Filmmaker Alika Tengan Is Giving Native Hawaiians A Bigger Spotlight

His film “Every Day in Kaimukī” was the first Native Hawaiian feature-length film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director Alika Tengan at his home in Honolulu on May 17. Fresh off the Sundance premiere of “Every Day in Kaimukī,” Tengan is now working on a feature-length version of his short “Moloka’i Bound.”
Director Alika Tengan at his home in Honolulu on May 17. Fresh off the Sundance premiere of “Every Day in Kaimukī,” Tengan is now working on a feature-length version of his short “Moloka’i Bound.”
Marie Eriel Hobro for HuffPost

This profile is part of our Culture Shifters series, which highlights people who are changing the way we think about the world around us. Read about film archivist Maya Cade, internet star Keyon Elkins, rapper Latashá, music historian Katelina Eccleston and artist Kay Rufai.

Alika Tengan was itching to make something in 2020, after a film he was hoping to shoot that year was sidelined because of the pandemic. That fall, his friend, freelance journalist Naz Kawakami, told him some big news: He was planning to move to New York in early 2021. The two decided it would be interesting to make a movie about leaving home, and the idea for “Every Day in Kaimukī” was born.

That dilemma of whether to leave the familiar and take a leap into the unknown is a tale as old as time. But as Tengan explained over Zoom, “that conversation is especially interesting in the backdrop of Hawaii,” where both of them were born and raised.

“Because he’s a mixed Native Hawaiian guy like myself — he’s Japanese and Native Hawaiian — we had similar perspectives on feeling Hawaiian but not Hawaiian enough, Japanese but not Japanese enough. I think we related a lot in that way. And he has also lived here his whole life, and so moving for him was a big deal, as it is for many of us in Hawaii,” Tengan said. “I think being Hawaiian and not feeling Hawaiian enough can give you a rootlessness, and it makes the decision to leave easier in some ways, and more complicated in some ways too.”

“The more that we share our stories that are just specific to our experiences growing up here, it’s generating more interest in those types of stories as well.”
“The more that we share our stories that are just specific to our experiences growing up here, it’s generating more interest in those types of stories as well.”
Marie Eriel Hobro for HuffPost

They initially discussed making a documentary, but then decided to dramatize some elements “just to make it a little more compelling or interesting,” such as adding some composite characters and having Kawakami play a more heightened version of himself. The film’s cast is a mix of trained actors and Kawakami’s real friends.

“Every Day in Kaimukī” premiered in the Next category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, the first Native Hawaiian feature-length film to premiere at Sundance. It’s a heartfelt slice-of-life portrait imbued with a sense of place and identity — while not solely being about that.

The movie evokes many classic genres and familiar experiences. Among other things, it’s a “hangout” movie, a “deciding whether to leave home” movie and a “being a 20-something person figuring out adulthood” movie — that happens to center a Native Hawaiian protagonist. There are moments of humor, especially in Naz dealing with the logistical nightmares of moving, like selling his stuff on Craigslist and getting stuck on multiple phone calls with his airline to confirm he can safely bring his cat on the long flight. He’s also trying to savor his final moments with his friends and pastimes, like skateboarding and being a late-night DJ at the community radio station.

“It’s really accurate to living in Hawaii and our experiences and our actual relationships and the way that being Asian, being Hawaiian, being mixed is so endemic to our everyday, as to not even be a part of the conversation,” Tengan said. “It just is.”

For independent filmmakers, a Sundance premiere has long been a huge career moment. Tengan had been excited to head to the snowy peaks of Park City, Utah. But sadly, the omicron surge forced the festival to go completely virtual for the second year in a row.

“That was tough. I still don’t know if I’ve gotten over it, the big pivot, but it is what it is,” he said.

Thankfully, he has been able to take the film to several in-person festivals this spring, such as the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest in San Francisco, where it was the closing-night film. He also hopes to find a streaming home for it so that it can be seen more widely.

Tengan, 34, is proud to be part of a growing wave of Native Hawaiian filmmakers. Historically, a lot of Hawaii’s film industry has been driven by outside productions filming there, he said. But over the last few years, he has been happy to see more interest in and financial support for local talent.

“I think there’s an incredible wave of local Hawaiian filmmakers that are about to just be coming up over the next couple of years. And it’s a really exciting time for all that,” he said. “The more that we share our stories that are just specific to our experiences growing up here, it’s generating more interest in those types of stories as well. So there’s more support, more money — it’s this reciprocal thing.”

“To see this Polynesian filmmaker talking about this film that was so specific to where he grew up, but also so charming and funny and light and all of these other things ... I wanted to do that for Hawaii.”
“To see this Polynesian filmmaker talking about this film that was so specific to where he grew up, but also so charming and funny and light and all of these other things ... I wanted to do that for Hawaii.”
Marie Eriel Hobro for HuffPost

It’s something he’s been trying to do throughout his career. Born and raised in Kaneohe, on the east side of the island of Oahu, Tengan studied film at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His first film professor, a groundbreaking Māori filmmaker named Merata Mita, “exposed us to Indigenous cinema. I hadn’t been studying art house films my whole life. It took me a while to get into that world. So the concept of indigenous cinema was very new to me,” he said. Mita, an early supporter of director Taika Waititi, showed Tengan’s class Waititi’s Oscar-nominated short “Two Cars, One Night,” which hugely influenced Tengan. Another one of Tengan’s professors, Lisette Flanary, who plays a small role in “Every Day in Kaimukī,” invited Waititi to speak to her class in 2010, the year his breakthrough film “Boy” premiered.

“That was also another huge moment for me, to see this Polynesian filmmaker talking about this film that was so specific to where he grew up, but also so charming and funny and light and all of these other things,” Tengan said. “And I wanted to do that for Hawaii. I felt we could do that here because we have a richness of character and story. So that’s what I’ve been wanting to do ever since.”

When he graduated in 2013, he wasn’t sure exactly how to get into the film business. Adding to his uncertainty, he was gravely injured in a car accident, which sidelined him for several years. “I did a lot of intense soul-searching, I think, during that time. Because even when I was in film school, I was like, ‘Am I cut out for this?’ and trying to figure out where I fit into the filmmaking ecosystem. Was I going to be an editor, or a writer, or a DP, or director? I had a lot of uncertainty in film school, and then the accident happened. So there was a lot of repurposing and reconfiguring what I wanted out of life.”

When he felt ready to get back into filmmaking, a friend told him that HBO’s annual short film contest for emerging Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers was taking submissions. “It was a really good prompt for me to be like, ‘OK, let’s try to make something,’ because deadlines are everything,” Tengan said.

Tengan pulled out a script he had written back in film school, “Keep You Float,” and called up an old classmate, Jonah Okano. The two co-directed the short in 2016, shooting it in one day. It started a theme in Tengan’s career: deadlines, scrappiness, and working with his friends.

The short, about a group of friends deciding where to scatter their late friend’s ashes, was accepted into a local festival, the ’Ohina Short Film Showcase. Tengan and other participating filmmakers got to attend a writers workshop, led by “Black Panther” co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Tengan’s work impressed Cole, who went on to advise him on his next short film, “Mauka to Makai,” which Tengan wrote and shot in 2018.

“Joe was amazing. It had happened right before ‘Black Panther’ was coming out. And I didn’t think he’d be available at all because he’d be one of the busiest people in the world. But he still really made time to help me and go over the script with me and gave really thoughtful notes. And we’re still in touch. He’s a wonderful guy.”

In March 2019, “Mauka to Makai” played at the Māoriland Film Festival, a major Indigenous film festival in New Zealand. That was another formative experience for Tengan. During the festival, his roommate was a fellow Hawaiian artist, cinematographer Chapin Hall, who went on to shoot “Every Day in Kaimukī.” The two bonded and decided they wanted to work together.

“Chapin was like, ‘I have my camera gear with me, and I’m going to be in Hawaii for about a week before I have to fly back to LA for a job,’” Tengan said. “If I could write something in a week, he was down to shoot it. And again, deadlines are everything. So I was like, ‘OK, great. Let’s try to do something.’”

Tengan wrote what became “Moloka’i Bound.” It came together quickly, in part because it starred Holden Mandrial-Santos, the star of “Mauka to Makai,” who is also Tengan’s roommate and friend. The two attended the same high school and had similar upbringings, which helped Mandrial-Santos convey what Tengan was looking for in a star for his films. In another personal connection, they shot “Moloka’i Bound” on the steps of Tengan’s old elementary school.

“I really love working with nonactors ... because I think they bring something ineffable to the screen and something that’s really hard to cast for.”
“I really love working with nonactors ... because I think they bring something ineffable to the screen and something that’s really hard to cast for.”
Marie Eriel Hobro for HuffPost

“Moloka’i Bound” won the award for best live-action short film at the 2019 ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto, which qualified it for Oscar consideration. (It’s available to stream on The Criterion Channel.) Tengan had written the short, which consists of just one scene, intending it as “a jumping-off point, proof-of-concept type of thing” for a feature film. With the success of the short, he wrote the script for the feature, which was selected for the 2020 Indigenous List, an offshoot of the Black List, the annual list of the best unproduced screenplays.

By early 2020, the wheels were in motion to potentially start shooting the feature version of “Moloka’i Bound.” But the pandemic upended those plans. Tengan found himself spinning his wheels, until he and Kawakami, whom he met a few years prior when Kawakami interviewed him for a story about the local film scene, started talking about their potential project.

Once again, another deadline motivated Tengan to make the film. “After we both agreed that we wanted to do this, I had gone to his house, and I took my phone out and I recorded a voice memo. And I was just like, ‘Tell me everything that led up to this moment for you to make this decision,’” Tengan said. “We had that meeting around Thanksgiving in 2020. And because he mentioned that he was going to move in basically February or March, there was already a built-in ticking clock.”

While continuing to bring “Every Day in Kaimukī” to more festivals and find a distributor for it, Tengan is back to work on “Moloka’i Bound,” for which he was awarded a $500,000 grant from Ava DuVernay’s company Array and Google. He aims to shoot the film later this year, with Mandrial-Santos reprising his role. Once again, Tengan wants to cast a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, which he says gives his films “a really interesting alchemy.”

“I really love working with nonactors, especially for these types of films, because I think they bring something ineffable to the screen and something that’s really hard to cast for, because these roles are so specific.”

Now with more support and a bigger profile, Tengan admits to feeling a bit of pressure. “It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done, so it’s scary. It’s scary and nerve-wracking. And I’m also used to, I think, making things under the radar. So this probably won’t be under the radar, to an extent. And I’m trying to manage my expectations or feelings about that. I’ve never had expectations before. I hope that we can live up to them.”

Adding to that pressure is his mission to keep supporting the growth of more Native Hawaiian filmmakers. “I’m super grateful to be in this position because we worked really hard to get here. A lot of people were a part of that, and I just want to justify people’s faith in what we’re doing. I don’t want to waste people’s time, because people have been really supportive. The local film community is so supportive. And so yeah, it needs to be good for them — for everybody.”

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