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Q&A with filmmaker Brian Kohne on his Hawaii-made film “Kuleana”

  • All photos by Jack Grace.

  • "Kuleana" film poster.


Alhambra , CA United States

Filmmaker Brian Kohne talks about his new film Kuleana, about a disabled Vietnam vet who rediscovers the Hawaiian warrior within to defend his land and clear his father’s name. It premieres at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on Saturday, May 5 at 9pm, at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Tickets are available here.

What does “kuleana” mean?

Among its many meanings is “spiritual responsibility.” The importance to honor those who came before, while making the world a better place for those who follow.

Kuleana has been groundbreaking in several ways. Can you talk about the film’s most significant achievements so far?

I believe it’s the second feature motion picture in which a native Hawaiian (Moronai Kanekoa) portrays a Hawaiian protagonist. The first was in our previous feature comedy, GET A JOB, starring Uncle Willie K. So that’s big.

We are also at present in our fifth week of a statewide Hawaii theatrical run in the mainland-owned theaters chains, which may not seem so interesting if not for the fact we are the first locally originated motion picture to hit these screens in almost a decade.

White people stealing land from Hawaiians has happened since the 1700s. Why did you decide to explore this topic in Kuleana in the 1970s? How did you come to make this movie?

The subject of land and exploitation, is certainly one of the themes in Kuleana. The villain Victor Coyle is an allegory for Manifest Destiny, the insidious disposition held by the U.S. in the late 1800s that somehow justified the annexation (theft) of Hawaii and many other sovereign nations.

To me, this energy is consistent with the characteristics of a sociopath – one who takes, and destroys, as justified entitlement, without any regard for others. So while this particular character is in many ways a Straw Man, and an easy Caucasian target, one need only examine the truths about Hawaii’s history to plainly identify the main perpetrator of evil having predominantly been white males obsessed with land ownership and the accumulation of money.

One might argue this remains true, today, though I’d point out that now the evil is spread out across many nationalities – greed is part of the human condition, and we are seeing this corrosion on a national level each and every day.

But Kuleana is not simply interested in beating a dead white horse, for many have had a hand in the systematic attack on our values, as the motion picture clearly states.

What has the journey of making this movie involved?

My family moved from Detroit, Michigan, to Maui when I was 5. Many of the feelings represented in Kuleana result from a lifetime of observation, inclusion and a sincere love for the indigenous people.

I began writing this movie 13 years ago and rewrote it eleven times. Financing was a chore, especially since in our case we are working in a genre (Hawaiian) that does not exist, telling a story about a people for whom there are few.

The people of Hawaii are from all over the world and so Kuleana represents, by and large, the world we actually live in. We live mostly in harmony, but the forces that challenge us all in our daily lives to thrive in the islands are also the same factors which conspire against telling story of this nature.

Why should LA or SGV residents come and see this film?

In the words of one film critic, “… if you love Hawaii, don’t miss it.” I’m certain the ethnic make-up of the cast will be relatable and the universal aspects of the story tend to connect with all.

I challenge anyone, anywhere (with the exception of white supremacists) to not shed a tear during this one. Folks who do not feel anything as a result of our work, may in fact lack a pulse… or find themselves identifying with the attitudes of our antagonists, which is a problem we can’t help with.

Other than at the L.A. premiere on May 5, where else can Kuleana be seen?

Screenings have begun all over the country. Check www.HawaiiCinema.com to find a screening in your area.

On May 12, 3pm, it will be playing at La Canada 8.

Any establishments you’re planning to visit in the San Gabriel Valley/Alhambra area when you’re here for the L.A. premiere?

My mother lived in South Pasadena, so I’m quite familiar with the surrounding area. Too many great restaurants to mention – and plenty Hawaiian, as well. What I love most about Alhambra, in particular, is the ethnic diversity… and food. Makes me feel at home, as I do in the islands.

I love the world we actually live in and look forward to the day when all of our stories are accurately depicted in motion pictures and the industry stops making excuses for why nearly all movies center on the struggle of white males. I am one, and I can say for certain I’m interested in stories about strong females, and characters whose make-up and background reflect the world we all actually live in.

Any additional thoughts you’d like to share?

For the writer/filmmaker working hard to tell story, I encourage you to believe in yourself and your ideas, your dreams. Reject the urge to become somebody you are not – for we need authentic, original voices to emerge. Claim or reclaim your narrative, and above all else work actively with others. Help others. We can only get to the next level together, and trust me on this: when you have a moment of achievement you’ve sacrificed for, as we are currently experiencing with Kuleana, the true meaning is felt when you are able to share the triumphs with your teammates. I pity the fool who thinks they stand alone in victory – for in truth, that means you are in fact alone. I choose to be in the company of those I love, and love to create with.

Watch the Kuleana trailer below:

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