HIFF Special: Interview with Filmmaker Olivia Hampson

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This year I had the good fortune of meeting Olivia Hampson a New York filmmaker who’s short, Phases of Mahina, was a memorable addition to the Made in Hawaii Shorts series at HIFF. The short depicts the life of Mahina, a young Hawaiian woman who works in a hotel as a housekeeper, breaking the monotony of each day by pounding on Kapa cloth. This is her main connection with her culture. Her brother, Makoa, is a dysfunctional adult unable to hold a job or maintain a relationship with the mother of his child. He relies on Mahina for both financial stability and emotional support. Their relationship and Mahina’s conflicting pressures culminate when she makes a decision to attend a party on the day of her niece’s concert.

Olivia Hampson with cinematographer Milo Finnegan-Money

Below is the interview with Ms. Hampson, a promising director with a bright future.


Q: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to Hawaii and ended up submitting a short to HIFF?

I am a filmmaker and scholar from Connecticut. I recently completed my MA at Cardiff University in Myth, Narrative, and Theory and wrote my dissertation on the misrepresentations of Hawaiian women in cinema. I decided to make “Phases of Mahina” as the thesis for my BFA in film at  SUNY Purchase College in New York in 2015. The idea started when my sister took a job teaching elementary school on the West Coast of Oahu. Her students sent me letters asking me about my life in New York and it made me realize how little I knew about their lives and experiences. I was fascinated to learn that there are parts of Hawaii that many people on the mainland don’t know about and I decided I wanted to construct a narrative around someone who has grown up in that area and where they are in their life right now.

Q: Can you give us a synopsis of your film?

Alex Savusa, aka Mahina, at HIFF

Mahina is a young Hawaiian woman who lives with her brother on the outskirts of Honolulu. Her ties to the cultural past and family drive her interest in traditional arts like pounding kapa cloth and connect her to the mythology and religion of ancient Hawaiian people, including the moon goddess Hina, for whom she is named. Mahina works in a hotel as a housekeeper, breaking the monotony of each day by staying grounded to the aina, her art, and her cultural roots. Her brother, Makoa, is a dysfunctional adult unable to hold a job or maintain a relationship with the mother of his child. He relies on Mahina for both financial stability and emotional support. Their relationship and Mahina’s conflicting pressures culminate when she makes a decision to attend a party on the day of her niece’s concert.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the story?

I’ve always been interested in the connections between cinema and mythology, which is what led me to pursue a MA on the subject. When I started to research this film, I started to read Hawaiian myths. The moon has always factored into my films and when I read the myth of Hina, I was drawn to the story of her escape to the moon. There are so many different versions of the myths and I considered them all as I was shaping the story. As I was reading about Hina, I read about her connection to the art of kapa cloth and decided to incorporate that into my story as well. I connected with local, distinguished artist Dalani Tanahy, who taught me about the process of creating the cloth and even lent me her tools that I used in the film. The script changed a lot through my research and the work-shopping process in my classes, but I tried to remain true to my original vision of depicting the way of life for some people in modern Hawaii and the struggle to remain connected to cultural ties while also living with the reality of contemporary life.

Q: What drew you into writing the script around Mahina?

Many of my films are told from the perspective of strong female figures. In Hawaii, women’s roles have changed throughout history, and it’s fascinating to see how they are depicted in popular culture today compared to strong mythological figures like Hina, Pele, or Haumea. Instead of furthering the stereotype of Hawaiian women as sexualized, exotic women, I wanted to demonstrate the strength and power that, in my opinion, is a more realistic depiction. Hina was a powerful figure in Hawaiian myths and I wanted to honor her in some way in the film. Although you only get a taste of that in a short, my character is the strength of her family and, though conflicted by social and family influences, knows what she wants to be connected to and what is important to her.

unnamed-1Q: Is the lead character, Mahina, sort of a Hawaiian “everywoman”?  Who does she represent?

I’d say in some ways she is an “everywoman.” She works really hard to provide for her family and in many ways she never really gets credit for all the work she does.  She is proud of her culture, and wants to stay connected to it for herself, and for future generations. And she is faced with many of the challenges women living in poverty struggle with every day. In that way, she is an “everywoman” across all cultures, as she is always having to balance what she wants, what she can afford, and what she needs to do meet her responsibilities. 

Q: Where did the rest of the cast come from?

I engaged an agent to help me with the casting before I arrived in Hawaii and she hired four incredibly helpful local people, Joseph Agudo, Brenda Lee-Hillebrenner, Tyler Bishoff, and Amy Rich, who filmed all the auditions for me, so I was able to begin the process before I arrived in Hawaii. When I sat in the live auditions, I had a pretty good sense of who I wanted for each role even before I saw them in person. The only person that wasn’t local to Hawaii was Justin Chrzanowski, who was visiting with a friend for a few months and decided to audition for the film while he was here. He had a great energy on the set and helped in so many ways, as did all the cast and crew. Tragically, Justin passed away unexpectedly from a rare form of pneumonia, several months after we filmed. We are all still in shock, as he really was a great talent and positive force on the set.

Q: What is the role that Kapa or Tapa cloth plays into the story line or theme? 

In the film, kapa represents Mahina’s connection to her family and her culture. It’s what grounds her in her life and ties her to the aina. Throughout the film we see her working on her cloth and continuing her passion that keeps her linked to her Tutu. In ancient Hawaiian life, kapa was a source of power for Native Hawaiian women. It was used in religious ceremonies and daily life, but the making of the cloth was almost exclusively created by women. Similarly, making art with kapa is Mahina’s source of power and strength that connects her to her family and her culture.

unnamedQ: Were you pleased with using kick starter as a funding source and would you recommend it for others?

Kickstarter is a pretty complex funding source because so much depends on how the campaign is created and managed. I feel like I could have done a better job with it, to be honest. In my campaign, I could have done more to make it a marketing piece, but like all filmmakers, it is always a balance of raising funds with actually making the art. As a result, it didn’t get as much attention as I’d hoped. It’s all about generating excitement about your project and making people want to be involved. I think it’s also important to set realistic funding expectations when you make your first campaign because if you don’t raise it, then you won’t get any money. I think it was helpful for getting my project done, but it can definitely be a gamble sometimes.

Q:  Anything else you’d like to add?  Any new projects in mind?

I’d really like to make “Phases of Mahina” into a feature film. I think there is so much more of the story to tell and I think it’s important to show a more realistic vision of Hawaiian culture and people in cinema. In general, there are far too many cultural misrepresentations in popular films and I hope that we are on the path to change that. In my opinion, boxing cultural expectations into clichés is just creating less formed characters and less interesting storylines.

Other than that, I’m working on a modern interpretation of the Orpheus & Eurydice myth.

Q: Do you plan to move here? 

I don’t have a definite plan to move here yet, but it’s something that I would like to do if I had the right opportunity. Being able to make this film into a feature here would obviously be my first choice! But I’m also very interested in learning more about Hawaiian culture and people, exploring in more detail some of the topics and myths I’ve recently been studying, and continuing to find ways to share meaningful stories of local people. It is a special place.