When OHA Trustee Peter Apo grew up in postwar Hawai‘i, Hawaiian history wasn’t taught in school. And images of Hawaiians as dignified, proud and strong were lacking.
What he did learn about Hawaiian history came from his tūtū wahine on Maui, where he spent summers. But her stories were hard for Apo to piece together, because she spoke ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, the native tongue – a language that was withheld from him in his own home in the hopes he would excel in school and assimilate into western ways.
“I really had very little idea about the Hawaiian history other than I knew some bad things happened,” he said. “I knew I was Hawaiian, I knew family history, but never really the real story, and I wasn’t taught in school.”
It wasn’t until he was 35, returning home to the Islands from the U.S. continent amid the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, that he felt the power of seeing Hawaiians through a Hawaiian’s eyes. Through Herb Kāne’s paintings depicting Hawaiians of old doing everyday activities – in sharp detail and bold imagery, Apo found a portal to his own past.
“It was through his eyes that I began to understand Hawaiian history,” Apo said, adding, “because for the first time I was able to see my past, at least my ancestral past.”
That’s the idea behind the soon-to-be-released animated film telling the history of the Hawaiian people.
Pa‘a Ke Aupuni: The Reel History of Hawai‘i endeavors to have Hawaiians tell their own story, while remaining steadfast – pa‘a, to the facts.
“Pa‘a Ke Aupuni zooms in on key facts to explain how the Hawaiian Kingdom came to be, how it evolved to stand firmly on the international world stage of sovereign nations, and how the United States came to claim Hawai‘i,” the film’s description says. “Pa‘a Ke Aupuni lays bare the realities of this history. It’s a set of facts we all need to know as the push to re-establish a Hawaiian nation gains momentum.”
A concise history
The film opens in traditional times, setting the stage for the era of Kamehameha and ends at the purported “annexation” of Hawai‘i through a joint resolution of Congress in the late 19th century.
“As you can imagine, there were a lot of challenges in condensing our history into a 60-minute space. But most of our content decisions were made easier by remembering who our target audience is — those who know little to nothing about the history of Hawai‘i,” said Ryan “Gonzo” Gonzalez, OHA digital media manager, who served as the film’s producer. “We wanted to come up with something that had utility for both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, a historical primer that could be used in a variety of settings. How can we get non-Hawaiians to support Hawaiians? How can we better engage Hawaiians? It all starts with education and knowing the facts.”
OHA community engagement director Kēhaunani Abad, a former Hawaiian history teacher at Kamehameha Schools, wrote the script.
“The hardest part of making Pa‘a Ke Aupuni was deciding what not to include,” she said. “So many important parts of our history had to be left out to keep the political story the focus and to stick to a timeframe that people would be willing to watch.”
The hourlong film is presented in 21 mokuna, or chapters, ranging from “Hawaiians excel through education and literacy,” “Hawai‘i’s constitutional government on the world stage,” “Hawai‘i’s sugar industry seeks new growth,” “Hawaiians take aim at restoring their political authority,” to the final chapter titled simply “ ‘Annexation.’ ”
Abad said Hawaiian history resources of this sort didn’t exist when she was a student in the 1970s and ’80s. But in the ensuing years, great films on Hawaiian history were created, like Act of War, which as a teacher she would show to her students.
“But we certainly could have used more resources,” she said. “I hope Pa‘a Ke Aupuni will help to supplement the ‘tool kits’ that creative teachers bring to their haumäna.
“A teacher could show the full film as an introduction to a Hawaiian history course, as a summary review at the end of a semester, or could share each of the 21 chapters at different points along the way. We tried to make the film flexible and ‘user-friendly’ from a teacher perspective.”
That’s exactly how Apo would like to see the film shared – through teachers, whom he calls “the umbilical cord to the young people.” The film is chock-full of information, yet well-paced and easily digestible, making it perfect for audiences of all ages, he said.
“The way it was presented and the scripting of it was really excellent,” Apo said. “That’s what I liked about it. There’s a lot of information but it didn’t feel crammed in, so that was kind of amazing.”
Birth of a film
Pa‘a Ke Aupuni evolved out of discussions on sovereignty involving a group that met regularly in the late 2000s with then-OHA Trustee Boyd Mossman. For some years now, the group has continued meeting with now-OHA Chairman Bob Lindsey. “The group, including Dennis Ragsdale, Sterling Ing, Keali‘i Makekau, Jean Rasor and Kaleo Paik, urged OHA to develop short film pieces to help people understand Hawai‘i’s history and also better understand the foundation upon which we are seeking various forms of sovereignty,” said Abad.
Additional impetus for the film came in 2013 from an OHA Board of Trustees motion that committed OHA to providing education to the Hawaiian community and general public on key points in Hawaiian history. In addition, at public meetings on nation rebuilding last year, “the most consistent feedback we heard were requests for more education so people would understand our history and its relevance to today’s issues, especially matters relating to our governance,” said Abad.
The making of the film took a little more than two years from concept to final production. “A video project is a pretty significant undertaking, but when you throw animation into the mix, it becomes a totally different animal,” said Gonzalez.
He said the animation – or “draw pickcha” – approach was used to “boil things down to their most essential parts and present things as objectively as possible.”
“We felt that the line drawings and animated approach would serve us well in that regard,” he said. “Plus there’s the added novelty of the marriage of animation and our history that we felt would help make things stick for our audience.”
The digital media team worked with the Good Juju Co. (Cynthia Derosier and Ruth Moen), Hyperspective Studios, Pacific Music Productions, narrator Kahu Wendell Silva, editor Matthew Corry and researcher Nanea Armstrong-Wassel – all of whom were super passionate about the project and worked at steep discounts. Chair Lindsey’s sovereignty discussion group volunteered their time and expertise, and OHA’s own research team, including Kamoa Quitevis, Wahine‘aipōhaku Tong and Holly Coleman offered crucial research assistance, Gonzalez said.
“We also saved a ton on the fact that the scripting, main animation, editing and compositing of the film were handled in-house,” he said. “OHA digital media specialist James Hall worked his magic on the animation and video editing side of things and Alice Silbanuz and I contributed as producers.”
A timely premiere
The film has shown to small groups for feedback and “sneak peek” sessions, including one at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in June.
For general audiences, the film will debut in Honolulu at the Doris Duke Theatre on July 31 and online the same day.
The date is significant in Hawaiian history, recognized as the national holiday Lā Ho‘iho‘i Ea – Sovereignty Restoration Day, which marked the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the British government following a monthslong takeover by a British warship commander. The first Lā Ho‘iho‘i Ea was celebrated in 1843 at Thomas Square, across the street from where the premiere will take place.
“We are holding the launch that day as a way of connecting the messages of the film to real life in real time,” Abad says. “As our title conveys, our aupuni (our nation and its people) remains pa‘a (steadfast and enduring). Lā Ho‘iho‘i Ea in the 1800s and today celebrates that truth.”
Abad adds: “We hope those who may not know much about Hawaiian history will see Pa‘a Ke Aupuni and walk away from the experience with an increased appreciation of why Native Hawaiians remain passionate about addressing historical injustices – even 122 years later. And for those who know our history well, we hope Pa‘a Ke Aupuni will be a useful tool they can use to share our history with others.”