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Stories Shared, Stories Known: the 2023 Hawai’i International Film Festival Presented by Halekulani

Hōkūleʻa: Finding the Language of the Navigator

Like many film events this past summer and fall, this year’s Hawai’i International Film Festival found cinema in a bit of an uneasy holding pattern, what with the Hollywood strikes, the after-effects of pandemic production delays, a rising fear of an A.I.-dominated future, and a growing dissatisfaction with commercial cinema’s superhero-centric fixations. But rather than the paranoia and uncertainty that dominated mainland festivals, Hawai’i seemed invigorated by what was rising up in its place. News that much-anticipated titles like Alika Tengan’s feature Molokai’i Bound, Mitchel Merrick’s Native Hawaiian martial-arts actioneer Kūkini, and Zoë Eisenberg’s debut Chaperone had neared completion gave audiences things to look forward to, but the films actually screened this year opened up other kinds of conversations, and other definitions of what is truly means to be a filmmaker.

For Fairai Richmond, lover of Spielberg and Michael Bay, it’s working within that recognizably large-scale Hollywood narrative tradition, sure, but infusing it with his passion to tell Native Hawaiian stories and a desire to create opportunities for all on the islands. Co-directed by Troma Studios graduate Adam Deyoe and executive-produced by TV veteran Bryan Spicer, Richmond’s Decade of the Dead offers an entertainingly unique Hawaiian take on the classic zombie genre. All the stylings are here—global plague, band of outsiders, well-fortified compounds, the seething undead, with the darkest threats from the still living—but Richmond and team add their love for the setting. “My real contribution was to really showcase the beauty of the island,” Richmond recalled, “while also making it into a world that the audience has never seen before in this type of film.” The film also seemingly employed half the island’s creative talents, especially set and costume designers and, of course, make-up artists, not to mention several zombie extras. “The Hawaii cast and crew really showed up and gave this movie their all, and it shows when you watch the film. Every square inch of the frame is handmade with love,” the director notes. True to Troma exploitation form, the team not only paid tribute to the hard work of the production crew by displaying many behind-the-scenes props at the festival theater during its premiere but even had a handful of “zombies” wander amidst the crowd at the popcorn stand.

It’s not just Richmond’s love for blockbuster style that inspires him, though. “It’s also really important to me to keep our ancient Native Hawaiian stories, or, Mo’olelo, alive to pass on to future generations.  You can kill a culture by killing their stories. People will forget where they came from if they don’t have their stories. The Kanaka Maole, or Native Hawaiians, have had almost everything stolen from us.  The two things they can’t take is our mana, our elemental life force, and our stories, if we keep them alive.”

“Hawaii really hasn’t had its day in the sunlight as far as Hollywood goes. We aren’t really seen as creators of the art form of filmmaking. Hollywood makes a lot of movies here but they don’t produce many films made by Hawaiians,” Richmond continued, echoing a similar complaint across the local industry that notices how many “below-the-line” jobs are available, yet so many “above-the-line,” more creative roles are still reserved for non-locals. “We are seen more as laborers. So it has been my life’s mission to change that. I want the young boy in Wainae, or the little girl in Kalihi, to say to their mommy or daddy that they want to make movies, as a director, or even as a Hawaiian producer or show-runner. I want those parents and that kid to have a tangible real example to point to, and to believe that it’s actually possible.”

What does it mean to be a filmmaker? You can take the approach of Keli’i Grace, who, like Richmond, takes a recognizably “commercial” genre but uses it to smuggle in and address pointedly Hawaiian concerns and issues. Admittedly, Grace’s My Partner showcases a newer genre that most mainlanders aren’t familiar with, the “boys love” narrative that originated in Japanese manga before spreading to countless television series and films across Asia, wherein two ostensibly heterosexual young men (one a bit hunkier, one a bit dreamier, both with excellent cheekbones) slowly fall in love amidst an array of teen conflicts and slow-motion shower scenes, all usually delivered through a flattened soap-opera-style visual aesthetic. It’s not exactly fertile territory for sly socio-political commentary on issues of race and place, but somehow that’s exactly what Grace adds in along My Partner’s margins. In Hawai’i, in Maui especially where the film takes place, it’s no coincidence that the two Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired clans (or high-school dude cliques, in this boys-love genre) are Native Hawaiians and recent Filipino immigrants, respectively, or that the film opens with what is basically a battle over water-access rights between the two disenfranchised groups. Or that the protagonists start to bond only while working together on the ʻāina, or land, or that all are finally united while protecting the shared land from disrespectful outsiders. Grace adds in countless other non-narrative moments, from lei preparations to a joyful hula to quick monologues on immigration, poverty, and water and land struggles, that aren’t necessary to the story, but are necessary to remind audiences where this story takes place, and where it is truly from.

My Partner‘s setting and filming in Maui, and its background framing of past water-access battles between corporations and indigenous groups, attained a heightened poignancy due to the tragic fires in West Maui and Lahaina, which occurred only two months before the film’s screening at HIFF. To its great credit, the festival used its status as a community platform to, indeed, gather community together, with several events and screenings that focused on and raised money for Maui. For Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday, the directors of Uncle Bully’s Surf Skool, the heart-breaking events in Maui suddenly gave a much different focus to what it means to be a filmmaker. Their doc began as a portrait of Robert “Bully” Kotter, a Lahaina surf-school instructor and youth mentor struggling to keep afloat during the pandemic; it then became something that no one could have imagined. “We couldn’t have known how nostalgic and urgent our film would be,” they shared online. “Uncle Bully’s Surf Skool is now both a document of the shining gem Lahaina Town once was, and a testament to the beauty and resilience of the people here, driven to bring her back.” HIFF provided the film with both its Opening and Closing Night slots and multiple screenings across the five islands, and made all screenings free to the public, with any donations going straight to Maui relief.

What does it mean to be a filmmaker? For so many other filmmakers at HIFF, it involves turning their cameras onto the people of their community, and showcasing their stories and histories. Nainoa Langer and Kolby Akamu Moser showcased five native Hawaiian elders who are carrying on traditional crafts or roles, from drum carvers and fishermen to lauhala weavers, in their appropriately titled Hometown Legends, while Jinyoung Lee Won’s Songs of Love and Jeong Tae Lee’s and Byung Choon You’s Unfinished Story turned their lenses to a less visible section of Hawaiian history, that of the Korean diaspora on the island. Emerging talent Justin Pascua, who’s still a student at the Academy of Creative Media, caught the eye with the gorgeously shot documentary Homestead, on the relationship between an elderly Lao immigrant farmer and her grandson (a friend of Pascua, Aiden Phengsy, who’s also an actor, having appeared in Keli’i Grace’s early short Ala Moana Boys). All offered reminders that one didn’t need Hollywood-style narratives or budgets to be a filmmaker; all one needed was someone’s story to help share, and the talent and generosity to help it shine.

Director Ryan Kawamoto discovered one such story while making another film nearly a dozen years ago, on the internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i during WWII. Learning of a large group number who were kicked out of their homes and businesses, but not formerly incarcerated (and thus not originally eligible for restitution), he teamed with activist Bill Kaneko to help tell their story. Combining archival footage, contemporary interviews, and animated sequences, Removed by Force honors those nearly 1500 individuals, as well as the countless committed lawyers and activists that helped them fight for restitution. “The reception in Hawaiʻi has been incredible,” Kawamoto shared. “Beyond the sold-out HIFF screening, weʻve had several shows in Honolulu, Maui, and Hawaiʻi Island and all of them sold-out.” HIFF paired Removed by Force with two other Japanese American-themed works, Baseball: Behind Barbed Wire(Yuriko Gamo Romer), on the legacies of Japanese American baseball leagues in the incarceration camps, and Benkyodo: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town (Akira Boch, Tadashi Nakamura), a surprisingly joyful celebration of the last manju shop in San Francisco’s Japantown. “Welcome to JA Saturday!” HIFF’s director of programming Anderson Le joked at the afternoon’s screening, which indeed had the feel more of a community potluck or neighborhood celebration than a somber film festival, and was another testament to how HIFF merges both film and community together.

What does it mean to be a filmmaker? For Matt Yamashita, who’s been making documentaries and short narratives for over twenty+ years, it revolves around telling and sharing stories from Moloka’i, his home base and one of the least populated Hawaiian islands. Better known for his documentaries (we wrote about his Sons of Halawa for our 2015 festival coverage), Yamashita switched to narrative for this year’s Kala, which won an Honorable Mention for Best Made in Hawai’i Short Film. “Being able to make a living as a storyteller on a remote Hawaiian Island has meant the bulk of my work has been in documentary, which I truly love, but leaves me little opportunity for scripted filmmaking,” Yamashita wrote. “So, when I think about pursuing passion projects, my heart often takes me towards scripted film. I wrote the script for Kala over 10 years ago in response to witnessing the impacts of substance abuse within our small community…..In early 2023,  my longtime producing partner Mikiala Pescaia and I dusted off the script, convinced some friends to be actors, and two months later we were in production, shooting entirely with a cast and crew almost entirely from our island of Moloka’i.”

As far from bombastic Hollywood fare as possible, Kala zeroes in on the fractured relationship between two brothers and their paths to forgiveness. Yamashita shears off any excess narrative from the film, focusing instead on these two men learning to not just forgive, but to simply speak and share with one another. It’s remarkable—and remarkably rare—in film to see men (never mind just Hawaiian men, but any men) sharing their stories and their vulnerability, so it’s no surprise that Kala has actually been used by Yamashita and team in multiple community-based screenings to address issues like addiction, violence, and forgiveness.

“Our community has been experiencing lots of mental health and family struggles since the pandemic and recent rise of inflation,” Yamashita shared. “These are challenging times, and Kala is a story that reminds our people that family bonds and connection to nature and tradition are more important than ever.” For Yamashita and his team, “it has been incredibly rewarding to see how our simple story has impacted audiences in meaningful ways. We wanted our film to be as authentic as possible to our way of life, our local dialect, and rich culture, so Kala is layered with cultural context that is unique to Hawai’i. Our local audiences have received this with so much gratitude, feeling like this film was truly made for them, and it has sparked lots of deep and emotional sharing during Q&A’s.”

 What does it mean to be a filmmaker? For Vera Zambonelli, founder of the Hawai’i Women in Filmmaking organization and co-creator/producer of the Reel Wāhine of Hawai’i series, it means telling the stories and honoring the legacies of the many female creatives in Hawai’i’s film industry. If you don’t, after all, who will? Certainly not Hollywood or some A.I. studio invention. Reel Wāhine, which debuted its fourth season at HIFF, features several short profiles of women filmmakers and film creatives. Each short is directed by less established, up-and-coming women filmmakers, and nearly all the interns and crew are women, many of whom are getting their first opportunity in film production. It’s a system, hopefully sustainable, of honoring the talents and accomplishments of women filmmakers, while training and creating the next generation. ” I wanted to create a place and space for women to work in film in a way committed to uplifting each other,” Zambonelli shared. “I also wanted to make sure that their stories were told and documented.”

“We went from standing ovations to three houses sold out within 24 hours of their opening at this most recent HIFF. Ultimately, my goal with Reel Wāhine was to create films that would entertain and inform audiences and serve as a powerful tribute to the women who are making Hawaiʻi’s film industry and making their mark in it.” Zambonelli has new plans for the future, as well, both for filmmaking in Hawai’i and for other projects. “I believe there should be a balance between local productions and Hollywood productions filmed in Hawaiʻi. Local productions should continue to be supported and encouraged to tell the stories of Hawaiʻi and its people. At the same time, Hollywood productions should strive to accurately represent the culture and history of Hawaiʻi and provide opportunities for local talent to be involved in all aspects of the production.” More currently, Zambonelli is spearheading a new Hawaiʻi Film and Media Arts Coalition, “to create better connections among independent media organization networks, and collectively offer more equitable educational and career-sustaining opportunities, inspire more creative collaborations, and strengthen local cooperation.”

“These stories would otherwise not be told,” Zambonelli expressed at the screening. “Now they will be known, because they have been shared.” It’s a statement that even applies to something as unlikely as animated fiction. Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson, and Daniel Sousa’s Aikāne, named after a Hawaiian word meaning intimate friends of the same sex, imagines a brave island warrior who falls into an underwater kingdom, and finds peace in the arms of a handsome young man. Drawing upon both Pasifika legends and global tales of same-sex love, this “queer love story that dares to have a happy ending” brings such stories of acceptance back into the light. “Our survival as indigenous people depends on our ability to know and practice our cultural traditions, to speak and understand our language, and to feel an authentic connection to our own history. Filmmaking is my way of fulfilling that responsibility,” notes Aikāne’s Native Hawaiian/Kanaka producer Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, who collaborated with Hamer and Wilson on their trailblazing earlier documentaries, Kuma Hina and Leitis in Waiting, as well as their other animated short, Kapaemahu.Aikāne won HIFF’s Made in Hawai’i Best Short Film Award.

The winner of the festival’s Kau Ka Hōkū Award, given to a first or second feaure by an international filmmaker, may not have been from Hawai’i, but still shared the region’s desire to elevate stories that go unheard. Set in the aftermath of the Philippines’ devastating Typhoon Haiyan, Seán Devlin’s Asog is—amazingly, remarkably—a comedy, a piece of activist cinema, a statement for trans rights, and a call to both environmental and political action, all somehow wrapped in that most dubious of genres, the “unlikely duo on a forced road trip.” It follows a quickly unemployed non-binary schoolteacher, Jaya, as she travels across what remains of typhoon-devastated Sicogon Island, her only real companion a teenage former student. Besides adding some odd surrealist, playful quirks along the way, Devlin slyly folds into the narrative the very real-life struggles of the typhoon’s survivors, who speak to Jaya on their battles against real-estate developers who used the tragedy as an excuse to seize their land for profit. What does it mean to be a filmmaker? For Devlin, it means actually impacting the situation; after screening the completed film and generating interest in the situation, Asog managed to create enough pressure on the developers and government that they finally listened to many of the residents. “With its audacious hybrid approach to narrative; blending fiction and non-fiction; and for its artistry, originality, passion, and levity while tackling serious issues such as transphobia, the devastation wrought by climate change and colonialism with complexity, this work signals the emergence of an exciting new voice in cinema,” wrote the jury.

Stories that otherwise are ignored or forgotten, now shared, and now known: it’s a statement that sums up what it means to be a filmmaker for so many here, especially so in Hawai’i, and one that filmmaker/producer Ty Sanga embodies in his most recent work, Hōkūleʻa: Finding the Language of the Navigator, winner of the festival’s Made in Hawai’i Best Feature Award. It’s hard to convey the importance that the Hōkūleʻa voyaging canoe has with Native Hawaiians; launched in 1975, it served not only as a physical vessel that voyaged the mind-boggling distance from Hawai’i to Tahiti using only traditional way-finding navigational techniques, but also still serves as a cultural and social vessel, which embodies the revitalization of traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian culture and brilliance. Nāʻālehu Anthony’s 2018 documentary Moananuiākea might be the most comprehensive dive into the Hōkūleʻa, with Sanga’s work almost functioning like a kind of B-Side to it, a little more relaxed and free, allowing its legendary wayfinder subjects Nainoa Thompson and Wade Davis the room to spread out, talk story, and share not only the knowledge and tales behind their voyages, but their hopes for a future inspired by the wisdom found in the past.

“Ty Sanga thoughtfully presents a fresh perspective on the iconic canoe by focusing not on the boat itself but the people and elements around it which allow the Hokule’a to reach ever new horizons,” wrote the jury. “Passion is evident in front of and behind the camera, as both the film crew and that of the Hokule’a expertly navigate many elements with the support of buoyant music and crisp, professional editing. This is a film built on tradition, one which inspires us to imagine a better Hawai’i attainable only by looking ahead through the lens of Pasifika heritage.”

Sanga, whose 2009 short Stones was one of the very first Hawaiian-language films screened at Sundance, was imagining a better Hawai’i offscreen as well, helping organize and moderate one of HIFF’s many panel initiatives. These “HIFILM Industry Hubs” gave audiences a chance to hear from not only local filmmakers, but key behind-the-scenes talents like casting agents, location scouts, production managers, and more. Their “Real World Film School,” led by location scout and producer Kent Matsuoka, showcased the many “below-the-line” job opportunities available in film, while Sanga’s panel on “The Rise of Hawai’i Cinema” gathered several Kanaka industry leaders to celebrate and critique the present, and imagine a better future. Film industry veterans Brian Keaulana, Angela Laprete and Robert Suga were on hand to speak, advise, and share news of their recently launched International Cultural Arts Network (ICAN) iniative, whose mission is “elevating, educating, and empowering diversity with focus on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in Hawaii’s TV and film industry, and bridging cultural connections globally.”

Such panels and events also underlined HIFF’s sense of duty and responsibility, or kuleana, towards new generations. Many of the speakers spoke of legacies received from their own mentors, and of legacies they hoped to pass on to those coming up. Acclaimed Māori actor Cliff Curtis, one of the festival’s spotlight honorees along with Japanese actress Sakura Ando and Korean American actor Don Lee (a.k.a. Ma Dong-seok), movingly recalled learning from legendary filmmaker/activist/writer Merata Mita, who taught in Hawai’i for many years. Leading a seminar on acting opportunities for Pasifika talents, he joked that his goal was “to never play a Native Hawaiian role again, which should be played by a Hawaiian. My goal is to be obsolete.” During one event, Yamashita had the chance to meet the legendary producer Myrna Kamae, who along with her husband Eddie crafted many pioneering documentaries on Hawaiian cultural practice and practitioners. (Their 2006 film, Lahaina Waves of Change, is another vital piece of Lahaina moving-image history). “Wow! I met you when I was a kid; you came to my school and talked about making films in Hawai’i!” he remembered fondly as they began to talk story about, well, making films in Hawai’i, the kid now developed into a peer.

At the other panels, figures like Sanga, Keaulana, and Laprete expressed their hopes of creating opportunities for those coming next, but it was actor/playwright Moses Goods who put it most poetically during the panel on Hawaiian/Kanaka cinema. “It’s more than me, it’s us. When you water a kalo leaf, it takes the water and passes it on to the next one. It’s unselfish. That’s how I envision our film community. So when we play the Hollywood way, we play it the Kanaka way.”

As always, a deep thanks to all the filmmakers that were gracious enough to share their thoughts and wisdom, and to all the HIFF staff. Mahalo.

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