In his debut feature film, Christopher Kahunahana intertwines modern Hawaiian culture with the historical generational ills of native people living in a post-colonial economy.
“We want to change the conversation that people have surrounding Hawaii. The tourist industry has marketed, spent billions and billions of dollars exploiting and marketing Hawaii as a paradise for people to come… [Native Hawaiians] are supposed to host and entertain guests,” Kahunahana told ABC News.
“It has displaced Hawaiians, so without Hawaiians, what is Hawaii but just beautiful beaches and sunsets?” he added.
“Waikiki,” the first narrative feature written and directed by a native Hawaiian, debuted at the Urban World Film Festival in 2020. Kahunahana said the film is about reclaiming the Hawaiian narrative during an ongoing history of exploitation.
“In order to market Hawaii as a tourist destination, [non-native filmmakers of the past] had to remove the culture and overlay images of sexualization of women and our culture and exoticize us and 'other' us,” said Kahunahana.
“As a Kanaka Maoli, Hawaii is our home. My ancestors' bones are here,” he added.
Kanaka Maoli means a “real or true person” of Hawaii. Kahunahana said that language matters, or as Hawaiians say “ʻŌlelo” matters, like thinking critically about using terms like “mainland” for the United States.
“That makes us a colony,” said Kahunahana. “I mean something as simple as that will change people’s understanding of relationships here and I think that’s a good place to start.”
He added that oftentimes non-Hawaiian filmmakers will change the meaning of traditional Hawaiian words.
“For instance, they say, ‘Ohana means nobody gets left behind,’ which is not true,” said Kahunahana. “And so once they're able to change your language, and make people believe your language is something that it's not, I think that's kind of one of the final straws.”
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Through his work, Kahunahana is changing the cinematic landscape with more authentic storytelling about Hawaii. For starters, he stresses the importance of addressing the current mental health, domestic abuse and homelessness issues within the community, which he said is often deliberately hidden.
Although organizations like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands have made it a mandate to provide land to Native Hawaiians, Kahunahana said the program is chronically underfunded.
“There's a generation of people still waiting for land allotments. People have to understand that it’s systematic and it is created to keep Hawaiians from creating intergenerational wealth,” said Kahunahana, who added that without land, people struggle to take out loans to send their children to college. “They need people to work at the hotel as a busboy, waiter or entertainer.”
Land displacement, pollution and suppression of Native Hawaiian voices are motifs often threaded throughout Kahunahana’s work. As a personal example, Kahunahana points to the ongoing movement in Haleakala and Mauna Kea where, during post-production of Waikiki, he volunteered his time to advocate the protection of natural Hawaiian land.
He was a member of a team that traveled to Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in the Pacific and occupied the land to protest the state government, engineers and research universities who plan to construct the Thirty Meter Telescope on the mountain, which is a sacred site to Native Hawaiian people. At one demonstration, several protesters were initially arrested, which spurred further outrage.The film’s release was delayed while Kahunahana camped on the mountain for nearly six months.
“It was very emotional and it kind of gave context as to why as a Kanaka Maoli filmmaker we do what we do,” said Kahunahana. “Waikiki deals with some of those issues, but Mauna Kea was the issue in the present tense and it required all of our support, so I was happy to contribute to that.”
According to a press release from the Thirty Meter Telescope project, the project is currently engaged in “meaningful dialogue with Native Hawaiians.” The project also launched a few educational initiatives, including The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund in 2014 to better prepare Hawaii Island students for careers in STEM.
In May, the Hawaii state legislature passed House Bill 2024 in an effort to establish an 11-member board called the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority that would oversee the management and human activity of the project on Mauna Kea. The board would include Native Hawaiians, educators, the mayor of Hawaii County among others, according to the bill.
The bill is currently under review by the governor.
Kahunahana said it’s not enough. He said it disregards the importance of the purpose behind the land for native people.
“When you change the [mountain], which has value in our culture as a relative or references to our creation myths or our ancestors, you take those away. The place becomes empty,” said Kahunahana.
Over the past two decades, Kahunahana has been recognized for numerous awards for his writing, filmmaking and art that often puts Native Hawaiians as the subject.
“Film is fun, but film also has the opportunity to say something,” he said. “If you feel something, I think you have some responsibility to say something.”
In October 2021, Kahunahana was tapped to join a panel of AANHPI industry leaders, including Daniel Dae Kim and Jon M. Chu, to award the Future Gold Film Fellowship, aimed at uplifting other AANHPI storytellers. He also attended the Gold Gala hosted by Gold House, an AAPNHI-led community to promote creatives, that celebrated the 100 most influential Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the entertainment and tech industries.
He said he was honored to be given the ability to give visibility, not only to the people of Hawaii, but to the AANHPI community as a whole.
“I felt blessed to experience the joy and to celebrate the accomplishments of the Asian American community,” he said. “I think it not only brings light to and celebrates our similarities, but it also highlights our differences and to have our differences supported and highlighted in that way.”