry to the entire world,” he shared. “3AD is honored to help shine a light on our community by sponsoring this program and amplifying their voices.”

Makawalu is truly something special,” Sanga shared with Filmmaker after the retreat. “To be mentored by Kerry and Kiel builds on the legacy that [longtime indigenous advocate and filmmaker] Merata Mita created. I’ve been a fan of the other filmmakers in this group and it’s been a dream for all of us to collaborate on something. I feel like each of our individual journeys in filmmaking has lead us to this project.” 

It was fitting that HIFF chose to announce Makawalu at their closing night gathering, as it was the evening they also honored the producer, advocate, and overall force-of-nature, Leanne Ka’iulani Ferrer, Executive Director of Pacific Islanders in Communication, who passed away in August 2021. Producer, ally, and champion for countless films and filmmakers from her early career at PBS Hawai’i to her years at P.I.C., Ferrer nourished and raised up those around her, helping carve out a space in this world for their stories to be heard and recognized. “It is most critical to keep supporting content creators in telling Pacific Islander stories,” she once wrote. “Without storytellers, we can’t continue to preserve our heritage through the language of multimedia.” A life spent enabling others, of course, is a legacy that will be contained in all those lives, and in all the stories that will follow. 

Mahalo nui loa to all the filmmakers who shared their thoughts for this article, and to the HIFF staff and Hawai’i community for their hospitality.

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