As It Happens·Q&A

Documentary Waikiki shows dark, colonial underbelly of Hawaii's tourism paradise

A new film from a Native Hawaiian filmmaker challenges the tourism industry's narrative about Hawaii as paradise on Earth.

Christopher Kahunahana says it was his 'duty' as a Native filmmaker to show 'a fuller picture' of his home

In the new movie Waikiki, Danielle Zalopany plays Kea, a luau dancer who is trying to reconnect to her Native Hawaiian culture. (

A new film from a Native Hawaiian filmmaker challenges the tourism industry's narrative about Hawaii as paradise on Earth.

With white sandy beaches, impossibly green forests, perfect surf and rugged mountains, there is no disputing that the tropical U.S. state is place of stunning natural beauty. And over the years, a lot of that beauty has been captured on film.

For the most part, though, the movies and TV shows shot in Hawaii haven't been made by the people who live there. In fact, Christopher Kahunahana's debut movie Waikiki is billed as the first narrative feature film written and directed by a Native Hawaiian.

Named for the tourism-heavy neighbourhood in Honolulu, Waikiki follows the trials and tribulations of Kea, a luau dancer and Hawaiian language teacher played by Danielle Zalopany. It is screening this week at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Here is part of Kahunahana's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Christopher, as you know, so much of the world thinks of Hawaii as paradise. Why did you want to disrupt that vision?

Waikiki has always been the crown jewel of the tourist industry, and they spent billions of dollars marketing Hawaii as paradise. But it's not actually that for everyone who lives here.

We see Waikiki as the driving force behind the exploitation of Hawaiian culture. So they package our culture and resell it. And it's inaccurate. It's not a correct representation of who we are as people. And, you know, we find offence to it.

So as kānaka maoli [Native Hawaiian] filmmaker, I felt it was my kuleana, my duty, to actually show a fuller picture, you know, not just the one that we see every day in the tourist ads.

And not just a fuller picture. A very rich picture. Because the early reviews for your film are extremely good, people talking about just how layered and deep the story is. And the main character, Kea, an Indigenous Hawaiian woman who does dances for tourists, does the luaus that people know so well when they go there. And she smiles. She has a beautiful face. But there's another side of it. Can you give us a sense of what Kea is going through?

It's the image of what happens when she stops dancing and stops being preformative and she has to go back to normal life. That smile soon fades. And Kea, our protagonist, has to navigate a world where intergenerational violence, abuse and poverty and mental illness are daily battles.

So she has to deal with this diametrically opposed need to survive in modern society, and at the same time, the calling of our ancestors and their culture. These things tear at her. And she hopes eventually to reconnect to her culture, which is the true beauty of Hawaii and Waikiki.

Waikiki actor Peter Shinkoda, left, and writer/director Christopher Kahunahana, behind the scenes during a shoot. (Submitted by Christopher Kahunahana)

She works as a dancer, also in a karaoke bar, and she has another job teaching children about Hawaiian language and culture. And we have a clip from the scene where she's in the classroom with some of those kids.... What's going on in that scene?

To live in Hawaii, we have some of the highest cost of living in the United States, comparable to New York or San Francisco. And we don't have the same job opportunities. Our main industries are the military and tourism industry. The tourist industry only affords us certain types of jobs. So everyone here is forced to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, to try and make rent.

So in addition to working in a karaoke bar, she also teaches Hawaiian immersion school. So the 'ōlelo no'eau [proverb] which she was explaining or discussing with the children in class, is ["He alii ka aina; he kauwa ke kanaka"] — that the land is the chief and the people are its servants.

And it's kind of the main theme and message of the film.

And what would that mean to people in Hawaii, in Waikiki? What does that say to them?

I'm hoping that it would serve notice that if we destroy our planet and our culture and nature, you know, we will destroy ourselves. We are intrinsically linked together.

We know this as Native Peoples. And I think everybody has that understanding that Mother Earth is our mother. Without the Earth, there is no people. And I want people to understand that you can't separate the two. You can't just, say, use the Earth as an exploitable resource and forget your connection to it.

You just mentioned about people having several jobs. What's your own experience with that?

I've been a busboy, a waiter, a valet. I've had every single service industry job that you can imagine to try and pay for college. And that experience, you know, I understand these people. I understand Kea. I understand her struggles.

We all kind of live paycheque to paycheque, and one disaster away from living on the streets. And that's the tragedy. You know, there's so much richness here. And it's just not equitable. 

But Hawaii's economy relies on tourism. And are you getting any pushback from those who don't want you to pull back the curtain and show what life is like for so many people?

When making this film, we did realize that there would be some tension and contention; this would be a controversial subject. But it's interesting because the film has come out during a pandemic where Waikiki went from 30,000 people a day arriving in Honolulu to zero.

I think the public got to experience Waikiki when it's not congested and packed. And the fish returned, and I think people are now open to have those conversations and see, is this sustainable? Is this the only thing we can do? Is this the best use of our resources?

In Waikiki, the protagonist's smile fades when she is no longer performing her culture for tourists. (

We covered the story just a while ago of the protests against the telescope construction and the sense that this was destroying something sacred…. That was something that really got people to rise up against what was going on and to protect Indigenous culture and land. And so did you think there is more of that spirit ... emerging?

I think the protest to protect Mauna Kea ignited this fire in a lot of us as kānaka maoli and we saw the opportunity to say, you know, enough is enough. It's like, this is our most sacred mountain. And if we don't have a say in how people choose to use our sacred sites, then what say do we have in any matter in our society?

Canada has its own colonial past and present. And tourists who come to enjoy the beauty of this country often don't know about that history. A lot of Canadians don't know it, but they are becoming increasingly aware. So how much do you think non-Native Hawaiians and tourists, other Americans, know about the issues that you're exploring in this movie?

That was one thing that people had commented on the film, that they wish it had been longer and had the opportunity to explain some of the things that were very specific to our colonial past and our current situation.

There was a shot of the Queen Liliuokalani, who was overthrown, and the nation and our sovereignty was stolen in 1893. And I think this is something that has been glossed over or buried.

It's not like a history that the state necessarily wants to discuss with the tourists. And, of course, because it's a tourist-driven economy, that's not the first thing they want to see. You don't want to air your dirty laundry.

But I think … they're starting to realize that there was a wrong and those wrongs continue to create situations that make it untenable for the Kanaka and the people of Hawaii.

So hopefully, with films like mine and the other Hawaiian filmmakers who are coming up, and if people like the film, they'll research other documentaries on the subject. But I hope people start to realize that there's a lot more complexity to the stories that they've been told.

Waikiki has been billed as the first narrative feature by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker ever, which is really surprising. What does that mean for you at this particular time?

This is my debut feature ... and we didn't know that was the situation until we had entered post-production.

And it was shocking. It was upsetting. Honestly, I just could not believe it to be true.

But I am hopeful because I know there's so many great Hawaiian filmmakers who are working on launching feature projects. And I know we can look forward to at least two or three within the next year or so.

So hopefully it's a short-lived period of time.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Sheena Goodyear. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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