Hawaii International Film Festival offers platform to launch authentic Polynesian films

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During the past two years, when tourism in the Aloha State imploded, digital media was one of the few shining stars in our beleaguered economy. The Honolulu International Film Festival is a key component in expanding this sector.

By providing a watering hole for local film makers, writers, actors, and directors it has become a vital element to bring Polynesian themed works to the world.

Case and point were two films that premiered at HIFF last month.

Sina ma Tinirau (Sina and Tinirau) is an animated shot from Vilsoni Hereniko.

The first was an animated short, Sina ma Tinirau (Sina and Tinirau) from Vilsoni (aka Vili) Hereniko. a Honolulu-based filmmaker and Professor at the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i. Vili, who hails from Rotuma a Polynesian outlier in the Fiji archipelago, says “Sina ma Tinirau is an ancient, oral tale that has endured the test of time because it embodies our sensibilities, worldviews, and aesthetics as Polynesians.”

It’s narrated in English with some (subtitled) dialogue in Rotuman, which lends an authenticity to the story.

A prince (Tinirau), who is cursed to become an eel, must win the love of a beautiful woman (Sina) to become human again. He gifts her with his body in the form of a coconut palm in a seductive display of courtship. The film is narrated in English with some dialogue in Rotuman, that is subtitled. This lends an authenticity to the story.


Vilsoni (aka Vili) Hereniko. a Honolulu-based filmmaker and Professor at the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i

At first blush, it sounds like a conventional romantic love story between a man and a woman.

However, beneath the surface, there’s a lot more going on.

Hereniko explained, “Sina and Tinirau share an unconditional, Christ-like love exemplified by forgiveness. It’s as central to our culture as the Crucifixion of Jesus would be in the West.”

The myth also explores origins of the Polynesian tree of life (the coconut palm) and, as Hereniko explains, “Polynesian prejudice against black skin.” “Racism”, he said, “is not confined to one race.”

This particular legend was passed down from Hereniko’s father on his home island of Rotuma as a child. As traditional society in Fiji and the rest of the Pacific “modernizes”, this style oral transmission is diminishing so we are fortunate that Hereniko has leveraged technology and his own creativity to recreate the legend on film.

Sina attempts to protects her friend Tinirau (the eel) from her wrath of her brothers.

Hereniko’s exploration of Polynesian mythology is an eye-opener on many levels. His insights are of importance not only to local people or people of Polynesian ancestry but relevant to everyone. At the very least I could see Sina and Tinirau incorporated into the Department of Education’s curriculum.

Hereniko’s mission is clearly to make the wisdom of traditional Polynesia accessible to the rest of us.

The project, which was funded by grants from the University of Hawaii and European Research Council, was a collaborative effort between several UH faculty at the ACM and their animation students.

Return to Pukapuka

The other Polynesian themed work that hit home for me was The Island in Me, a documentary by Gemma Cubero del Barrio, a Spanish/American documentary director and producer. She takes us to Pukapuka, a remote atoll with four hundred inhabitants.

The film traces the lives of two women, Amelia Hokulea Borofsky and Johnny Frisbie, (both Honolulu residents) who lived there and return home after decades away. Borofsky, the daughter of anthropologist Robert Borofsky lived in Pukapuka in the mid 1970’s while Frisbie, daughter of author Dean Frisbie, was there in the late 1930s.

Johnny Frisbie, one of the subjects of “The Island in Me”, back in her birthplace, Pukapuka

Despite the difference in generations, the common ground of Pukapuka is key to their personal journeys. Amelia is anxious to find the key to her childhood trauma and Johnny needs to visit her brother, Charlie, who she hasn’t seen in 30 years, one last time.

We learn filmmaker Gemma Cubero del Barrio has her own reasons to visit Pukapuka, and as she explained to me, became a reluctant subject of her own film. (You’ll have to see the film to find out).

Cubero does a masterful job balancing a number of themes—memory, identity, trauma and motherhood just to name a few.

Perhaps the film’s highlight is the intimate portrait of Johnny, a formidable, wise woman and author in her own right. Her book Miss Ulysses of Puka-Puka, first published in 1948 (and recently republished) is an account of her life on Pukapuka. It was the first published literary work by a Pacific Islander author. Her life is the stuff of novels. During a hurricane her father literally tied her and her siblings to a Tamanu tree on the atoll of Suwarrow. The island, not more than 6 feet high was swept by waves and tying the kids to the tree saved their lives.

Gemma Cubero del Barrio, a Spanish/American documentary director and producer of “The Island in Me”.

The film is also a “South Seas” ethnography of sorts. We get up close and personal with the Pukapukans, at home, at church, fishing, and of course, husking coconuts. To her credit Cubero tells it like it is. There is no phony romanticism or sentimentality projected on the indigenous people.

As Cubero explained, Pukapuka is a complex place. However, what she came to realize was deceptively simple and genuine. “Pukapukans welcomed us,” she told me. What’s more she said, “they see thru you, and they are open hearted.”  

She told me that the locals treated Amelia as a Pukapukan and her desire to return to the remote island was so “deeply rooted” and represented as genuine a sentiment as any Pukapukan. “She is so loved by them,” said Cubero,” because she represents their experience”.

Amelia Hokulea Borofsky, back to her roots in Pukapuka

Both Sina ma Tinirau and the The Island in Me were hatched, produced, edited, and created in the Aloha State.

It’s also of note that both films were nominated at HIFF for top awards–“Best Short” and “Best Feature”.

As Hereniko pointed out, “In the world of cinema, to be nominated on a very short list of selected films that the festival regards as the best, is a big deal!”. (His film also was awarded “Outstanding achievement in animation” award at the Los Angeles International Film Festival).

With HIFF as a launching pad, it’s clear Hawaii can be an incubator and a platform for Polynesian-themed digital media.

The upshot is that not only can Hawaii people produce films, they can produce award winning films.

It’s only the beginning.

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Top Photo: Pukupuka youth in a traditional wrestling match

Rob Kay, a Honolulu-based writer, covers digital media and is the creator of fijiguide.com. He can be reached at Robertfredkay@gmail.com.

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