PACIFIC ISLANDER SHORTS: LAAPFF CAPSULE FILM REVIEWS
America is currently experiencing a historic surge of protests igniting a cultural awakening and racial reckoning. Shorts, documentaries, animation and features by and about the Pacific Islands’ indigenous peoples are being highlighted at the 36th annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Since 1983 Visual Communications, a nonprofit organization, has presented LAAPFF, dedicated to its mission “to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives.” This year due to the pandemic the Festival is online.
The current crop of Pacific Islander pictures demonstrates a new maturity and creativity in Native filmmaking, in terms of content and style.
To be sure, the plethora of pictures presented at LAAPFF are by Asian and Asian-American filmmakers with roots in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, India, etc., with populations that vastly outnumber the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Nevertheless, LAAPFF provides a valuable perch for works by and about Oceanic talents and topics in Los Angeles, a global capital of cinema. The current crop of Pacific Islander pictures demonstrates a new maturity and creativity in Native filmmaking, in terms of content and style. As a film historian who has been writing about South Seas Cinema since the early 1980s, today’s Tidal Wave of Indigenous Cinema being presented by LAAPFF is exciting to behold.
Here are capsule reviews of short films from Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa/New Zealand, etc., at LAAPFF, which is taking place through October 31.
Reel Wahine of Hawaii
The growth in indigenous and local filmmaking has been so impressive and important that a series of shorts are chronicling Hawaii’s women (wahine) filmmakers, funded by the NEA and Hawai‘i Women in Filmmaking, which according to its website is “a feminist nonprofit organization committed to achieving intersectional gender equity in filmmaking.” Two episodes from the Reel Wahine of Hawaii highlighting Hawaiian female directors are being screened as part of LAAPFF 2020.
Lisette Marie Flanary focuses on hula dancing in her documentaries. PBS’ prestigious POV nonfiction series aired Flanary’s 2003 American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai’i, about Hawaiians living in California who perpetuate their cultural identity and heritage through traditional dance. 2006’s Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula emphasizes males and the age-old dance, featuring musician Robert Cazimero, head of what may be the only all-men’s halau (hula school) in the Aloha State, which aired on another respected PBS documentary series, Independent Lens.
Taylour Chang’s well-made short is highly informative regarding Flanary and her work. Reel Wahine of Hawaii covers other key women filmmakers of the Islands, such as Emmy Award-winner Heather Haunani Giugni, but a glaring omission is documentarian Edgy Lee, who with films such as 1998’s Paniolo ranks among Hawaii’s greatest local directors - but for some odd reason has been overlooked by Reel Wahine.
Be that is it may, another Hawaii female filmmaker who is chronicled in the Reel Wahine series in a short presented by LAAPFF is ERIN LAU, and I’m glad she is – along with one of Lau’s works. Renea Veneri-Stewart’s poignant portrait of Lau, who grew up in the village of Kahaluu, Oahu, paints a picture of a sensitive young woman grappling with the complexities of 21st century life in the 50th State through the cinematic art form.
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The Moon and the Night
Writer/director Erin Lau’s outstanding 20 minute narrative The Moon and the Night is one of LAAPFF’s revelations, and just begs to be expanded into a feature-length movie. The stellar Bella Shepard portrays the Hawaiian teenager Mahina (which translates as “Moon”), who lives with her beloved pet dog Po (“Night”) and troubled father, David (Jason Quinn, who co-stars in Waikiki and appears in two other shorts at this year’s LAAPFF, announcing his emergence as an important talent on Hawaii’s cinema scene). The ne’er-do-well dad has problems staying sober and paying the power bill for the boonie shack he and Mahina inhabit, apparently located on the Windward side of Oahu. In order to survive in contemporary Hawaii, an overpriced society where the displaced indigenous people are often landless and at the bottom of the social totem pole, David enters Po in illegal dog fighting competitions in order to scrape by.
Fortunately, Ms. Lau does not subject viewers to graphic scenes depicting canine combat. But her touching short does convey the sense of loss incurred by subjecting hapless animals to violent confrontations not of their making – and to the cost incurred by humans who love them. With its father/daughter clash and animal rights theme, The Moon and the Night is a powerful picture full of promise for the talents who star in and made this moving movie. The discrepancy between the stereotypical happy-go-lucky Natives often depicted in Haole-wood’s South Seas Cinema and the grimly realistic picture Lau presents is like, well, the difference between day and night.
Coming of Age in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Writer/director Becs Arahanga’s award-winning Hinekura is another important step forward in the evolution of the South Seas Cinema film genre. Hinekura is set in Aotearoa, the “Land of the Long White Cloud,” before the British invaded and dominated what is now known as New Zealand. As such, the entire cast is Maori and all of the dialogue and beautiful chanting is in that Polynesian language. The 17 minute short also has a cast of predominantly women (some sporting moku or facial traditional tattoos) and a decidedly female point of view.
This is appropriate because Hinekura is about what happens when adolescent Marama (which means the “Light” and who is portrayed by Mere Boynton) experiences her first menstruation. Although this is an important experience of girlhood/womanhood, it is a subject rarely dealt with onscreen. Here, Arahanga’s characters deal with Marama’s coming of age in a respectful, serious way, as she is whisked away from the tribe’s village into a forest full of ferns where she undergoes a ceremony and celebration of her transition to “the divine feminine.”
Later, when an unknown male tries to abduct Marama the women warriors defend her with greenstone adzes, clubs, etc. Conch shells and traditional Maori raiment also enhance the sense of a pre-contact Polynesian society. Hinekura features lovely cinematography that lingers on the forest primeval in this exceedingly well-crafted work of art about an everyday subject almost never seen in the movies. Bravo!
Many of the Pacific Islander shorts can be seen through Oct. 31 at LAAPFF’s Pacific Cinewaves pay-what-you-can link.
Film historian/critic Ed Rampell lived in the Pacific Islands for 23 years, including about half that time at Makaha, Oahu, was featured in the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls: Imagining Paradise, and co-authored three movie history books about South Seas Cinema, including The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.