Christopher Kahunahana's long-awaited feature film debut Waikiki is a film with "seventeen days of shooting and more than two years of post-production" and marks a coming of age for the burgeoning Hawaiian film scene. Waikiki, the first completed narrative feature film by a Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) filmmaker, follows a young indigenous woman, Kea (an intriguing Danielle Zalopany), who has multiple jobs – hula dancer for tourists, karaoke hostess for drunks, Hawaiian-speaking teacher for kids – just to hold on, but slowly slip into the darkness. Nightmares of an earlier childhood trauma merge with her journey through Honolulu's shadowy realms, she only comforts the memories of her kupuna (elders) and the visions of a natural world that is part of her and her legacy – so close and yet so far. Indeed, for every urban scene of a claustrophobic bar or ominously empty alley, of abuse, poverty and mental disorders, there is another setting of ʻaina (nature), of the sea or of the rain in the mountains around Honolulu, which follows green cliffs, when it flows into the city before it becomes a trickle in the city's canals and gullies. ("This is also one of the reasons we wrote Waikiki in a" touristy "way," notes Kahunahana, "not the original spelling of Waikīkī or" sparkling water ".)" Er aliʻi ka ʻāina, er kauwa ke kanaka. The land is the chief, the people are their servants, ”is the last Hawaiian song of our heroine in the film, her longing to reconnect with the land. She sings it sadly and defiantly in the mountains or at least in the high-rise apartments in front of them.
"Basically, I wanted people to have empathy for people they didn't know," Kahunahana notes. The film pulls back two layers: one of the "aloha ghosts" of tourism associations and hotel bars, in which a beautiful smile masks the crazy chaos of everyday life in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and the other of homelessness, in which madness masks the beauty of one Life that once was and could still be. "You could say that at the core of our being it is political but spiritual," explained producer Connie Florez during the Q&A after the film's screening. “This story is important. It no longer needs to be hidden. "
Kahunahana was kind enough to take some time to prepare for his Hawaiian premiere at the Hawai'i International Film Festival and read the film, its journey and its relationship with Native Hawaiian storytelling and the harsh realities of contemporary Hawaiian & # 39; 39; i to discuss. Some answers have been edited for brevity, while others have included his answers during the post-screening questions and answers.
Filmmakers: Chris, many filmmakers making their feature film debuts gravitate towards simpler genres and stories, but you've settled on a psychological portrait of a woman – and a society – on the fringes. What made you tell this story now?
Kahunahana: I think there are no easy 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 been so interested in the hero trope, I'm more curious about the journey. This story gave me the opportunity to mix genres, experiment with place and sound as a character. The literal translation of the Hawaiian word Makawalu is "eight eyes". This is a major oversimplification, but essentially Makawalu speaks of the need to look at things from at least eight different perspectives. These perspectives are not limited to humans but encompass the concepts of time or even the natural elements of the planet. Our Hawaiian stories and legends don't always fit into a simple A-B-C structure. Two-dimensional villains or heroes or even genders don't really exist in my culture. The personification of place, nature and sound is quite normal in Hawaiian storytelling. It was important to me that the characters in Waikiki stay true to that. For the main character Kea, it was essential for me that the audience could see through / behind / as / despite / in contrast to their eyes. Her flashbacks to traumatic events have been purposely left muddy to portray the memory almost as a form of time travel, noting the relativity of time. The idea of telling this story now was more a decision of my kūpuna (elders) than anything else. It is told now – because it should be told now.
Filmmakers: This story could have fallen into more typical narrative traps, like an advertising film "Frau am Rande" with free sex and violence or alternatively as a kind of festival-suitable "atrocity exhibition" in which a woman has to suffer. However, the end product is far less defined and much more surreal in many respects. 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 difficult for me is that my reality is pretty surreal. The beauty of Hawaii is well known, but its pain and struggle are so unknown that it was surreal to most. Navigating my reality, Hawaii's reality, and the viewer's reality was an unexpected challenge. Film was the right medium to explore these issues because film can bend space and time. In terms of the narrative itself, I knew that the inner conversations the main character has with himself were just as much part of the story as the plot – that the protagonist was also not between what is real in the present and the memory or Psychosis differed. The challenge has always been to balance these seemingly contradicting aspects, much like the main character in the story does.
Filmmakers: With such a long post-production process, you've gone through multiple test screenings with many audiences who all have different ideas and setbacks. On the one hand, there were those who wanted a "more understandable" or "audience-friendly" narrative, but it seems that their own creative vision tended towards a more open, dream-like concept with fewer responses. How did you reconcile the different requirements and voices throughout the post-production process while remaining true to your own?
Kahunahana: Film and art in general are subjective. It was interesting to get feedback from test demonstrations to see what worked for individual viewers. Over the course of post-production and screenings, I realized 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 keep as much of that wonder and variance as possible. I feel that the only value you can have as an artist is to give people the opportunity to introduce themselves and create space for dialogue with each other or within themselves.
What you add to the conversations are your individual quirks, differences, flaws, POV. Everything else has already been done. If you're trying to mimic something to make your movie more accessible, you're really trying to make a product. I used this film as a means to learn: to discover what I feel, what affects me, moves me and hopefully others. A tree does a terrible job when it tries to be a stone, or the wind, or the ocean. Their value in the larger scheme of things is that we are all a unique and equal part of the whole.
The film became a real living being that I spoke to on a daily basis, often more than physical people. If I listened, it told me or took me where it wanted, had to. I started to accept that making the film was a journey: I wasn't the leader, I just followed him. Even with regards to the release schedule, I tried several times and years before to get it done, but it wasn't done to me. It made up its mind to finally be born now, which I know I couldn't have written a better script. Fortunately, I've been blessed with producers who really gave me the space and trust in not just finishing.
Filmmakers: Not only are you responding to funders and potential audiences, but you're in the unique position of obviously being the first Native Hawaiian / Kanaka Maoli director to complete a feature film that requires an entirely different set of responsibilities and duties (one, which is 99.9%). you don't even have to think about your fellow filmmakers). How has that affected your approach?
Kahunahana: Film is a means of understanding and fictional narration is my current medium. I'm just one link in a chain of storytellers. I happen to be the first, but it really could have been any of the amazing Kanaka (Native Hawaiian) storytellers. I and all Kanaka are part of a continuum that extends far ahead of us and far after us. My responsibility rests with my kūpuna (elders) and the continuum … They are the ones I answer to.
(Regarding another snack for the movie): For Hawaiians and Native Americans in general, this is how we are connected to the land. The country is so important to us. When we remove Hawaiians from the country, all of these trauma, these intergenerational problems that keep popping up, arise. Even if we try to deal with it in this current context of today's Hawaii, these things are ingrained – anger problems, abuse problems, violence problems that result from the lack of that connection to land and culture. Another aspect is that we need to return to this place where we appreciate the understanding and wisdom of the natives about connecting with nature. Otherwise we will all be confused if we do not take care of this planet. I think we understand this in Hawaii, it's an integral part of our culture, and I wanted to show people that we all have to take care of the land.
Filmmakers: Last year, you and several other members of your team actually stepped out of the post-production process to join the Mauna Kea movement and the associated struggles for the sovereignty of the Hawaiian land, while lending you your imaging and storytelling talents. Did that put a different focus or meaning on what you thought about the film and what you wanted to achieve with it?
Kahunahana: When someone calls you, you have to listen. I wrote the script in 2014 when Kanaka stopped the groundbreaking at the summit and I knew I should be there in whatever capacity I could support it, but I decided to keep writing. That decision was something to deal with, a question inside of me. When the kāhea (a "call" or a call to action) came a second time, I knew in the middle of the mail that I had to go. I was fortunate that one of my producers, Nicole Naone, also had a deep calling to protect Maunakea, and we both decided to live at the Maunakea base and contribute in any way we could. We joined Nā Leo Kakoʻo, the media support team that fought on a daily basis against the lies, racist representations and all the falsehoods that the proponent of the Three Mile Telescope project spoke out against Kiaʻi (protector). These experiences taught me the importance of controlling our own narrative.
Filmmakers: Similarly, the film ends with the lyrics of a mele or chant by Hawaiian composer / scholar Mary Kawena Puku'i, who helped preserve and collect many indigenous songs and chants in the 1960s and 1970s. Why did you choose this piece to close the film?
Kahunahana: Yes, Kea plays "Ke Ao Nani" by Pūkuʻi at the end of the film. This is the mele that young Kea is taught by her grandmother earlier in the film. It is a simple mele that is taught to Keiki or young children and which, like oleo noeʻau, has a lot of kauna or hidden meaning. I didn't choose Ke Ao Nani so much that it turned out to be the right mix for the film. I was looking for something and it came about through one of my dear friends, Dr. Noelani Arista, known it was the right mele and happened to be what the film was thematically about. It was all in sync. Everything has its place on this earth, which is perfectly related to the ʻOlelo noeʻau Kea that teaches her class. “He ali'i ka 'aina, he kauwa ke kanaka. The country is the chief, the people are his servants. “It closes the film because this is Kea's return trip to connect with 'aina or the earth.
Filmmakers: Normally, I wouldn't advise first-time low-budget filmmakers to make a movie that has an actor on screen about 90% of the time, just because the chances are slim you'll get on with what first time will be to have success low budget lead. But your leading actress, Danielle Zalopany, delivers a compelling performance. You ask her a lot in the movie and there is a lot of raw emotion in it. How was your collaboration and how did you create an environment on set where you can go so far and be so emotionally vulnerable?
Kahunahana: Dani is amazing and I feel blessed to be able to work with her. Synchronicity again. You get a feeling that when things line up, things are moving in the right direction. I feel like she was in a place in her life where she needed the movie and Hawaii needed her. Our film community needed Dani, as evidenced by all of the roles she has played since we started filming Waikiki. We missed someone playing a strong but vulnerable wahine (woman). That voice was missing in our films.
The kea role would be a challenge for any actor. I knew from our first screen test that Dani had the strength, focus, and skills for the role. I feared that some of the scenes might trigger deeper unresolved issues and wanted to make sure she felt safe before leading her through the stages of the deteriorating protagonist. I think this helped us build the trust it takes to work together in a director / actor relationship. Your commitment is impressive. She was all in all all along. She came straight from work, shot all night or all day, slept in the van between takes and returned to work. I don't know how she did it.
(On the film's co-star, Peter Shinkoda, who plays a homeless man 🙂 When you sleep on the floor or sleep in a bed, your body begins to look and move differently. Peter slept in my driveway for four nights to adjust his body to the role, and he was such a method actor that he even slept in front of a group of homeless people outside the Iolani Palace for several nights.
Filmmakers: I know that before filmmaking you organized some underground film festivals and opened the prestigious Nextdoor nightclub / art space in Honolulu's Chinatown. What was your inspiration for filmmaking? Were there also certain filmmakers or films that most inspired you to either view film as an art form or to do Waikiki?
Kahunahana: Photography was my gateway drug. Years ago I worked in a black and white photo printing darkroom where I learned from Gene Nitihara, a master printer photographer. My film education really started with the Hawaii International Film Festival. Movies were free back then, so my mom kept me in line for the next movie while she was watching a movie in the theater. As a kid from Waimānalo, the films I saw were like traveling. My opinion and my worldview were forever changed by these moments in the dark theater. Movies like Zhang Yimous Raise the Red Lantern have been life changing experiences for me. Through HIFF, I was introduced to the film museum, where Dwight Damon allowed me to work my way through the entire filmography of a director. The collections curated by cinephilic represented the best of world cinema: Soja Kuba, Pixote, Touki Bouki, Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Fellini. These were my teachers.
When I started Nextdoor in Chinatown, the power in that area hadn't been updated since the 1903 fires. By connecting our sound system, the power supply for the entire block was switched off. The intention has always been to bring life to a city that seemed to be asleep. Sometimes it was through film and art, sometimes through music and alcohol. Learning how to make something out of nothing was enormous for me. Thematically, the Chinatown district influenced Waikiki at the time: a lot of homelessness in the neighborhood, addiction problems, violence.
Filmmakers: Were there other non-cinematic artistic influences on the film?
Kahunahana: While I take note of everything and make an inventory – every conversation, every tone, every shift in light, every whisper, every relationship, etc. – I try to be influenced only by nature. As Hawaiians, we are not on, in, on or even by nature. We are nature. Er aliʻi ka ʻāina, er kauwa ke kanaka – the land is the chief and the people are his servants. I am essentially always trying to sift through the sounds of the current time I am in to return to a space of communication with the important sources – Pohaku, Wai, Kai, Kamakani. Every now and then a person or a work of art slips through the cracks like butoh dance or my grandmother's cooking or a noguchi sculpture, but for the most part I try to listen to nature.
Filmmakers: The film's long post-production process took a number of years, so a lot of patience was also asked of your team and the community around it. How have you maintained momentum and positivity over the months, and what does the support of the local filmmaking community mean to you?
Kahunahana: Many of our crew members and cast have written, directed, produced, premiered, and won awards while living in the lonely darkness of the Post Office. These filmmakers really inspired me to keep going. I am grateful to be a small part of a talented growing film community. All of our sensations are so different that each project solidifies the diversity and depth of our community. It's an exciting time with each film building on each other's success and dynamism. We can expect more feature films from Hawaii in the next few years.