Kia, Ora, and Aloha. Tropical fantasies of the dreamy islands are used as a backdrop in countless Hollywood films from Cast Away to Blue Lagoon to Paradise, Hawaiian Style. I wanted this list to achieve two things: be easily accessible and cultivate exposure. First, unless you knew about these movies beforehand, simply stumbling upon the titles listed below is unlikely. Second, what we often fail to recognize as an audience are the native peoples of the islands, and how Hollywood gleans over their existence. It is with hope that we can find the true spirit of the islands and more accurate representation in cinema.
Directed by Marc Forby, 2009, 97 minutes, Available on: Netflix
The daughter of an Irishman and descendant of royalty, Kaiulani is brought to England as a safety measure after a ceremony is disrupted. While she is away, she faces racism based on her Polynesian background and on the island, the royal line is in peril as King Kalakaua is forced to sign a new constitution reducing the powers of the monarchy and expanding privileges for those of European descent. Princess Kaiulani serves as a reminder — particularly for American audiences — that before its annexation into the United States, Hawaii had royal bloodlines. There is this fascination with the royal family found over the pond, and yet the American government eradicated this particular lineage. Princess Kaiulani acted as a strong leader for her people and as well as a female icon, compassionate, well-educated, poised, and unwavering.
Directed by Taika Waititi, 2010, 87 minutes, Available on: Netflix
Boy and his brother Rocky must deal with the sudden appearance of their father. Boy is imaginative, often curating the best-case and outlandish scenarios, a fan of Michael Jackson. Rocky is as imaginative in his own way, believing he possesses superhuman powers. When Alamein returns, Boy realizes his life may not be as grand as he pictured it to be. Boy (James Rolleston), Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu), and Alamein (Taika Waititi) are all natives of New Zealand. The juxtaposition of the imagined characters, the characters themselves, and the development following Alamein’s arrival are original. The picture drawings of Rocky’s reality support the juvenile thinkings and light-hearted tone carried throughout the film. Boy is touching and hilarious, indicative of the capabilities perception has on each of us.
Directed by Adam Pesce, 2011, 94 minutes, Available on: Netflix
A documentary highlighting the livelihood resting on a career in surfing. In Papua New Guinea, surfing is the last chance for the majority of the population. After success from surfing competitions, not only does the life of the surfer change, but the life of the community does as well. Throughout the island, surf clubs crop up often as a byproduct of political disunity. Gender biases are greatly evident; men will see a woman as a piece of property, often one deserving of abuse. With women joining the ranks as competitive surfers, their involvement could mean a change in PNG’s societal structure. Splinters is not very glamorized, centering on communities who live with the bare minimum; it is a harsh contrast to the dreamy world associated with island living.
Directed by Niki Caro, 2003, 101 minutes, Available on: Hulu
Bound and rejected by traditions, a young girl desires to be the chief of her peoples’ tribe. Kahu Paikea “Pai” Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) secretly learns the cultural activities strictly set aside for the males, as the leader must be of patrilineal descent from the original whale rider. Despite Pai’s grandfather’s best efforts to deny Pai of the position, the ancient deities, the whales select her as the next leader. Whale Rider is a mixture of personal discovery, cultural shifts, and connection to the natural world. It is explorative of patriarchal ways, but is also a reminder of the resilience of youth and where the fate of future generations lie.
Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau
Directed by Sam George, 2013, 96 minutes, Available on: Netflix
A documentary featuring surf legend Edward “Eddie” Ryon Makuahanai Aikau from his childhood to his disappearance on the waves. Eddie grew up during a haole invasion, visitors from the mainland populating the beaches and waters. Surfing is completely natural for Hawaiians, as they were the first to seek recreation from unknown depths and powerful swells. This documentary explores Eddie’s struggles to reclaim the coveted Duke surf title and his legacy elsewhere on the island. Comprising of video footage and family photos, The Legend of Eddie Aikau offers a way to connect with Eddie; his level of skill, drive, and sense of humanity is unequaled.
Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula
Directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, 2006, 86 minutes, Available on: PBS
A documentary released by PBS’s Independent Lens and American Reframed examines the origins of hula, how the islands were shaped by mainland influences, and a broader look at the definition of a man. Robert Cazimero, a musician, teacher, and legend, returns to the largest hula competition in the world for his 30th anniversary of leading an all-male hula school. The documentary portion is 57 minutes, an additional interview portion with the director Lisette Marie Flanary and historian Noelani Arista follows after. Natasha del Toro, the hostess of the programme, is difficult to listen to in the interview session. However, Flanary and Arista’s insights are worth watching. Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula is precision, Hawaiian culture, and tradition sewn into the grace of swaying hips.
Directed by Kevin Reynolds, 1994, 104 minutes, Available on: Amazon Instant Video
Two tribes, hanau epe (long ears) and hanau morocco (short ears), face conflict as Easter Island suffers from depleting resources. Clans from the hanau epe compete in a Birdman competition with the ability to rule the Island for a year, at stake. Amidst the warring bodies, Noro (Jason Scott Lee) and Ramana (Sandrine Holt) must find a way to make their love prevail. I chose Rapa-Nui as the final selection, for the rare setting of Easter Island and Maori actors Eru Potaka-Dewes and Gordon Toi Hatfield. This movie showcases an entire cast and a majority of the extras being people of color. There are enough actors and actresses to represent indigenous peoples, in this movie, past, current, and future movies as well. Overlooking the romance arc, Rapa-Nui offers insights as to the possible origins of the monstrous states inhabiting the island as well as the dissolution of the native islanders.