There may be other places in the world where a film festival starts with rafter-lifting chant, a canoe in the lobby and multigenerational stories as well-woven as any Hollywood script. Maybe, but for Waimea Ocean Film Festival’s opening of the Voyager exhibit at Kahilu Theatre last Thursday, it was all that and more.
The experience began in the lobby, with the blessing of the Voyager exhibit, paying tribute to the past and future voyages of Hokulea. The Polynesian sailing canoe built in the traditional style and guided by centuries-old celestial navigation has since 1976 steered the course in many ways for a renaissance of Hawaiian culture, as committed men and women learn the hard work and mental discipline demanded of the way of the canoe.
This spring, Hokulea will embark on a four-year global voyage, crossing the world’s oceans and rediscovering how those vast waters do not separate, but link us. An 8 feet by 13 feet map in the exhibit charts her course.
“Chadd Paishon, with his big fingers, took all those small little push pins and charted the course, where they had been and where they will go in the years ahead,” said Jennifer Bryan, who helped coordinate the event.
“It actually already started with the first leg, ‘Malama Hawaii,’ around the state last June so the community could learn about the canoe,” said Pwo Navigator Chadd Onishi Paishon. “I am looking forward to having interaction with the cultures we will come in contact with,” he said. “Learning from those different places—Bali, Indonesia, South Africa—what those people and do in their homes to take care of those places … Learning more and bringing those lessons home to our community, learning how connected we are as a planet.”
Also on display are photos by National Geographic photographer Nicholas DeVore III and the scale model canoe Hokuliilii, built by Waimea Middle School students in 1996 with leftover materials from the Makalii. Attending the exhibit with their children, Mia Akau-LaClair and Marynell Vitales helped with that project as seventh-graders. Now their keiki are leaning about the canoe in school and will follow the voyage of Hokulea around the world.
“It’s a wonderful collaboration,” said Bryan. “Waimea Ocean Film Festival, Na Kalai Wa’a, Kahilu Theatre, all these people sharing their mana’o and personal memorabilia—some of which have never been displayed before.”
Also collaborating on the event were the Hula Preservation Society and the Hawaiian cultural hui led by Pua Case and Lanakila Mangauil.
“I believe you are here tonight because you care,” said Case, educator, hula teacher and activist defending the summit of Mauna Kea (Mauna A Wakea) from further development. The hui performed a prelude to Case’s film, “Sacred Mountain,” which concluded with a quiet appeal for all to stand together in a show of support.
Afterward, Case introduced the 20th Century Fox remake of “Birds of Paradise,” filmed on Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island in 1951. In it, Debra Paget as “Kalua” falls in love with a visiting Frenchman, but in the end, the ill-fated beauty must be sacrificed to save her people.
“My sisters and I practiced jumping off the bed into a pretend volcano,” said Case. Little did she know that her favorite character, the beautiful hula dancer “Noanoa,” would one day be washing clothes in a Waimea laundromat, and become a dear friend. Queenie Ventura Dowsett, then known as Mary Ann Ventura at age 19, played Noanoa and was at the time a student of legendary Kumu Hula ‘Iolani Luahine, who would also teach Case in the years ahead. Luahine choreographed the dances for the film.
“What a thrill — what an honor,” said Dowsett, perpetually young at 83. She talked about traveling to the different island locations, and how Luahine would prepare for their filming.
“Auntie Io would suddenly disappear,” said Dowsett. “You could hear her chanting, making the way for us—to be safe, to be accepted into the environment we were going to dance in.”
After “Birds of Paradise,” Dowsett was offered a contract with 20th Century Fox, and the opportunity to join the studio with Natalie Wood, James Dean, and other major stars. But after only two weeks, however, she decided to come home and continue her hula. Today she lives in Waimea with husband Jamie (who asked her to marry him again after the film), and together they have five children, 17 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
As the oldest living student of Luahine, Dowsett was the first person to be interviewed by the Hula Preservation Society, when the nonprofit was established in 2000 to preserve knowledge of kumu hula and Hawaiian elders on film, and to digitize existing films for future generations. At the HPS presentation on Friday, HPS founder Kumu Hula Maile Loo shared a film tribute to Luahine, which included remarkable footage of her dancing at the Polynesian Cultural Center in 1977 in her signature, animated style, wide-eyed and energetic.
Luahine was born on Hawaii Island in 1915 as Harriet Makekau, and hanai’d by her father’s aunt Julia Luahine, the foremost hula teacher of the day. Before she died in 1978, Luahine sailed on the Holulea, and a photo of her onboard is a highlight of the Voyager exhibit.
“There were so many times we saw her magic,” said Dowsett, who shared a little hula magic of her own on the big stage.
The Waimea Ocean Film Festival continues through Saturday, Jan. 10, at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. For tickets and complete schedule information, visit www.waimeaoceanfilm.org or call 854-6095.