Behind the Scenes

Six filmmakers, whose recent projects paint gripping portraits of spiritual transcendence
and ‘āina, share inspirational settings for their work around O‘ahu.


Judd Memorial Trail

“I’m really drawn to stones and feel a sense of spiritual power when I’m around them,” says Bradley Tangonan, writer and director of the short film River of Small Gods. “That, combined with the fact that I’d been thinking a lot about what it takes to survive in the modern world, all came together to form the core of the film.”

When a construction injury leaves the film’s protagonist without a livelihood or a roof over her head, she is driven to seeking odd jobs online and is hired by a local sculptor to remove stones from a sacred river. The O‘ahu-born, New York City-based filmmaker chose not to single out a particular wahi pana (storied place) in the film, instead drawing inspiration for the film’s titular river from spiritually charged places like Judd Memorial Trail, a one-mile loop that takes hikers across Nu‘uanu Stream to a swimming hole, where Hawaiian royalty are said to have made a sport of mudsliding on ti leaves. “The goal of the film was to communicate the feeling of encountering a spiritual presence in a place,” Tangonan says. “I get that feeling at Judd Trail.”


Pālolo Valley

“My father and two grandfathers all passed away in quick succession about 10 years ago, so I spent a lot of time with people as they were passing on,” says filmmaker Christopher Makoto Yogi, whose paternal grandfather served as the basis for his upcoming feature film, I Was a Simple Man. “I remember one instance when my grandfather was talking to people who weren’t there, calling out phrases in Japanese I didn’t understand. At one point, he mistook me for my father, who had already passed away at that point. It was a surreal and terrifying experience—like his entire life was closing in around us—but, in retrospect, quite beautiful and profound.”

In translating this experience into a supernatural account of a dying man haunted by apparitions from his past, Yogi relied on memories of the traditional plantation-style home his grandfather built in Pālolo Valley. “That was always the guiding light—capturing what it felt like to be a kid there, where everything felt magical, alive, and mysterious, almost like a Hayao Miyazaki film.”


Pu‘uloa (Pearl Harbor)

“Growing up, I was never taught about the extensive history behind my home waters of Pu‘uloa, only what happened on December 7, 1941, and thereafter,” says Native Hawaiian filmmaker ‘Āina Paikai. “In college, I was introduced to the idea of aloha ‘āina, and it got me into researching the area so that I could finally answer questions like, ‘What was Ford Island called before it got the name Ford Island?’ The name is Moku‘ume‘ume, and it was a rendezvous location where couples who were having trouble conceiving could go to play a sensual game called ‘ume‘ume. Knowing more about where I’m from helped me with my identity issues as a suburban Hawaiian and gain the tools necessary for me to begin my journey into storytelling.”

It was this awakening of aloha ‘āina that compelled Paikai to write, direct, and produce the upcoming short film Hawaiian Soul, which tells the story of Native Hawaiian activist and musician George Helm, an influential figure in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement of the 1970s. “He used his talents as a charismatic performer to educate folks on Hawai‘i’s history, ultimately inspiring them to share his love for the land,” Paikai says.


Mauna ‘Ala Royal Mausoleum

In Anela Ling’s Mo‘o!, the short film follows 10-year-old Mika as he helps his cousin, Kekoa, mourn the loss of his mother. Though it was a childhood ghost walk through ‘Iolani Palace that informed the spiritual backbone of Ling’s film, its defining moment takes place at Mauna ‘Ala Royal Mausoleum, the only remaining sovereign land in the islands and the final resting place of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i’s two ruling families.

“Upon passing through the gates of Mauna ‘Ala, the characters make a literal and metaphysical ‘crossing over’ to a new state of understanding,” Ling says. “The groundskeeper, a seventh-generation kahu (caretaker), shared with us that previous film productions that attempted to film within the tomb itself had all their gear suddenly stop working. Thankfully, nothing like that happened during our shoot. We made an offering, gathered for a blessing, and everything went smoothly.”



In the upcoming drama Waikiki, Native Hawaiian writer-director Christopher Kahunahana explores the dichotomy between culture and capital from the perspective of Kea, a woman juggling three jobs to make ends meet in Hawai‘i, exposing the harsh realities of modern life for many Native Hawaiians.

“The name Waikīkī, Hawaiian for ‘spouting water,’ refers to the natural springs that once were plentiful in the area,” Kahunahana says, noting that the main character’s deteriorating state throughout the film parallels the demise of Waikīkī’s former wetlands. “The wai, the water, that once gave life was paved over for development, changing the landscape forever, just as the displacement of Hawaiians from their ancestral land has had detrimental effects on their identity and well-being as a people to this day.”


Kāne‘ohe Bay

Mauka to Makai follows a day in the lives of cousins Akamu and Kaipo, born and raised in the residential community of Kāne‘ohe. “Akamu is the byproduct of a place removed from its history,” says the film’s Kāne‘ohe-born writer and co-director Alika Maikau, who entrusted mainly non-professional actors from Kne‘ohe to bring the story to life. “The people he grew up around equate their Hawaiianness with how tough they are, so he embodies a certain machismo that he feels is necessary to his survival.”

Despite their shared upbringing, the characters’ paths diverge as they stop and survey the landscape stretched out before them, their figures dwarfed by the lush and imposing Ko‘olau mountain range. “That pier on Kāne‘ohe Bay was the perfect place for Akamu to undergo a moment of self-reflection, acknowledging that he can’t continue to live his life this way but, at the same time, he can’t see any other path. It’s the one scene that came the closest to what I had envisioned on the page, which is one of the most fulfilling things about filmmaking.”


Still from Waikiki by Christopher Kahunahana

Still from I Was a Simple
Man by Christopher
Makoto Yogi

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