Haunani-Kay Trask in Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty. Photo by Catherine Bauknight.
By Ed Rampell
The 2011 Hawaii-set feature, The Descendants opens by asserting that it’s crazy to consider the Aloha State to be some sort of a paradise, where no major problems exist. Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty is a documentary about those troubles, or pilikia. However, whereasThe Descendants protagonist (George Clooney) plays a character who has a smidgen of indigenous blood and belongs to a privileged family with a multi-million dollar land trust, Catherine Bauknight’s powerful, multi-award winning doc focuses on the Disinherited: The Native Hawaiians, who have become a landless, disenfranchised, disempowered minority in their own ancestral homeland.
Say, just how did this Polynesian archipelago, about 2,000 miles from California, become part of the American empire anyway? Just how did the U.S. gain the Pearl Harbor Naval Base that Imperial Japan bombed on Dec. 7, 1941 anyway? History is usually written by the victors, just as Americans often trade in unexamined assumptions, but in Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty co-writer/director Bauknight dares to examine the assumed. Bauknight’s probing camera takes a peek behind the curtain of U.S. imperialism and presents a platform for the Islands’ aboriginal activists to present their side of the story.
Hawaii may be popularly portrayed and imagined as a visitors’ playground, but Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty exposes the social, political, cultural and environmental pilikia confronting the disinherited descendants of the Polynesian people Captain James Cook encountered when he made landfall there in the late 18th century, thus putting Hawaii on the map for Westerners. Of course, the Hawaiians’ ancestors – masterful navigators -- discovered the Islands a millennium before Cook arrived. The culture clash that ensued after Cook made one voyage there too many was a harbinger of the societal convulsions that would engulf Hawaii and its indigenous inhabitants. These calamities include a swarm of “Christian” zealots and the armed invasion of the isles by the U.S. military -- acting in league with the original missionaries’ descendants -- and the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893. Auwe!
Far from the Waikiki high rises and mega-resorts Bauknight shows us Hawaiians who are not only landless, but homeless, too, living in encampments on the beach before the Occupy movement was cool. Best of all, Hawaiian activists, artists, fishermen, taro farmers, hula dancers, practitioners of the pre-contact religion, et al, explain their plight and cause in their own words, instead of having Bauknight, a “Haole” (Caucasian person) from da kine (mainland) impose her spin on indigenous viewpoints. The struggle against militarism (the Pentagon owns a higher percentage of Hawaii than it does any other state), mass packaged tourism run for the benefit of multi-national corporations, ecocide, the desecration of sacred sites, the theft of the aina (land) and the courageous resistance to all of these (and other) injustices under the battle cry of “Sovereignty” is compellingly depicted and commented on.
On a personal note, as a journalist who spent 23 years living in Tahiti, Samoa, Micronesia and half of this time in Hawaii, reporting on the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement and the Hawaiian Sovereignty cause, a highlight of watching Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty was seeing some of the leaders I used to cover as they now appear. They include: Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a sort of Malcolm X-type of activist (the so-called Black Muslims even marched with Bumpy’s Nation of Hawaii group at the Iolani Palace in Downtown Honolulu during the 1990s). Kalani English of Hana, Maui, who became a state senator. Sarong-clad Professor Haunani-Kay Trask, an indefatigable academic and poet, whose courageous outspokenness is only outmatched by her brilliance -- and the fear her righteous rage raises amidst the staid status quo.
I got a special kick out of seeing one of Haunani’s former U.H. Department of Hawaiian Studies students, Kaleikoa Kaeo, who I used to cover at all of the Sovereignty demos when he was a bearded youth with longish hair. Today, he’s completely bolohead (bald), covered in traditional tattoos, and is himself now a professor, who expertly explains Hawaiian history in his thick Pidgin English accent. He’s a Hawaiian Howard Zinn, a true people’s historian!
Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty includes an interview with a legendary figure of the movement with a rascally reputation, whom I’d heard of but never met, and my hat is off to Bauknight for tracking the elusive Skippy Ioane down for at the Big Island. The film also includes organizers, rank and filers, etc., whom I was not aware – but am now, thanks to this wide ranging doc.
Like Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, this documentary has a great sonorous soundtrack of Hawaiian music by talents such as Cyril Pahinui. Some of the musicians, such as Henry Kapono and Willie K (who I remember when he started out, and has gray hair now, auwe!), are also interviewed onscreen. A Cd with the soundtrack has been released.
The documentary also includes sumptuous cinematography; Bauknight, a noted photojournalist, is also the film’s director of photography. There is also archival footage, news clips and soaring aerial shots, as well as lots of original footage shot specifically for this nonfiction film.
Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty has won seven awards since its premiere at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and has had a special screening at the U.N. in Geneva. Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty won the awards for Best Environmental Film at The Red Nation Film Festival in Los Angeles and Best Environmental Film at the New York International Film Festival, as well as a prize at Aotearoa/New Zealand’s Wairoa Maori Film Festival.
And in the end, what is this thing called “Sovereignty”? Competing factions and trends of thoughts have different visions. When I covered the Hawaiian Revolution during the 1990s, Bumpy’s Nation of Hawaii advocated independence from the U.S. Ka La Hui Hawaii, the organization Haunani was linked to and which her activist attorney sister Mililani Trask led, endorsed a nation within a nation, government to government relationship with Washington, similar to the political status the so-called American Indians have, to exist on a land base somewhat similar to tribal reservations. Be that as it may, most Hawaiian activists share the belief that sovereignty is a form of self determination that guarantees indigenous empowerment. Perhaps above all else the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement means that the disinherited shall re-inherit the aina.
The digital launch of the documentary in North America will take place soon on iTunes, Netﬂix and Gaiam TV. But, before that, there will be a free screening of Hawaii A Voice For Sovereignty March 31, 11 a.m., at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91101. After the screening there will be a panel discussion and/or a Q&A with director Catherine Bauknight, Hawaiian activist Leon Siu, veteran journalist Robert Scheer and myself.
Admission is free, so, as they say in Hawaii: "Try come!”
For more information: Hawaii A Voice for Sovereignty.