Due to world premiere at last month’s postponed Tribeca Film Festival, Kapaemahu was set to play as part of the annual animated shorts programme curated by Whoopi Goldberg. Written, directed and produced by Native Hawaiian educator and cultural practitioner Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, along with GLAAD and Emmy award-winning activists and filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, this eight minute epic Hawaiian mo‘olelo (a story passed down orally) transports us back many centuries, to before the arrival of the colonizers, to a time when the mahu, a third gender, was revered in Polynesian culture.
As the film opens we see four voyagers from Tahiti traverse the ocean to Hawaii. Settling in Waikiki, these visitors are embraced and accepted by all. They’re described as “tall and deep in voice yet gentle and soft-spoken. They were not male nor female. They were mahu – a mixture of both in mind, heart and spirit.” Each of the four mahu were skilful healers with their own specific power and their leader was known as Kapaemahu. During this global health crisis, a time when our healers are being rightly revered as heroes, it is particularly impactful to see the sick, coughing and suffering, lining up to be treated by these new arrivals. Their work was so appreciated by the people of Waikiki that four great boulders were placed on the beach as a tribute, with the visitors in turn transferring their healing powers to the stones, which remain there to this day. For many years though the story behind them and the mahu identity of the healers was forgotten, covered up, both figuratively and literally (by a bowling alley in the 1940s).
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (Kumu Hina) who identifies as mahu herself, expressively narrates the film with passion, in an ancient Hawaiian dialect, Olelo Niihau, the only continuously spoken form of Hawaiian. Through this and many other projects, Kumu Hina works to reclaim the telling of indigenous Hawaiian history and stories, and to protect and perpetuate indigenous languages and traditions.
Animation proves the perfect medium for the telling of this captivating mo‘olelo, and in the hands of Oscar-nominated animation director Daniel Sousa there’s an uplifting warmth to nearly every sequence, with gorgeous orange tones which fit well with the theme of healing and beautiful renderings of beams of light, elemental flames, reflections on water and a lens flare effect. There’s a simple, but enchanting hand painted look to the design of the film, with so much emotion in the characters’ eyes, and an exquisitely detailed tactile texture to the boulders themselves. The film’s emotional impact is further enhanced by Dan Golden’s gently stirring score and by Kaumakaiwa Kanakaole rousing, impassioned chant. A stunning, empowering animation that deserves to be widely seen.
By James Kleinmann
You can find out more about the film and future screenings at the official website.