HIFF 2017 – Documenting Activism: The Early Days of the Native Hawaiian Movement

On Sunday, November 5th, the ‘Ulu’ulu Archive presented Documenting Activism: The Early Days of the Native Hawaiian Movement at the 2017 Hawaii International Film Festival. A crowd ranging from kupuna to keiki gathered to see memories of the past unfold from the views of filmmaker’s camera. In her introduction to the film, the Cultural Collections Specialist and producer Heather Giugni warned the audience that because the film incorporated raw, unedited footage, the beginning may be a shaky.  The first few moments of Documenting Activism opened with an old documentary about Hawai`i being shown on an old tube television and comments being made in the background. If YouTube existed at the time, this segment could have been titled “Hawaiian Activists React to CBS Documentary about Hawai`i.” The sensationalized version of ancient Hawai`i was met with amused snorts from both the audience in the documentary and the audience in the theater. Everyone seemed to be thinking, “is this for real?”  When the narrator continued to explain that Hawai`i was a land of violence cloaked in the disguise of paradise, both audiences erupted in laughter when the narrator proclaimed that the western world finally brought peace to Hawai`i.
c32_29880 - FramegrabDespite the humor the activists found in the CBS documentary, they understood that as the first mainstream introduction of Hawai`i to American audiences, this documentary failed to represent the Hawaiian people, the land, and the culture that connected them both. To remedy this, activists and filmmakers came together and eventually produced the 1984 KITV program Mo`olelo o ka `Āina, which was one of the first commercial broadcasts to address Native Hawaiian issues from a Hawaiian perspective. Using Mo’olelo o ka `Āina as the foundation, Documenting Activism builds onto it by incorporating footage following the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana in their efforts to stop the military bombing of the island and re-establishing it as a sacred place. Together, activists and filmmakers alike preserved those first steps for the rights of Native Hawaiians.
c1_569_int_1- Framegrab

Following the showing of the film, the audience was treated to a panel discussion with filmmakers and the head archivist at ‘Ulu’ulu. They reminded the audience of a time before smartphones allowed anyone to record to their heart’s content, a time when video equipment was so expensive that only broadcasting channels could purchase it. That all changed when the first portable video recording technology was made available at affordable costs.  This new technology called out and resonated with the visionaries of artists and activists. As artists and activists, it was incredible for the filmmakers to be able to go out and film that first landing on Kaho`olawe, record George Helm singing in a backroom, or witness the passionate and feisty speeches at rallies.


The panelists who shared their mana`o on the production include:

Stephen Kane-a-‘i Morse
Born and raised on O’ahu, Morse attended Maryknoll and Kamehameha Schools before heading to Beloit College in Wisconsin. Returning home for his Masters in Social Work at the University of Hawai`i, he went on to lead a forty-five year career serving the non-profit and human services sector.Through his work at the Queen Lili`uokalani Children’s Center, OHA, and Alu Like, Morse has advocated for the social and economic rights of Native Hawaiians and strengthened Hawai`i’s children, families, and communities. As the founding director of the Hawaiian Coalition of Native Claims (currently the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation), he became involved with the first occupation of Kaho`olawe, where he filmed the groundbreaking experience. Though Morse considers the landing on Kaho`olawe to be his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on his film-making biography, he was able to share more of his thoughts on the event in a manuscript. Titled “First Landing: the Story of the Kaho`olawe Nine,” the manuscript has been adapted into a screenplay and will hopefully reach production in the future.

He has called Waimanalo his home for the past thirty years, and has remained active in the community by serving on many of the local boards. Morse is also the current Executive Director of Blueprint for Change, which is a non-profit that works to prevent child abuse and neglect.

Kevin Coates
After appearing in Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox films in the 1960s, Coates took part in developing a documentary about atomic bomb testing by France near Tahiti.  Through distribution by Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter, the documentary was able to reach audiences worldwide and pushed by public opinion, France stopped its testing. Coates went on to develop the format for what is currently known as C-Span. Despite receiving no credit for his part with C-Span, he is glad that he was able to play a part in keeping the public more aware of the happenings in Congress.

In 1976, Coates met with George Helm, where he was asked to help document the efforts of Hawaiian activists in stopping the bombing of Kaho`olawe. His persona account conveys it best:

I replied, “Stop the bombing… I’m in.”  George said, “We don’t have any money to pay you.”  I told him and the ‘Ohana, “I don’t care about the money but I need to keep the camera and gear dry, and I’ll need to eat once in awhile- to which George laughed and said, “Braddah, we Hawaiian, you know you’re gonna eat!”

By documenting the Aloha ‘Āina movement, Coates feels truly blessed to have been able to meet such amazing, true Hawaiians, as well as his wife. He also feels especially blessed to have met his wife of forty-two years while on a march with Hui Alaloa. They now have three keiki and six mo`opuna.
Joan Lander

An independent filmmaker, has been part of the documentary team Nā Maka o ka ʻĀina, which has produced more than 90 programs focusing on the land and people of Hawai‘i and the Pacific. The documentaries examine traditional Hawaiian culture, history, language, art, music, environment, independence and sovereignty, and have been seen on PBS, Hawai‘i public and commercial television stations, and cable networks in Canada, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Japan, Mexico and Europe. Currently, Lander is working to preserve, digitize and make accessible thousands of hours of footage in the Nā Maka o ka ʻĀina library.

Matt Yamashita
A filmmaker from Molokaʻi whose work focuses on culture, activism, and sustainability. Yamashita’s award-winning documentaries, including Sons of Halawa and The Roots of ‘Ulu have seen national PBS broadcast. Currently, he is working on a new documentary, Aloha ‘Aina: The Awakening of Walter Ritte. Ritte was one of the Kaho‘olawe Nine that landed on the island in 1976.
Documenting Activism UHWO Screening - Digital Signage_01
As an encore to the premier on Sunday, `Ulu`ulu hosted another showing and panel discussion in the James & Abigail Campbell Library at UH West O`ahu. The event on Monday was open to the public, and members of the community joined students, faculty, and staff on campus for this encore presentation. Viewing the film proved to be particularly intriguing for students enrolled in Land, Culture and Social Justice class taught by Christy Mello. The audience’s interest in the film could be felt through their questions and active engagement with the filmmakers.

Although some of the footage may be in black and white, with pictures blurred by time and sound crackling with age, the issues presented in Documenting Activism are still sharp, still cut deep, and still resonate with current audiences. The efforts of the featured activists and filmmakers inspire the younger generation to follow in their footsteps and continue to create content and stories that give a Native Hawaiian perspective.

For those that were unable to attend the showings of Documenting Activism: The Early Days of the Native Hawaiian Movement, you can watch the film on the ‘Ulu’ulu site or browse our photos here.

Blog by Hoku Kaahaaina


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