COURTESY STEPHANIE CASTILLO
Filmmaker Alun Bollinger has been touring the islands with a 16-mm film camera, capturing scenes for "Ku'u Aina Aloha: My Beloved Country."
‘Emotional wallop’ on film
A documentary aims to bring the Hawaiian cause to a far wider audience
Documentary filmmaker Meleanna Aluli Meyer hopes that her project "Ku'u Aina Aloha: My Beloved Country" will be "thought-provoking -- my offering to the sovereignty movement."
In this she has some high-powered help: Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple," will serve as executive producer, along with Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, a faculty member at the University of Hawaii Academy for Creative Media.
Filming has been progressing, despite recent inclement weather that "has been chasing us," New Zealander and director of photography Alun Bollinger said. He and Meyer were scampering all over the islands with his 16-mm film camera.
"The landscape we wanted to capture has not always been present," he said. But Meyer is confident that "the elements gathered on film will present the story."
Of all the Hawaiian documentaries she has worked on -- including "Puamana," "Onipa'a" and "Ho'oku'ikahi" -- this is the first with the expressed aim of reaching out to an audience outside of the islands.
It certainly has an impressive production team behind it. Besides cinematographer Bollinger, it includes local co-writer, co-producer and fellow documentarian Stephanie Castillo.
"The film will give voice to Queen Liliuokalani and the native Hawaiians who lived in the days of the overthrow and annexation of the kingdom of Hawaii," Meyer said. "I believe that the spirit of Liliuokalani speaks to us today through the vehicle of her mele (songs) and, as with other ancestors, admonish us to listen well, to hear what is deepest within us.
"It's about finding a voice for native Hawaiians in a viable and constructive sense, honoring the place they call home, their country, the oni hana, the place they were born."
COURTESY STEPHANIE CASTILLO
Bollinger and Meleanna Aluli Meyer capture the words on a headstone at the cemetery at Kalaupapa on Molokai.
While the kupuna will be given on-camera time, the strength of the documentary will also depend on a blend of landscape cinematography, archival photos, dramatic readings and the music created by Aaron Mahi. "It should carry an emotional wallop," Meyer said.
After some pickup shots and post-production work with editor Vivien Hilgrove in Santa Rosa, Calif., "Ku'u Aina Aloha" will be released next year, Meyer hopes, on or around the queen's birthday, Sept. 2, along with a scheduled broadcast on PBS.
Walker joined the project after Meyer asked for her help, although the filmmaker thought it would be a long shot to expect a response. "On a wing and a prayer, I sent her a copy of my last film. And then I got that extraordinary phone call from her saying, 'I love your work. What can I do?'"
Walker has made a financial contribution to the film and has become a mentor to Meyer. "She's helped me to use a poetic framework to present things in the documentary. Alice's involvement helps gives an incredible affirmation of the work."
COURTESY STEPHANIE CASTILLO
Filmmaker Meleanna Aluli Meyers found inspiration in letters that her aunt, Emma A'ima Nawahi, wrote in the 1890s. Nawahi's husband, Joseph, died in 1896 of the tuberculosis he contacted while in jail after the rebellion of "native patriots," or supporters of the queen. This sea view of his funeral procession in Hilo was published in "Aloha Betrayed" by Noenoe Silva.
In a statement, Walker said the native Hawaiian experience shares much with that of other native people who have suffered. "What is our task, as people of color, whose Way has been dishonored and frequently destroyed? How are we to reconnect to our ancestors, without shame or blame, so that we may move forward? ...
"I believe this film has the power to center us in a new direction. By demonstrating integrity in the pursuit of our real ancestral selves, in the past, and addressing and re-imaging those behaviors that went wrong, it provides a map of the Way, reclaimed, that we may, with all the aloha we can muster, find ahead."
Meyer found inspiration for "Ku'u Aina Aloha" in 2000, when she discovered letters her aunt Emma A'ima Nawahi wrote from 1895 to 1897. She and her husband, Joseph, were royalists and supporters of the queen, and ran a Hawaiian-language newspaper in Hilo, Ke Aloha Aina, from 1897 to 1935.
"We are giving voice to the resistance," Meyer said, "to show that we are not victims, but instead, we are victors. Native Hawaiians have a different relationship to the land. It's not a commodity to us. And our conversation with world issues is important as well."
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The crew of "Ku'u 'Aina Aloha" comprises Robert Kinslow, second assistant cameraman, left; Alun Bollinger, director of photography; Meleanna Aluli, director; Stephanie Castillo, co-producer and writer; Taisha Blige, production sssistant; and Mike May, first assistant cameraman and techincal advisor.
ANOTHER integral part of Meyer's vision is Bollinger, who has worked on activist documentaries and features back home including "Vigil," "The Piano" and the recent "River Queen," which screened at last fall's Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival.
"I love this man's work," Meyer said. "He has an extraordinary sensitivity of place, and it aligns with my own."
"I've done documentaries in other Pacific islands as well," Bollinger added. "I've dealt with real people and real issues, so working on something like this gives me more of a sense of purpose. I sympathize with the subject, since there's a similar conflict with the Maoris back home. These are issues that need ongoing attention. We need to approach this subject quite gently and with aloha."
He admits that it's sometimes tough going lugging around 50 pounds of equipment, a film camera with a wide-angle 6-mm lens and a 12-foot ladder, "but it's worth going that extra mile to make a piece of poetry."
"We're not interested in creating a sense of agitation," Meyer said. "It's meant to celebrate all native Hawaiians, with Liliuokalani as our fearless leader.
"My generation came of age in the '70s, and now we're in our 50s and 60s. This is our legacy, and we will not repeat this historical tragedy. Alice has been a great mentor, so it's important to put our best effort out."