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Local participants say the movie 'Aloha' deserves its name

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Tuesday, May 26, 2015

By Mindy Pennybacker

Bumpy Kanahele
Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele and his daughter-in-law, Natasha Kanahele, stand in front of a pavilion in Waimanalo that was built for the Cameron Crowe movie "Aloha" starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray and John Krasinski.

The long, tall pavilion with a peaked roof could have been a canoe hale if it weren't sitting high up in a mountain valley like an ark left by a receding flood. It had been left behind, actually, by the Hollywood production company that created it as a set for a luau in the Cameron Crowe film "Aloha," which opens Friday.

The valley is Pu'uhonua o Waimanalo, nicknamed "Bumpy's Village" after Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, leader of the Nation of Hawaii, a sovereignty organization that leases the 45 acres from the state.

"The movie industry comes right in and then 'poof!' they're gone, just like Cinderella," said Kanahele as he showed visitors the pavilion. Indeed, during the film's production the tall, hefty 60-year-old found himself transformed, as if in a fairy tale, into a screen actor playing himself.

"It deserves the name aloha," Kanahele said of the film, which he had seen in a private screening for local participants.

Others disagree.

"Aloha" has been criticized by some Native Hawaiians, including activist Walter Ritte, Hawaii State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson and journalist Janet Mock, for perpetuating what Dawson described as "a Hollywood stereotype, misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Hawaiians" through its use of a word whose deep spiritual meanings informed the Hawaiian Renaissance after a stirring 1970 speech by Pilahi Paki.

"The filmmakers should have asked permission to use a word that is sacred to us," Dawson said.

"Aloha," which is mostly set at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, is a romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone (whose fighter pilot character is part Native Hawaiian). The film has also been criticized by Mock, based on its trailer, for not featuring Native Hawaiians, and by Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) for overlooking Asian-Pacific islanders.

"If you have a romantic comedy about the military in Hawaii but a title that says 'Aloha,' I can only guess that they'll bastardize the word," Ritte told The Associated Press.

Other recent films about Hawaii, such as "The Descendants" and "Princess Kaiulani," faced similar complaints. Asked whether the ruckus might dissuade filmmakers from portraying Hawaii, Dawson said she wasn't worried.

"What I hope is that they'll learn from this, pay attention and gain a greater understanding of who we are."

Crowe took pains to ensure an authentic and respectful depiction of Hawaiian culture, according to Kanahele and other local people who served as teachers and advisers on the film.

Ledward Kaapana taught Stone how to play "Waimanalo Blues" on slack-key guitar.

"She loved the open tuning," he said. "Sometimes I had to show her how to hold the fingering on the fret board, but she picked it up so fast. It was good and easy, talking story, having fun."

Kaapana and Mike Kaawa perform in the luau scene, and during rehearsals he noticed Cooper watching them.

"He came up to me and asked me when did I start learning how to play guitar," Kaapana said.

Interactions between the cast, crew and local people were respectful and warm offscreen as well as in the film, observed kumu hula Olana Ai, who taught hula to Danielle Rose Russell in the role of McAdams' daughter.

"Aloha is a two-way street, and what happens onstage should also happen at home and in your heart," Ai said. Russell was a good student who "listened carefully and treated me very nicely, not as hired help but as if I was her real kumu hula."

After watching Ai's young students perform in a scene with Russell, "Bradley Cooper complimented me on the girls, and he posed for a picture with Emma Stone and all of us."

As she watched the film, "It all just came together, the ohana feeling. As far as I'm concerned, the whole experience of this film complied to everything about aloha," Ai said.

"They did their homework when it was anything to do with our culture," Kanahele agreed. He said he first met Crowe in 2005 through Ron Jacobs, the former radio DJ, who was Kanahele's campaign manager when he ran for trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

At Pu'uhonua, Crowe and Kanahele talked about Hawaiian history and the 21,700 signatures, including that of Hoapili Palau, his grandmother and a descendant of Kamehameha I, on the petition opposing U.S. annexation that hangs on his office wall.

They discussed the quest for sovereignty that had led to Kanahele's being granted the 55-year lease in exchange for ending an occupation at Makapuu Beach. Kanahele also told Crowe about how he more recently negotiated with the military for the proper burial of iwi found at Bellows Beach, which the military leases from the state.

In the film, Cooper plays a military contractor brought in to negotiate an agreement with the leader of a Hawaiian sovereignty organization, Kanahele said as he stood on a ledge overlooking Waimanalo's green cliffs and turquoise sea. As he spoke, two large amphibious military landing craft could be seen heading in to Bellows Beach.

Although he volunteered to play himself, Kanahele was not originally cast in the role; many actors were auditioned. But things changed one morning.

"The important thing was to get all of them in the water, into the wai, before they started filming. We got a hundred of 'em, cast and crew, to Kaiona Beach Park (Waimanalo) for the sunrise, and they were so happy."

From the water, Crowe and Cooper beckoned to Kanahele.

"I went in and they told me I got the role," he said.

While he counseled them on Hawaiian language and tradition, Kanahele got tips on acting from the pros.

"I enjoyed playing me, but after a while it was kinda hard. Bradley Cooper helped me: 'Just be yourself, Bumpy,' he said."

Kanahele said Cooper also taught him to stay focused. Noticing that Cooper stood a little apart from the group, as if meditating, Kanahele asked the star how he remembered his lines and stayed ready for the scene during the long breaks in the shooting.

"He said, 'I conserve my energy.' So I stopped socializing on set."

Of the film's title, which came as a surprise, Kanahele said he had never discussed the word aloha with Crowe. But back in 1980, he remembered, Pilahi Paki told him, "'You Puuhonua.' And she said, 'You gonna see a big warrior, as big as your eye can see, throwing a spear of fire and that spear is aloha.'"

Kanahele smiled. "So now I see why Cameron was chosen to make this movie. That big warrior is this film."

He said he hoped the film might stimulate a greater interest and engagement in Hawaii's history and the process of establishing a sovereign government.

"This movie is maybe going to help get the word out," Kanahele said.

At the very least, there ought to be some interesting conversations as Hawaii people see "Aloha" and discuss whether it's worthy of the word.

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