An excerpt from FILMMAKER MAGAZINE by Jason Sanders, December 2018

Local filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana, a Sundance Native Lab Fellowship graduate whose abstract, brilliantly shot sliver of a short film Lahaina Noon premiered at HIFF in 2014 and had everyone buzzing with its singular vision, had a cast-and-crew, rough-cut screening of his new feature, Waikiki. Though more traditionally narrative than the trance-like Lahaina NoonWaikiki still keeps that film’s slightly mesmerized grasp of reality to underline one woman’s attempt to maintain control amidst the dreams, fakery, and all-too-real nightmares of modern Waikiki. The film’s poster (the current one, at least) speaks volumes: a close-up of its Hawaiian heroine, with a plastic dance-club lei teetering on her head like a cheap crown of thorns, staring vacantly and almost in tears at the camera; it’s uncertain whether she’s in Paradise or Hell.

No matter the final post-rough cut state of the film, Waikiki will be worth seeing for that very heroine, the theater actress Danielle Zalopany, who makes her feature lead debut here. Onscreen in nearly every shot, her every gaze imbued with a combination of beauty, pain, and longing, she delivers a star-making performance that’s utterly remarkable for its raw energy.

Along with actor Moronai Kanekoa, who delivers a similarly eye-catching performance in Brian Kohne’s Maui-set, post-Vietnam tropical noir Kuleana (also a HIFF premiere), Zalopany serves notice that the acting talent in Hawaii is becoming as note-worthy as the filmmaking.

After the festival, I asked Kahunahana for his take on the apparent rise of Hawaiian independent film. “Hawaii filmmakers who have been trained on big Hollywood productions are now more than ever producing, launching, writing their own feature projects,” he explained. “I think itʻs hit a tipping point where there are enough independent films being produced to start getting noticed.”

“In regard to Native Hawaiian films, storytelling has always been an important part of our culture. Telling and learning stories informs who we are,” Kahunahana continued.

“While there has been a long tradition of documentary films from Hawaiian filmmakers, I feel that more and more young fimmakers are moving to narrative fiction and from short form to features. In the Hawaiian schools they are teaching new media technology alongside cultural knowledege. As a Hawaiian filmmaker it is neccesary to present a more authentic and complex view of ‘paradise.'” Here’s hoping that Waikiki, and other titles to come, do just that.

Chris Kahunahana