After impressing audiences with his 2014 debut, the short film “Lahaina Noon,” Native Hawaiian filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana is returning to the big screen with his feature debut, “Waikiki.” The film, starring Danielle Zalopany and Peter Shinkoda, will hit the festival circuit this season and is billed as an “unflinching glimpse into the gritty realities of life in paradise.”
The Sundance Lab alum will also be making history with this debut, as he’s believed to be the first Native Hawaiian filmmaker to both write and direct a feature. Per its official synopsis: “Escaping her abusive ex, Kea, a part-time Hawaiian teacher, hula dancer, and nightclub hostess, crashes her beat-up van into a mysterious homeless man in the dead of night. Taking him into her temporary home on wheels, she quickly finds herself in over her head — and face to face with her own past traumas.”
“‘Waikiki’ is completely drawn from my real-life experiences,” Kahunahana told IndieWire. “While working more than full-time I have experienced temporary houselessness and would have been forced to live out of a van if it weren’t for the support of my family. Honolulu has one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the nation and is consistently ranked among New York City and San Francisco as having the highest cost of living.”
He added, “So many families in Hawai’i are living paycheck to paycheck and are one crisis away from living on the streets. Mental health issues, abuse, and addiction tragically are very real within our communities. This often stems from unresolved intergenerational trauma and land dispossession caused by the overthrow of the Sovereign Nation of Hawai’i and our Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893.”
While the film is based on Kahunahana’s own life, it’s also threaded through with the influence of a number of other films. The filmmaker told IndieWire that “everything I watch subconsciously influences my work, but I remember while writing ‘Waikiki’ being struck by the joy in the tragedy of Leos Carax’s ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf.’ I also would consider Jerry Schatzberg’s ‘Scarecrow’ an influence, for Al Pacino and Gene Hackman’s realness. I also have had a lifelong fascination with John Schlesinger’s ‘Midnight Cowboy.'”
The film will premiere at Urbanworld Film Festival this weekend (this year’s edition is entirely virtual, and you can pick up tickets here), and then play LA Asian Pacific Film Festival later this month. Check out the film’s first trailer, exclusively on IndieWire, below.