Pacific Cinema on the Rise: A Roundtable with PIC Filmmakers at CAAMFest36

"Pacific Island cinema is on the rise, and it is a genre worth paying attention to."

We spoke with the filmmakers of the Pacific Island films included in this year’s Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) Showcase at CAAMFest to discuss their work. Each filmmaker also shares discerning thoughts about the future of Pacific Island cinema — from addressing the need to get more indigenous voices behind and in front of the camera, envisioning alternative distribution and exhibition models, to re-defining community building through film. Film programmers, critics, distributors, and audiences alike should take note: Pacific Island cinema is on the rise, and it is a genre worth paying attention to. (The interviews have been edited for length and clarity).

— Taylour Chang

Ciara Lacy

CIARA LACY (Director, Out of State)

Ciara Lacy is a Native Hawaiian filmmaker who crafts films that challenge the creative and political status quo with in-depth investigative journalism. Her directorial debut, Out of State, documents Native Hawaiian inmates who are sent to a private prison thousands of miles away from Hawaiʻi in the desert of Arizona. Exiled from their homes and families, a group of these inmates discover their calling by teaching each other their native language and dances while behind bars. As the men complete their sentences, Lacy follows them as they reintegrate back home in Hawaiʻi.

As a Native Hawaiian, was it easier to connect and build trust with your subjects in Out of State?

After being sent so far away from home, any sort of reminder of home and our culture was incredibly valuable to the men in our film. As a Native Hawaiian and someone travelling to this Arizona prison from Hawaiʻi, as somebody that has a reasonable facility with our language, I think this mattered to our subjects. They were working so hard to reconnect and identify with their culture and knowing that I came from that space was powerful. They’re doing something in the middle of nowhere with no audience. It’s the purest expression I can think of. On top of that, knowing that a group of filmmakers were interested in the work they were doing was meaningful. It meant our community could see the positive work they were doing. 

Can you share your experience of gender dynamics in the prison and how that influenced the film?

Before I stepped into the prison, my only experience with incarceration was through Hollywood movies. This meant I expected a hyper masculine environment, which was inaccurate. Showing up to the prison for the first time, I realized immediately that the scope of gender orientation represented in the prison system, in this prison specifically, was much more nuanced. There’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity. I was in a space where I didn’t have to be concerned about being a woman, and I was grateful for the respect I was given. As a woman coming from home trying to learn about their stories, the men took it seriously and were very generous in sharing who they were. 

How do you see Out of State impacting communities in Hawaiʻi and beyond?

We’re really interested in giving people access to a world they might not be familiar with. Even if you have a family member that’s incarcerated, you might never have the opportunity to fly out to Arizona to see your father, your husband, or your son because it’s too expensive to do so. How do you foster a space where you can find repair and rekindle relationships when you’re a six-hour plane ride across the ocean and desert? So giving people — whether they have no connection to the prison system or whether they’re the son or daughter of someone currently incarcerated – access was really vital because they simply don’t have it. It’s really difficult to connect with and help somebody when there’s this massive gap in communication. If you look at the recidivism rate – how many people are going back to jail after serving time – it’s literally almost 67 percent, so you’re almost doomed to failure. How do we look at that and say, “We can shift this.” Until we recognize and see the problem, we can’t fix it. So we need to be able to present this problem not only to our community but communities beyond because they share the same issues. We’ve taken the film to so many places. Some people say, “I used to be a ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ kind of person, but I don’t know if I can still think that way.” Some people said, “Man, I had no idea that that was happening to Hawaiians.” If someone else outside of Hawaiʻi thinks that that’s not okay, how can we accept it? Knowing that people outside of our own community recognize that this is a problem, it makes me want to say, “Hey, we as a community need to step up.”

Nathan Fitch

NATHAN FITCH (Director, Cinematographer, and Producer, Island Soldier) 

Nathan is a filmmaker and visual journalist. Island Soldier follows members of the Nena family from Kosrae, Micronesia, one of the most remote islands in the world, to the training grounds of Texas and the battlefields in Afghanistan. The film tells the untold story of Micronesians soldiers fighting for their piece of the “American Dream” and the future of a small island nation.

Why should Americans see this film?

Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, and in Micronesia, the percentage per capita serving in the U.S. military is higher than in America. Americans should know who’s fighting and putting their life on the line for us.

The film portrays sensitive juxtapositions — for instance, the tension between being Micronesian and being American in the military. How did you approach portraying those juxtapositions?   

I started thinking about making this film after I was in the Peace Corps living in Micronesia. There was a small local newspaper, and there were stories about veterans, and there were some community polls to get different people’s thoughts on military service because there were so many people leaving. The community take on it was very divided: some people thought it was a very positive thing, and some people were asking why they should be fighting for another country. That complexity created interesting questions that I wanted to explore in the film. After living in Micronesia for two years, I came back to the U.S., and it was hard to re-adjust from living in Micronesia: in the U.S., everyone’s value system is very much aligned with making money and having a career. It’s hard to come back to that from an experience that’s all about community and not so career driven. If it was hard for me as an American to come back to the U.S., what is it like to grow up on an island thousands of miles from the U.S., go to war for the U.S., and then come back home? I was interested in that journey. That journey has the juxtaposition of these incredibly beautiful lush green islands in Micronesia with these incredibly war-torn, dangerous places on the front line. For me, that was visually an interesting juxtaposition that I wanted to photograph.

Knowing that Micronesians are rarely ever depicted in film, did you feel a heightened responsibility to represent Micronesians in a certain way?

I did from the beginning realize there was a responsibility because there is so little media content made about Micronesia, and military service is a big subject for them. I felt the double weight of representing people who don’t get represented very often. Also, I was dealing with a subject that has to be handled delicately because it’s about life and death and about people who have gone through a lot. With soldiers, you have to be respectful. It was important to me that the film feel like it was true to the experience and that it was respectful. I didn’t want to overtly make judgment or be too heavy handed because it’s a complex topic. To do it justice it couldn’t be a black-and-white thing. It needed to be a more nuanced portrait versus something too stark because that wouldn’t have been true to the experience of the islands. Also, I remember reading really negative representations of Micronesians in places like Hawaiʻi and Guam — this idea that Micronesians are homeless and asking for handouts — and those representations didn’t feel true to the people who I had known while I was in at the Peace Corps. I felt like Island Soldier could be a different strand in the narrative of who Micronesians are. I wanted it to be a counter narrative to what I was seeing in the newspapers and the media.

STEFAN SCHAEFER (Director, Co-Producer, I Am Because You Are)
THOMAS PAʻA SIBBETT (Co-Producer, I Am Because You Are)

Stefan Schaefer has over fifteen feature film and TV credits as writer, director and/or producer. He recently produced the Hawaiʻi-set feature film Kuleana, and is currently in development on a TV series with author Kristiana Kahakauwila, with Big Beach producing. Thomas Paʻa Sibbett is a Native Hawaiian writer and producer of films such as Braven starring Jason Mamoa and Enemy in the Valley, based on the true story of Ko’olau The Outlaw, currently in development with Momoa’s Pride Of Gypsies Productions. He and Stefan have a period, Hawaiʻi-set TV show that was sold to the Weinstein Company but it now being re-pitched. I Am Because You Are is a short film that follows Kaiea, a twelve-year-old on Maui, as he learns that his grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer’s. 

I Am Because You Are

How did the themes of memory and family narratives influence your approach to making I Am Because You Are?

Stefan Schaefer: I was putting my son to bed one night and, as I went to kiss him, our foreheads touched and he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I had access to all your memories?” And I said, “Yeah, that would be pretty interesting.” That was the initial kernel of what inspired me to start thinking about memory and family narratives. I had been working on another film project, a documentary of W.S. Merwin, and I had been looking at a lot of archival footage, some of it from Vietnam. I thought it would be interesting to use some of that footage. You know, the people in the film are my family: it’s my children, my wife, and my wife’s uncle. My kids wanted to do something together with me. The war stories in families–they’re often not shared. My paternal grandparents left Germany right after World War II, and grandmother could never talk about it. My wife’s uncle is a Vietnam vet, just like in the film, and he too struggled with the adjustment back to civilian life. I wanted to explore that. Obviously, it’s a short, so there’s not that much you can do in that timeframe, but I thought that finding that archival footage was a way in — to explore imagination, memory, and the stories told and untold.

Paʻa, how did you get involved?

Thomas Paʻa Sibbett: I really like Stefan’s sensibilities as a writer and a director, so when he brought it up to me, it really became something we could talk about in passing as we worked on other projects. We have a tendency to work on other things together, but this was something we could kick around and talk about. I liked the fact that his family is involved. Stefan’s a family man. It was a fun project.


Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson

DEAN HAMER (Co-Director, Co-Producer, Lady Eva)

JOE WILSON (Co-Director, Co-Producer, Lady Eva) 

Dean Hamer is a filmmaker, author, and scientist. Joe Wilson is a director and producer. Hamer and Wilson formed Qwaves to produce documentaries about often overlooked social issues. Hamer and Wilson recently co-directed Kumu Hina, which documents a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and community leader. The short film Lady Eva documents a brave young transgender woman as she sets off on a journey to become her true self in the conservative Pacific Island Kingdom of Tonga. (The two directors preferred to answer together via email).

What led you to make Lady Eva?

Dean Hamer / Joe Wilson: Lady Eva began in 2015 when we were invited to Tonga to show our Hawaiian film, Kumu Hina, during the Miss Galaxy Pageant, an annual celebration of the creativity and talents of the islands’ vibrant transgender community. We were impressed by the courage and bravery of the leitis (a fakaleiti, also termed leiti or lady, is a Tongan word used to describe a Tongan man who behaves in effeminate ways) to live their lives authentically in one of the most traditional and religious nations in the world. When one of the constants, Eva Baron, was told by her religious family that she had to either quit the pageant or leave her home, we asked if we might document her story, and started filming right then and there. The more we worked on this short film, the more we realized just how much the leitis had to offer to the rest of the world, and so we ended up making a feature-length sequel as well, titled Leitis in Waiting.

Lady Eva

What makes the transgender experience in the Pacific Islands unique and/or universal and why is it important to share with audiences beyond the Pacific?

Joe Wilson / Dean Hamer: While the Pacific Islands struggle with many of the same demons that vex societies around the globe, especially restrictive views of gender and sexuality rooted in Western religious fundamentalism, there seems to be much more visibility and acceptance of transgender and gender fluid people here than almost anywhere on the planet. So, while Eva faces many familiar challenges, her desire to stay true to her cultural traditions give her an inspiring sense of self-acceptance and self-determination that is important for general audiences to see.


Do you see current trends in the way Pacific Islanders are represented in film and media?

Dean Hamer / Joe Wilson: The usual emphasis in Pacific Islander documentaries on culture as a form of entertainment seems to be giving way to more nuanced stories revolving around day-to-day real life — and that’s a good thing.

Ciara Lacy: As a Pacific Islander, I’m learning more and more about other work created by Pacific Islanders across our broad ocean. But is there any easy way to access Pacific Island Cinema? We need curators to create spaces to access our content. It’s hard to see the trends otherwise. Does this mean having a curated section on Netflix? Is it watching Pacific Islander in Communication’s Pacific Heartbeat program? Is it about finding somebody to do the film criticism about our community to help build interest? Where are the critics focused on this type of content? The question also challenges us filmmakers to make the highest quality work possible so that we’re not just in a niche. We’re a part of the broader scope of documentary and narrative filmmaking. Nobody likes to be put in a box.

Stefan Schaefer: I’m a transplant. I’m a white man who grew up on the east coast primarily and abroad, so I never feel like I can fully speak to this. I can speak as a writer trying to explore the issues that I see around me, but I never want to step into a story about Hawaiʻi without including the truth of the people who have grown up here or are Native Hawaiian. I always want to partner with people like Paʻa who are more rooted here than I am. I’ve lived here for nine years, so I have some perspective, but I will always be a transplant and have an outsider perspective.

Thomas Paʻa Sibbett: Interestingly enough, with Stefan’s background in film and him having an outsider perspective but having lived here long enough, I found it very easy to work with him because he is very conscientious about the perspective of the people who have been here, and he can bring his filmmaking credentials and background to help nurture those stories. As far as representation of Pacific Islanders in cinema, you asked about the current state of it, but what really excites me is the future. I truly believe that the next real avenue and industry that Pacific Islanders will step into is cinema.

How can Pacific Islanders have a bigger influence in film?  

Thomas Paʻa Sibbett: We need to set forth a foundation for more Pacific Islanders to realize that their point of views are valuable and their sensibilities as storytellers can make an impact. The young upcoming generations of filmmakers should take confidence in knowing that as long as you just fine-tune that perspective, you can find yourself in a room with very seasoned filmmakers, and people will listen to you. It’s hard to have the confidence because it hasn’t been done that much. One thing that would be great is to start connecting the film programs in colleges with the Hawaiian Studies programs to allow these Hawaiian studies majors to see that one avenue for their sensibilities can be film. Native Hawaiians come from multi-generations of storytellers because we had no written language. We tell stories that are hundreds and thousands of years old. We always find ways to alter them and keep them current and fresh.

Stefan Schaefer: I would say that at least in the Hawaiʻi-based TV projects that I’ve sold that are in the development process, I would say executives are hungry for the authentic voice. People do want to be immersed in a world that is authentic in a different way than maybe ten years ago. So I do think there’s an opening. I don’t think we’ve seen it fully realized yet.

Thomas Paʻa Sibbett: You’ll be surprised at how close we are. The industry is very, very close to putting [more of our Hawaiʻi content] out. It then becomes our job to make sure the authenticity is there. Who else is there to step in and say, “No, you are not in the place to tell this story. I am. This is my story. I can tell it.” We haven’t had enough people to put themselves in the position to say, “You know what, I love this concept, and I love what you’re trying to do, but let me do it. Let me step in and make sure that we can tell the story the best way possible.” Audiences were savvy enough to say that something didn’t feel right. A film didn’t hit me in a way that it should have because it was an outsider perspective telling a Hawaiian story. So what we need is more local people finding that voice within them that says I can tell that story, and I need to tell this story.

Nathan Fitch: A group of Micronesian students reached out to me and were asking how more Micronesians could be empowered to tell their own stories, and I thought it was really encouraging that they were so interested and want to be telling their own stories. So many opportunities come out of community. The more people band together and share resources and work on each other’s projects and build community, the better off for getting stories made.

Ciara Lacy:
 For the good and the bad, there’s a hyper-marketed image of the Native Hawaiian people. Whether that’s driven by the Hollywood studio machine or whether that’s something driven by tourism, it’s created a powerful image of who we are that’s near impossible to crack. The goal is to break past these deeply ingrained expectations of how a native Hawaiian should act. And, as we take control of our representation in media, this will give us the opportunity to be real people, to be more nuanced. That’s the vision.

Thomas Paʻa Sibbett: The best storytelling is when we can take a character that is Hawaiian but make that character relatable to everyone. How can I take a story and make it emotionally relatable to everybody and give people a perspective on what it means to be Hawaiian? The problems up to this point, when we talk about Hollywood making Hawaiian movies is that they’re substituting their misunderstanding of our stories and our history and filling in the gap with their own perspective and stereotypes of what being Hawaiian is. That is where the mistake lies. We can no longer allow that to happen when somebody is speaking for us. That, we cannot allow to happen. We have to be truly in tune with who we are so that we can truly tell our stories in a way that resonates with everybody.

What makes it difficult to market Pacific Island content? How can this content reach more audiences in the Pacific and beyond?

Nathan Fitch: I don’t have the answer, but one thing I can say is that I’ve had conversations with film festival programmers, and I’ve had some people tell me pretty directly that Island Soldier is a hard sell for film festivals because it’s such a “niche” or “small” story. In my opinion, it’s not a niche or small story, but for people whose main objective is to fill a theatre and bring out a good audience, Micronesia is a place that people might not know so well. The story is not the war on Syria, and it’s not on the front-page news. And there’s just not as many Pacific Islanders in the world as there are other nationalities. So in my experience in working on island soldier, people have been honest that the film has been hard to market sometimes because of the subject — which is discouraging. But, it’s interesting, there’s a Micronesian community in Texas on a military base who reached out to me and wanted to screen the film on Memorial Day, and I sent them a DVD and they screened it last year and want to do it again. They’re trying to rent out a theatre in one of the big cinemas in Texas, and they’re trying to navigate that. It’s a new thing for them. They’re asking me for help, like “What is a DCP?” It would be great if some sort of tool kit can be put together for Pacific Island communities to navigate how to organize screenings.

Joe Wilson / Dean Hamer: Traditional approaches for reaching audiences in the Pacific are not very effective; there are only a few film festivals, no region-wide broadcast networks, and a dearth of dedicated funding for production, distribution, and impact. We believe the best short-term strategy is through the web and social media, which can cross national borders and thousands of miles of ocean effortlessly. For example, our short animated video, The Meaning of Mahu, reached over one million viewers across the Pacific and beyond via Coconet.TV, a popular online trans-Pacific media platform. Long-term, we need to build institutions that view the Pacific Islands as a defined and holistic region, rather than as an extension of Asia or simply a collection of disparate, unconnected nations and cultures. As a start, we’ve been working with local leaders to develop a Pasifika Good Pitch to connect filmmakers across the region with relevant NGOs, advocates, decision makers, allies and funders. Hopefully this will help media gatekeepers realize that the Pacific is in need of attention and has much to offer the entire world. Stefan Schaefer: In terms of the feature film Kuleana, which I worked on as well: it’s working for local audiences. I don’t think in the last decade that a local Hawaiʻi-made film has been in ten theatres statewide for three weeks — and there hasn’t been a huge marketing push. If people find it, people are excited about a local story. They’re excited that 10 percent of the movie is in Hawaiian language. People come out crying just because they’ve heard Hawaiian on the big screen at the Regal multiplex. There’s a hunger within the islands, and it’s not a small market. If you pitch to investors, you could say, “Look, if you do between 250,000 and 500,000 in box office in the islands, that can actually be part of a film’s revenue stream.” Obviously, if it works here and can leapfrog to other places where there are Polynesian communities and beyond, that’s great too. But we know that there’s some amount of market in Hawaiʻi. I’m excited to see how the local market can step up. I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’ve done three films and TV projects in Iceland, and I always think about that: this is a country of 350,000 people and they have a thriving local film scene. Their art council funds 10 films a year, most of them have theatrical releases, and they put money as a nation into exporting that content to film festivals. I think Hawaiʻi should think of itself as a sovereign territory like that and have a fund that supports local stories.

Ciara Lacy: The classic Hollywood response is, “Who will be interested in this?” If we can bring the numbers, though, it’s undeniable that there is an audience. My first film Out of State sold out theatres in places we would not expect, where we as a team had no contacts. If we can bring an audience, who’s to say we shouldn’t make content? That there isn’t an interest in our stories? As a first-time filmmaker, I was humbled by the viewers we drew, reminding me that we’ve been waiting to see ourselves and our stories done in a way that we deserve and that communities are interested in our stories, too. And, of course, I am grateful to all the filmmakers before me telling Hawaiʻi stories, because I wouldn’t be here today having made this film and even having the edge that I do have without knowing that they had to fight the good fight before me.

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Find out more about the Pacific Islanders in Communications Showcase at CAAMFest36!