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By Craig DeSilva

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (February 26, 2001 – PIDP/CPIS)---Lights! Camera! Action! The bare breasted native woman runs out of a grass hut and onto the beach to greet the white men coming ashore. Beefy men dressed in lava lava and colored paint streaked across their faces hold spears and dance around a fire.

This is the way Hollywood typically portrays Pacific Islanders in film.

From Bird of Paradise in the early 1930s to South Pacific in the 1950s and even the most recent The Thin Red Line, Pacific Islanders have been treated as the backdrop in films rather than pivotal roles whose characters are developed during the course of the plot.

Michelle Kamakanoenoe Tupou would like to break through these stereotypical portrayals of Pacific Islanders by allowing indigenous people – not Hollywood – to take control of the camera and tell stories from their own perspective.

Born and raised in Hawai‘i, Tupou received her master’s degree in Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa.

Tupou emphasizes that she’s not a filmmaker, rather an academic who talks about filmmaking. Her love of film grew from an interest in Pacific Island arts and culture and by working on a film in Australia.

A native Hawaiian, Tupou says cultural identity has always been an issue in her life. She has blonde hair and light skin from her half European ancestry. But she grew up in a Hawaiian society with a Hawaiian name.

So it’s easy to see why Tupou uses film to explore and make better sense of her identity.

"It’s more than just filmmaking. It’s a medium that captures cultural identity for a lot of Pacific Islanders," she says. "The main purpose for Pacific Island literature, film or theatre is finding out who you are as an island people."


Why is it important to have Pacific Island filmmakers?

For so long it’s been outsiders telling the stories for us. I think that it’s time we take control of the camera. And the medium adapts itself so well to our oral tradition as Pacific Islanders that it seems like a natural connection between the two. The Pacific Island and Maori and aboriginal community in New Zealand have been able to do it through indigenous dramatic film. We as Pacific Islanders have done a lot of documentaries, but I think it’s time to look more at indigenous dramatic film.

What are some of the dangers if Pacific Islanders don’t take control of the camera and tell stories through their own eyes?

Then you’ll be stuck with the images Hollywood creates. A good example of that is the film Hei Tiki. It’s an example of how we can be stuck with that stereotype of the coconut image. And in addition to being portrayed incorrectly, we’ll lose those stories that our elders are holding on to.

Why is there a greater impact for indigenous people to do dramatic film as opposed to documentaries?

The style is much different. Whenever you’re making any film, whether drama or documentary, it’s always an interpretive thing. The filmmaker decides what to include in a documentary, and the same thing can be said about drama. The director decides to look at this angle or aspects. It’s still interpretation. But with documentaries, it’s more outside looking in. My main push is to have everybody - from the writer, director, producer, cast and crew - to be indigenous. We need to push through getting the indigenous voice out through drama because of our connection with oral traditions.

Can you give me an example of how films about Pacific Islanders in the past were portrayed through the eyes of Caucasians?

I think almost every film that has been done. One example, Hei Tiki, is a Maori film that was done back in 1935. One of the quotes from the film called the people of the Pacific fuzzy-haired natives of the South Pacific. A quote by Merata Mita, a Maori filmmaker, said, ‘It appears Markey arrived on the shores with already entrenched ideas of racial purity and what his audiences’ expectation of the romantic South Seas should be. The ideas he immediately put into practice.’ Basically he came in with Universal Studios to portray the native people. But he had an agenda about what the movie-going audiences back in New York and United States wanted to see. So he basically portrayed them the way he felt his audience would want to see them.

What kind of advancements have Pacific Islanders made in filmmaking?

Australia and New Zealand have done several series that are by Pacific Islanders with everyone in the entire cast and crew being indigenous and putting their two cents in. And I think one thing that makes it a different kind of film is that they involve the community in the making of the film. One of the filmmakers I interviewed said that we’re more accountable because we have elders on our set. It creates a different atmosphere than the western-type films that come to town. She said the atmosphere is different on the Pacific Island set compared to the European set.

How can Pacific Islanders use film as part of their oral traditions? Can it accurately portray or document a certain culture or event?

Well, first of all it’s enabling stories that we’re losing to be captured because we’re losing a lot of our elders who were able to hold on to those stories. This generation and the previous generation have been losing a lot of their elders, as you know. And it just seems that film is a good way of capturing those stories and conveying it to a generation that is much more media-oriented. So it’s archival as well as something that will be listened to. I think the timing is right for film as something that is a good medium to capture the attention of this generation.

But can these stories also be entertaining that would prompt them to sit through in a theatre?

Oh yeah, definitely. I think entertainment and immediate gratification is something this generation is very much into. So the time is good as a way of taking our stories and retelling them.

What kind of developments have you seen in Hawai‘i with native Hawaiians telling their stories through filmmaking?

Good question. I think native Hawaiians have captured documentary filmmaking. People like Puhipau, Joan Lander and Eddie Kamae have been doing documentary-style films. But in terms of indigenous dramatic film, it’s an area we can expand on. I do know people that are trying to put stories together to make short films. One film, called Hawaiian Sting, actually made it to the Sundance Film Festival. It was written by a Hawaiian boy. That was one of the first steps going toward indigenous dramatic film. And there have been some things on television. But I think the indigenous creative side is much different than Hollywood coming to Hawai‘i and saying: ‘We have this great idea to make this film, you guys can star in it and here’s the storyline.’ There are some of our people that I know of who are writing stories. It’s going to happen soon, but funding here is difficult, as oppose to New Zealand where the arts are much more supported.

Well, you raise a good point. Where do artists go if they need funding for their films?

There are actually film commissions in Australia and New Zealand and money from Creative New Zealand and TV New Zealand. There is just much more support financially. And Hawai‘i of course is smaller and has less funding agencies for Pacific Islanders. So it’s harder. For film, I’ll say that New Zealand and Australia is where it’s happening. Funding is important because it allows people to find the skills to do this. And once you get that, you start to find people who want to tell stories. But it’s a slow process. Unfortunately, it all comes down to money. You could have all these wonderful ideas, but it’s nothing if you don’t have funding.

What kinds of efforts are under way to entice more Pacific Islanders to make films?

Pacific Islanders in Communication here in Hawai‘i is the resource for Pacific Islanders wanting to get into film here. But it’s a small agency and funding is not gigantic, so funding is still difficult. I think you have to take baby steps and just getting the word out there. As far as I know, there isn’t anyone in Hawai‘i talking about this issue. And when people talk about Pacific films, they talk about South Pacific and Hollywood films that have come in and portrayed Pacific Islanders. So the slant is a little different when I’m looking at indigenous creative works. A lot of Pacific Islanders have been making short films.

What are some of the barriers Pacific filmmakers face in the industry?

I think that there are numerous barriers that make filmmaking especially difficult for Pacific Islanders in particular. The obvious is funding for ALL filmmakers. However, I think the most significant barrier is being recognized. A lot of times films done by Pacific Islanders are not considered mainstream enough to be put in primetime. For example most of the Pacific Island short films in New Zealand are shown on Sunday morning while many people are at church. It’s been a major struggle to get a primetime slot to air these shorts.

How important is using TV as a medium?

I think television is a very important medium because of its ability to reach a very wide audience. Therefore I think that it’s vitally important that Pacific Islanders use television like every other group or culture using this particular medium, it's just common sense.



Compiled by Craig DeSilva

Want more information on how to produce a film about the Pacific? Are you a Pacific Islander who’s having a slow start in the business? Here’s a list of useful Web sites and film distributors to get you started.

Na Maka o ka ‘Aina ( Headed by filmmakers Puhipau and Joan Lander, Na Maka o ka ‘Aina has produced over 50 videos focusing on Hawaiian and Pacific topics in the areas of culture, environment, the arts, language, history and sovereignty.

Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) ( is a minority consortium funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit media organization whose primary purpose is to increase national public broadcast programming by and about Pacific Islanders. Members receive the publication Storyboard three times a year. Their films and programs deal with Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific.

Moving Images of the Pacific Islands ( is a searchable database of over 2,300 films and videos about the Pacific Islands (excluding Hawai‘i). Produced and maintained by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawai‘i-Manoa. The distributor’s list is a useful guide to producers of films about the Pacific.

Hawaii International Film Festival ( has a wide range of films that focus on film from the Pacific Rim. The festival is held in Hawai‘i during the first two weeks of November.



Agence de Development de la Culture Kanak. 100 Avenue James Cook, BP 378, Nouméa, New Caledonia. Telephone: (687) 28-32-40, Fax: (687) 28-21-78.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC Ultimo Centre, GPO Box 9994, Sydney, NSW 2001. Telephone: (61) 2-9333-1500, Fax: (61) 2-9333-5305.

ASPLES Productions

PO Box 561, Kimbe, WNBP, Papua New Guinea.

Fiji National Video Centre

Ministry of Information, Broadcasting, Television, and Telecommunications, Government Buildings, Suva, Fiji. Telephone: (679) 303-600.


International Film Foundation. 155 West 72nd Street, New York, NY 10023. Telephone: (212) 580-1111.

Pasifika Communications

5 Bau Street, Suva, Fiji. Telephone: (679) 307-000, Fax: (679) 307-222, E-mail:


South Pacific People's Foundation, 1921 Fernwood Road, Victoria, BC, Canada V8T 2Y6. Telephone: (604) 381-4131, Fax: (604) 388-5258, E-mail:, Website:

Pacific Women in Film making: Pacific Women Television Producers Workshop and Exchange Program 

Film New Zealand 

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