2010 constituted a landmark year for Native Hawaiian filmmakers with the premiere of the Ōiwi Film Festival, which ran from 1-26 May at the Honolulu Academy of Arts Doris Duke Theatre. Although Native Hawaiians have been active in the filmmaking process for at least the last forty years, the presentation of a collective body of their work in festival form has never been achieved—until now. The film festival was the culmination of an eight-month-long collaboration between film curator Gina Caruso and Hawaiian filmmaker Ann Marie Nālani Kirk; Kirk's two films Happy Birthday, Tutu Ruth and Homealani (the subject of this review) were featured in the festival lineup.
Homealani, Kirk's most recent and inarguably most personal work, documents the life of her grandfather, Colonel Oliver Homealani Kupau, who lived during a time of tremendous cultural, social, economic, and political change in his native Hawai'i. He was born in 1899, a year after the illegal annexation of the islands by the United States, and he witnessed the transition of Hawai'i from US territory to its eventual designation as the fiftieth state in the union in 1959. During that time, Kupau sought to adapt to changing circumstances while never forgetting his Native Hawaiian roots. Kupau's experiences mirror those of many other Hawaiians who had to negotiate between their mother culture and the introduced culture of the United States. It is this universal feature of the film that enables audiences—in particular those of Native Hawaiian descent—to identify with Kupau's life, whether through their own firsthand experiences or through the stories of family members. Indeed, at a 2009 screening of the film at Kamehameha Schools—a private school for Native Hawaiian youth where Kupau was a student in the early 1900s—several elderly audience members stood up at the end to relay their own experiences of having to maneuver between two cultures. This powerful moment of collective remembering underscored the fact that Homealani is not only an intensely personal portrait of a single individual, but also a partial unfolding of the wider panorama that is the Native Hawaiian experience in the wake of Western hegemony.
Kirk uses footage shot by her grandfather on 16mm film stock during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to transport the audience back in time and to introduce them to the world through his eyes. The opening section [End Page 256] of Homealani is a montage of moving images taken by Kupau—in both color and black-and-white—which include, among other things, a trio of young girls dancing hula, Kupau's beloved wife Jessie walking in the family garden, and family and friends preparing what looks like an imu (earth oven). This sequence is infused with an almost haunting quality by technical features such as the graininess of the film and the melancholy piano music that plays underneath the otherwise silent images. But something subtle is at work here, something deeper. It is as if we are watching the past in motion; we are seeing intimate moments in peoples' lives—moments that may have long been forgotten, but which are forever fixed in time through the power of the camera. Homealani evokes an undeniable sense of intimacy with the past and an emotional connection to the people—powerful impressions that Kirk manages to sustain throughout the film.
As with any good piece of literature, a memorable film begins with a compelling first line of dialogue to draw the audience in. Such is the case with Homealani. As the opening images slowly fade to black, the filmmaker's voice-over begins the narrative thread: "I was born the year my grandfather died." This powerful statement immediately situates Kirk in the wider framework of the story and underscores her connection to her grandfather, even though he died when she was only six months old. Despite his physical absence in her life, Kirk's understanding of Kupau has come through a treasure trove of resources, including family photographs and...