Although the cinematic possibilities of Hawai’i—those that lay beyond the tropical tropes of tourism and military patriotism— have always been clear to local residents of the island, only recently has there been notable validation of that truth. The sudden abundance of studio work, a new school for multimedia, and the proliferation of local film festivals, are all signs of Hawai’i developing into a vibrant place to make film and video and for local filmmakers to cultivate a strong community.
This marks significant change for a place that has always felt like a big small town. The old and prevailing attitude among locals usually had it that the best opportunities for gainful employment occurred on the mainland and in the nearby urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas—live, learn, and work elsewhere until you have succeeded, and then return triumphant. As such, the change in thinking that the real opportunities are now homegrown and based locally is vital.
One clear example of the shift in landscape is the recent parade of studio productions that has come through the island. In the past two years almost ten major films—including Tears of the Sun (2003) and 50 First Dates (2004)—were shot in Hawai’i, providing a welcome and steady stream of income to local film crews. Additionally, four major networks have opened production offices in Honolulu to coordinate and shoot four separate new television series—NBC’s Hawaii, ABC’s Lost, Fox’s North Shore and the WB pilot, Rocky Point. Although these productions, too, have created additional and regular employment for local residents in the film and television industry, the near simultaneous shooting of four shows has also meant a shortage of crew, equipment, studio space, vendors, and a near frenzy (by Hawai’i standards) trying to meet the demand.
“Everyone was happy, but a little surprised by the sudden influx of productions,” says veteran production coordinator and local filmmaker, Angela Laprete. Both Laprete and her partner, William “Chico” Powell, who works as a payroll accountant for the Hawai’i-based television show North Shore, have to balance their paid production work with their own independent projects, which include a film adaptation of Chris McKinney’s gritty 1999 novel, The Tattoo. Laprete, Powell, and their Tattoo partner, writer/producer Bob Gookin, admit that the project will have to wait not only because of their own work on studio and network productions, but because most if not all the talented crews and vendors in Hawai’i have already been hired out.
And then there is the competition between networks. Despite the difference in each show’s premise, Hawaii and Lost were set head to head in the 2004 new fall lineup, and there is always the looming concern of being cancelled at any time. The question then, is how to best create a local film industry in Hawai’i that is self-sustaining. Especially, says Hawai’i-based filmmaker Nathan Kurosawa (The Ride, 2003), considering “the unique cultures, stories, and voices [that] make Hawai’i a goldmine.”
The Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i has provided a great opportunity for building a self-sustaining film community. According to ACM founding chairman Chris Lee, rather than replicate the curriculum of traditional film schools on the mainland, the ACM meets the growing demands of the entertainment industry while at the same time better harnessing the cultural and geographical uniqueness of Hawai’i. Lee, who returned to Hawai’i from Hollywood in 2002 to guide the ACM from concept to reality, suggests like many others in the field, that various technologies—advanced computer software and hardware, digital video, the internet, and portable gaming and video systems—have turned film into a medium that is accessible by anyone, anywhere. By this line of thinking, Hawai’i no longer has a reason to consider itself an outsider in the film world, nor unable to nurture an indigenous film culture.
The focus then becomes on developing skills of narrative and storytelling. “The idea that you can’t afford to make a movie is gone in the world of multimedia—all you need is talent and a good story,” Lee says. To this end, ACM students work with digital video and video games, and create short narrative films. “The challenge is to get students to come to us, rather than go to the mainland,” Lee says. “We have an opportunity to keep local talent in the islands and to give an opportunity to local filmmakers.”
The ACM is off to a good start. Immediately after his arrival, Lee embraced local independent filmmakers, often lending his experience and connections to help them get their projects made, which is no small thing given Lee’s background. Once the highest ranking Asian American working in the Hollywood studio system, Lee worked for several years as president of production for TriStar and Columbia Pictures, where he supervised films such as Jerry Maguire (1996), Philadelphia (1993), and As Good As It Gets (1997). Lee currently manages his own production company, Chris Lee Productions, with a roster that includes Final Fantasy (2001), Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002), and most recently, S.W.A.T. (2003).
Over $2 million has been raised for the ACM during the past two years, and the program has laid the foundation for a comprehensive multimedia curriculum focusing on three main education tracks: Cinematic & Digital Narrative Production, Animation and Computer Games, and Critical Studies taught by filmmakers like Merata Mita. Additionally, a slate of promising ACM student films conceived, written, and made in Hawai’i, will premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival.
Another sign that the film scene in Honolulu is becoming something bigger is the increased number of film festivals around town, with many of them having only just emerged within the last three years. In 2004, six festivals screened films and videos for the city and county’s population of roughly one million.
The Cinema Paradise Film Festival (September) showcased independent films and documentaries with a similar urban vibe to that of downtown New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, while the Digital Independent Film Festival (May) programmed exclusively digital projects. GiRL FeST Hawaii (May–June) featured lectures, performances, workshops, films and videos that reflected the festival’s mission: the prevention of violence against women and girls. Honolulu’s only gay, lesbian, and transgendered film festival is the Rainbow Honolulu Film Festival (May), and the festival devoted entirely to short films and videos is ‘Ohina: The Short Film Showcase (October).
The oldest and largest of the bunch is the Hawaii International Film Festival. What started as a showcase of seven films from Asia is now an international event in its 24th year that screens over 130 films from around the world. Lately, the HIFF has a renewed energy since winning a community arts and culture grant in 2002 from the highend luxury goods company Louis Vuitton Hawaii. HIFF’s 2004 jury included actors Maggie Cheung and David Wenham, UCLA professor Emanuel Levy, and the festival also offered a a free workshop by cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T., Empire of the Sun, and Van Helsing).
Since 1981, when Jeannette Paulson-Hereniko first launched HIFF, there has been a notable increase of films submitted by Hawai’i filmmakers. “There wasn’t a single entry to consider programming from a Hawai’i filmmaker [when I started HIFF],” Paulson-Hereniko says. “Now there are over forty submissions just from Hawai’i.” Paulson-Hereniko is no longer the director of HIFF, but she keeps busy in the film world by producing and promoting her husband’s feature film, The Land Has Eyes, which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. A writer, filmmaker, poet and professor at the University of Hawai’i, Vilsoni Hereniko’s film about a young Rotuman woman’s experiences on the small Fijian island of Rotuma seems to embody the direction of film and video in Hawai’i. The film reflects the growing collaboration within Honolulu’s film community to help get a project made, and the thinking behind The Land—like that behind The Ride and The Tattoo, and the ACM’s student films—is rooted in the desire to depict a story that is native to the experiences of the Pacific, particularly those of Pacific Islanders. Similar to the ways in which the films Once Were Warriors (1994) and Whale Rider (2002) re-articulate representations of the Maori in New Zealand, the new attitude in the burgeoning film community of Hawai’i is about animating the cultural, social, and political of the islands.
Hawai’i is more than surf, sea, and sun. And its independent film scene is thriving more than ever.