In her 1997 essay “Writing in Captivity,” Native Hawaiian scholar, poet, and activist Haunani-Kay Trask supported the conviction that “the best art is political” and that art ought to be “unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” As she affirmed the inseparability of art and politics for Hawaiians living under US colonial rule, Trask asserted that the reverse also holds true. The experience of watching—and teaching—filmmaker and journalist Anne Keala Kelly’s documentary, Noho Hewa: The Wrongful Occupation of Hawai‘i, supports Trask’s assertion. If “the best art is political,” Noho Hewa exemplifies how the best forms of political resistance can be unquestionably artistic and irrevocably beautiful at the same time. This makes the independently funded Noho Hewa—recipient of the Hawai‘i International Film Festival award for best documentary in 2008 and the Prix Special du Jury at the Festival International du Film Documentaire Océanien in 2010—a powerful text to teach in classrooms centered on American, Hawai‘i, Hawaiian, or Pacific history and politics, as well as in courses more broadly concerned with colonialism or poetics and aesthetics.
As an English professor at the University of Hawai‘i, I teach Noho Hewa in courses that range from Freshman Composition, to Introduction to Literary Studies, to the graduate-level Theories in Cultural Studies in Asia/Pacific. I regularly include this film because it teaches students important lessons about their location—in Hawai‘i, in the Pacific, in the United States—in a way that also allows them to understand the potent interrelations among art, on-the-ground activism, reportage, analysis, [End Page 425] and theory. This film documents the wrongs, or forms of hewa, that have accompanied the US occupation and colonization of Hawai‘i, in ways that belie the commonly held opposition between political advocacy and artistic complexity. Through its inclusion of a range of political actors—academics, community organizers and educators, lawyers, farmers, environmentalists, people struggling to maintain their homes on public beaches, members of organizations ranging from the Revolutionary Communist Party to Nuclear Free/Independent Hawai‘i to Kūlana Huli Honua—who eloquently address settler colonialism and occupation from different disciplinary angles and perspectives, the film also debunks the “there are two sides to every issue” approach to politics that stymies thought and limits action. Instead, Kelly includes interviews with activist/intellectuals who, across their diverse views, share a passionate commitment to decolonization (those interviewed include Kaleikoa Ka‘eo, Kyle Kajihiro, Jimmy Medeiros, Jon Osorio, Walter Ritte, Mikahala Roy, David Keanu Sai, Noenoe Silva, and Ty Tengan).
Noho Hewa focuses not on an individual or family story, but rather on Hawai‘i’s most pressing political concerns. In doing so, the film evidences how emotional power and passion can reside in ideas and issues. The case that Kelly makes for decolonization is at once polemical and nuanced as she explores militarization, environmental devastation, grave desecration, tourism, the degradation and commodification of culture, real estate development, houselessness and its criminalization, and the takeover of big agriculture as facets of occupation. Importantly, for instance with references to Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Gerald Vizenor, Noho Hewa also situates Hawai‘i in relation to other colonial sites and struggles.
Moreover, the beauty and love that infuses Noho Hewa’s representations of the land and of its people who survive and resist occupation—through legal channels, civil disobedience, cultural practices, artistic and intellectual production—are integral to the film’s political protest. This is evident from Noho Hewa’s very opening, a kanikau, or prayer of loss and lamentation, issued by Kānaka Maoli gathered at the sacred cultural site Makua to protest its use as a US military training site. In its grief and resistance, its fury and beauty, its marking of loss and insistence on a continuing Kanaka Maoli presence, this kanikau sounds a keynote for this...