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Kaniaupio, Dawn (on filmmaking)

Kristy Perez-Kaiwi
March 2011

“Through the work that I do now, I hope to present another way for us to see ourselves as well as the outside world to see us,” explains Dawn Kaniaupio as she shares her desire to capture and promote Hawaiian traditional practices. Films like Mana I Ka Leo, which received the Audience Award for Favorite Short Film at the 2010 Hawaii International Film Festival, resonate to the truth and depth of our Hawaiian culture and the intellect of our kūpuna in their unique way of life and practices.  

Ka‘iwakīloumoku was privileged to feature this film in March 2011 as it received laudable praise from so many members in the community. Dawn Kaniaupio agreed to meet and talk story with us to help us get a better understanding of the films she and her team produces and the driving force behind it all: their love and sincere appreciation of our vibrant Hawaiian culture.



So how are things with the film screening opportunities? Are they simply falling in your lap?

Well I’m getting a lot of people that reach out. Our biggest challenge is the financial part of it. A lot of people want it. But to screen it the way we want it to be screened, there’s financial commitment. If somebody in California wants it and they just want us to send the DVD, we prefer not to do that because we believe strongly that part of our mission is to highlight our cultural practices at a level that matches what’s being shared on the film. So if we take this fabulous film that these people are sharing of themselves in chanting and all of this emotion that comes through, and we put out a poor quality version of that, it takes away from what they’re sharing. We really feel strongly about that. It would be very easy for us to respond to everyone that wants the film and send DVDs all over the place and have people see it (because part of our mission is to get it out and have people understand the depth of who we are here, on the larger global scale) but we have to weigh that out; do we just want everyone to see it and not care how they see it? Or, do we want to find a balance? We’re talking with E Hula Mau right now; they’re in Long Beach, California. But again, for us to do it the way we want to do it, like we did at Kamehameha, we would need to have at least one or two of the chanters come with us to have a panel discussion, so that the engagement after the film can be where people really get their answers. All those things cost money to do. Our biggest challenge right now is figuring out a way to fund the screenings if the person contacting us doesn’t have the funds and they’re just saying they just want to show the film and what we can do to assist with that. So what we’re working on right now is figuring out ways to get into these various markets and finding where to fund it.

Are you looking into grants too?

Yes and maybe adding onto some things, for example, OHA (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) has a presence at E Hula Mau because they’re a sponsor. If we could perhaps find out if there’s a way to have OHA sponsor the expenses to get the panelists there and consequently screen the film in its high-quality state, we could utilize this option too. Also through Hawai‘i Maoli, the organization of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, we could possibly partner with one of the clubs. There are a number of possibilities. We could collaborate with them if they have annual events, something already going on, or join in their funding efforts to bring the film to their area through a sponsor. 

Will you be creating and selling DVDs?

Yes, as a matter of fact, we are close to finishing the DVD and Blu-ray. So we’ve been in the final stages (your site is actually a great resource) of making sure the chants are properly recognized in the credits, the composers are properly recognized in the credits. So all of that stuff takes time and making sure that the people who composed each chant gets some kind of compensation for the use of that. In the beginning, it’s an additional plus for us, up till now, we’ve funded so much of everything but we had to make the decision; keep dolling out the money in hopes of creating this DVD that could then reach so many more people and try to worry about getting the money back later. So we decided to do that. We invested in a Blu-ray and regular DVD. We went to LA with it, so they’re producing it right now. We’re just finishing the credits and getting all the responses from the composers as to how it needs to be credited. Hopefully selling it will help to recoup some of the costs. And if it sells well, because the idea would be that it sells enough to recoup the costs that have gone in to making it, we could fund some of these outreaches that we want to do. But, we don’t know, we’ve never sold these things before, so we’re not sure what the outcome will be. Actually, Kamehameha Publishing is working with us because they might consider allowing Mana I Ka Leo be listed through them. We think that will help. They’ve seen the film and have been very supportive of it. Others like Nā Mea Hawai‘i called and wanted it in the store and so as soon as we can get it finished, they’re looking for it, as did Fred from had said they want to carry it too and they have a pretty big audience; so that’s kind of what we’re looking at doing. 

Are there any other films you’ve worked on in the past that have had a similar impact on the community, more particularly, culture-based films?

Yes, back in 2009 we did the Merrie Monarch Festival. 4 Miles LLC is the company that Reuben and I are partners in. During our production that particular year, we produced original media content that would play just before Merrie Monarch or during the intermission. We made a film called Hula Origins with Kaumakaiwa. We made a film with Piʻilani Smith that looked at the journey she went on and the transformation that hula has been in her life and we spent a lot of time in the forest with her. It’s a completely different story; it shows the depth of what hula is and not a surface thing. She shared and we did a film with her.     

I also did a film with Reuben on the Kamaka family, the makers of the ukulele . . .

Was it shown on television? I think that I saw that film.

It was shown on PBS, nationally. And it’s showing quite a bit. It’s interesting because just last night, a children’s book writer from Australia emailed me and asked if we could have a phone conversation today because she’s writing a book and she wants to use the film as the story for this book for 3rd and 4th graders to develop these characters in the book, which is exactly the point of why we do what we do; especially for young people in Australia to have a better understanding. It’s great to get people when they’re young so we don’t have to retrain their minds when they get older. Instead, they can just learn the right way from the beginning. So I’m excited to talk with her. She went to the Mana I Ka Leo site ( She listened to our one-hour interview; so there’s a possibility that she might consider using Mana I Ka Leo as another one for Australia.

Those are some of the recent films that I’ve done. Before doing this kind of stuff (original media content), I was producing a lot for other peoples’ content, mostly in Japan. A lot of the networks for Japan would come here to do films that are culture-based. I would work with them to produce the film, and then they would go home, edit, and air it there. So for about 15 years, that was 90% of what I did. It wasn’t until about 10 or 12 years ago that I decided I wanted to control the content better because on those projects (the Japan projects) it was their projects. I didn’t have any control of it, so when they went back to Japan, they could edit it anyway they wanted to. And, in many cases it was beautiful, but in many cases, I felt they weren’t getting the depth of certain subjects; I didn’t fault them for that, for me it just became, “Well, then you should be doing it yourself.” Because they’re telling their story, they’re telling a story that they interpret versus telling our story. That’s kind of where I’m at.

Heart Strings was another really big project for me that happened just leading into Mana I Ka Leo. And they kind of overlapped a little bit. They were both kind of being done at the same time. 

It’s called Heart Strings?

Yeah, it’s called Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka ʻUkulele. And it looks at Hawaiian values and business. It looks at how that particular family over generations has been able to maintain the same way of doing business in an industry that could’ve easily become a manufacturing giant and made tons of money. They could’ve got their stuff produced in China, put their name on it, and made a lot of money. A very good business model could have been created. But, they have a certain system that they used there. Still to this day, a Kamaka has to touch every ʻukulele before it goes out. There’s a process and when I was filming it, Kamanu’s son was just a little baby and he was running around in the back warehouse. Kamanu is Chris’s son. Chris is the grandson of Sam who started it. So there was this depth of generation and solid foundation in this family maintaining this traditional practice that they’ve done in much the same way that their grandfather did nearly 100 years ago. 

What was really important was that so many people outside of Hawai‘i think of the ʻukulele as a toy. Tiny Tim played it. They were made in masses and plastic. You could see it all over the place and little kids playing it; that was fine, but I wanted to show that it’s something different here and it’s something to these people who are craftsmen. It’s not a toy to them; it’s not bought at Kmart. 

They’re craftsmen. They know where the trees come from, they care about reforestation, and they work with farms that are reforesting koa because they understand they are using that resource. So all of those things are relevant to them and I wanted to present this story about this instrument through a different lens. When I went to San Francisco with it, it was interesting because everyone I spoke to about it, when they would say, “What’s the name of your film?” And I would say, “This…” and they would say “Oh, what is that?” and they didn’t even know what the word was until you said, “ʻUkelele . . .” or something like that and they would say, “Oh, is that what you’re talking about, that little toy thing?” They think of it as a toy guitar; they weren’t even getting that it’s a real instrument. Then you have people like Jake who is a solo artist based on that instrument and they are musical geniuses. 

So bringing some credibility to this craft, for me, was very important in the making of this film, and shining the light on this family, who, I believe, used very Hawaiian values and without even verbalizing it; they don’t speak like that but it’s just embedded in their practice. They don’t consider themselves to be cultural people, they don’t consider themselves to be that at all, but they live it just by living it that way! That film was really another opportunity for me. The ʻukulele is so huge around the world. It got people from Germany involved, and real artists in other places. They were grateful to have a film like that out that shines the light on what they do wherever they are. 

For me, it’s just another way of looking at our culture. It says something about the way our people were in family traditions. When I asked Casey and Chris them in these interviews about, “Do you feel like you had to do it?” even though it was a family responsibility, they never felt like they had to do it. Their family never said, “You will do this,” because it was already embedded in them. They were all raised around this. Many of these kids aren’t directly related to the factory or the ʻukulele store, but they still support each other. They understand this concept of family responsibility. They understand the importance of what their father did a long time ago and having their name attached to it. They understand how closely related they are to it. For me, that was all culturally based whether you call it that or not, whether you realize it or not, it was very soundly a part of our culture and the ancients. Maybe they weren’t making ʻukulele back then, but it was the same concept. I thought on those things and wanted our young people to see examples of the ancients and our traditional ways alive and well today in very contemporary forms. 

It reminds me of a film that I made in between Heart Strings and this one is called Kailikoa: An Olympic Journey. It’s a story of a Hawaiian boy who comes from Kohala who went to the Beijing Olympics; he was a swimmer. He grew up in Kohala. His father was his coach as he practiced at the Kohala community pool. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kohala, but it’s a small antiquated pool and the father is just the community lifeguard. I mean, Kohala is just a small community of people. Kailikoa went to school there his whole life. He was born and raised there; his family is living there. As he was swimming as a youngster, he started breaking records throughout the state. He does the fastest race, the 50 yards. So, he holds a lot of records throughout Hawai‘i, and the interesting thing was he comes from this small little place and in the state level, he’s competing against people at Punahou and Kamehameha with all of these resources and beautiful facilities and first-notch trainers, but somehow he just had this fabulous talent and he was really good. The basis of his training was very traditional. They went diving, he knew all about very cultural things. All of his training was based on that. It was based on diving and fishing and understanding breathing and being under water for a long time. So these very deep cultural traditions played a very important role in his contemporary life and using in swimming. When he was a sophomore or junior, his father contacted the U.S. Olympics and said, “My son has all these times, he’s really good and what do we have to do to get him on the Olympic team?” They were discouraged, they were first asked, “Where does he train? Who is his coach? What’s his nutrition like?” and all that and the father said, “We come from this small little Hawaiian town and I’m his coach, and it’s very traditional means that we use.” They said that he will never compete at a high level coming from that kind of training. They basically just brushed him off. The family was really devastated at first. For me, it rocked me to the core. He showed the numbers, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t subjective. It was like, “Just look at his times and compare him to everybody else.” Who cares how he’s doing it, for me, it’s fabulous how he’s doing it. So with that, they went to the Philippines because his grandfather had dual citizenship. They went to the Philippines and talked to the Filipinos there. The Philippines said, “No way,” they don’t want it but they let him swim in the exhibition race they had there with no strings attached. Well, he beat their national champion. So then they stopped and said, “Wait a minute . . . this could actually be . . .” So they allowed him to start swimming under their flag for a while and then of course he made the national team for the Philippines. So I followed him from Kohala to Florida and then to the Philippines in his last training session before leaving for China and then I went to China and filmed him at the Olympics and told this story of not giving up our deeply rooted cultural values for anything. The best we can be is hanging on to these things and incorporating it in to our daily lives. It’s not something that we think about a long time ago and those people did it and we’re very different. He is very much just an old soul, this kid. He’s very humble and shy and really strongly rooted in these cultural things. He believes that if his parents had done what they were suggested to do when he was a sophomore which was pull him out of Kohala and put him in someplace like a training facility here or someplace else, he would never have been as good as he was. He was only good because of the community he lived in and the ways that he was trained. And that worked perfectly for him, because amongst the community a lot of people ridiculed the family for not putting the potential that he had first. They felt that they were selling him short by not putting him in these other places. So it became a big issue and there was a lot of negativity around them and what they had done, but that family just stayed solid; they just stayed true to what they believed was best for their son and he gained his strength from living in that community and swimming in this really old, cracked swimming pool. So, for me, that story was just another one of those examples of saying that our young people need to hold fast to these values and don’t think of it as something that was a long time ago. It’s very much alive and well today in you, whether you know it or not, it’s there. Kailikoa was a perfect example. So he continues to swim, he swims under the Philippine flag. Because he did really well, he was asked, “Will you now try to go back to the U.S. and see . . .” and he said, “Oh no, I’m not going to quit swimming for the Philippines.” So he’s committed to that which is fabulous. It’s just another fabulous Hawaiian trait [chuckling]. 

So that film was done and was shown here on commercial television right after the Olympics. We came back from China and maybe it aired a month and a half later right out of the Olympic season. And it’s actually what Hokulani, I think, saw first before working with us. She had seen the film, and I had given her a copy of it, I had told her that I think it’s something young people should see, and she really liked that story. It’s just another one of ’em and I want that one to make it through the school system more than anything. I want our young people to learn from him.

Is there a website that you have where people access that film or contact you to see if a screening is possible?

That was another film that was unfunded. Heart Strings was funded. So Heart Strings was paid for because it was intended for national public television. I got funding for entities that fund for that reason. Kailikoa’s story was a story that again, we wanted to be able to tell the way we wanted to tell it. We didn’t want somebody trying to manipulate what the agenda was for this piece. We wanted it to be organic from what we learned from him and his family. Kamehameha actually helped fund part of it. I shouldn’t say it was unfunded. We got enough money to pay for the expenses to get us to all of these places. Kamehameha was one of them because it went on ‘Ōiwi TV. After it showed on television, we gave it to ‘Ōiwi TV so that they could make it accessible. It lives on ‘Ōiwi TV. 

What do you think plays a role in helping to foster this part of your life, for example, your upbringing, education, etc?

I definitely think everything plays a part in what I’m doing now. Absolutely, the foundation comes from my upbringing. I come from a very strong family. My parents laid the strongest foundation possible for us. It affects everything that we do. There are four kids in my family and I’m the youngest. So all four of us to this day credit my parents for everything that we do, regardless. It’s not even about what they say, it’s not verbal necessarily. That’s my immediate family. My grandfather is pure Hawaiian from Maunawili. They died very young, my father’s side. My mother’s side, my grandfather died very young. I was very young when they passed away. So, I didn’t have that, which I long for today. I really feel it would’ve enhanced everything that I do had I been able to know them longer. Yes, my family and my upbringing has everything to do with the type of things that I do. But really, it was my education at the University that started to shake me up a little bit. Prior to that, graduating from Kamehameha, I never had a sense of what really happened. I just assumed that we were all happy to be American. I never knew any different. And it wasn’t something I got at home either; my family didn’t talk about that. I didn’t get that at Kamehameha or at home. But where I started to get it and where it totally blew my mind was taking Ethnic Studies classes at the University. Nothing was the same after that. Everything that I looked at, I looked at differently. When you question the core of all of it, I mean, who are we, it shakes the whole thing. It totally changed my life. In a lot of ways, I was angry, and then finding a way to channel that into something else. For a long time, I just sort of flopped around out there, angry, not knowing what to do with that. And really, that wasn’t helpful either. But figuring why I was, and realizing all these things I didn’t know helped me to participate in ways to educate myself about them and then share the truth. I felt like a very strong yearning to present, now that I know things in a different way. My personal growth was that I too once thought the ways of the ancients were backwards and was fortunate to have progressed away from them. Today that breaks my heart that I ever felt like that. So when I realize now all that they were and all that they did, I’m just sad that I wasted so much time not realizing that. And so now, it’s a huge part of my mission on everything that I do, which is to shine the light on the ancients in ways that we currently see their wisdom today. You think about Hōkūle‘a alone and how they did what they did in revitalizing all of us to see things differently and to look at those people differently and what they did. It’s a part of everything I do now. My hope is that our young people won’t have the same thing happen to them that I did. Because I’m sure the next generation and the generation after will receive more of that sooner than I did. I went to public school when I was young. I pledged my allegiance to the American flag like every other public school kid did. I was completely fine with it. I got chicken skin when I heard the "Star-Spangled Banner", I did all that great stuff until I realized something different. Then everything changed. Through the work that I do now, I hope to present another way for us to see ourselves as well as the outside world to see us. 

Thank you so much for meeting with me.