Urban Islanders: The Friendships Behind Every Day in Kaimukī

Rina White and Naz Kawakami in a scene from Every Day in Kaimukī. 
Rina White and Naz Kawakami in a scene from Every Day in Kaimukī

We talk nineties movies, leaving Hawai’i, and human-cat rivalry with the team who brought the hazy skateboard indie Every Day in Kaimukī to Sundance.

Although Hawai’i has been a backdrop for many films, precious few have been written or directed by filmmakers of Indigenous Hawaiian descent. It is only in the last couple of years that Native storytellers have moved from short to feature-length, with ​​Christopher Kahunahana’s Waikiki, and now Alika Maikau Tengan’s Every Day in Kaimukī, which has just premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival—the first film by an Indigenous Hawaiian filmmaker to do so.

Both films wrestle with the outsider image of Hawai’i as a sun-drenched paradise. Where Waikiki does so by addressing poverty, intergenerational trauma, and language loss, Every Day in Kaimukī is an altogether more chill, urban study of what it’s like to feel disconnected from one’s own land—even when you have spent your entire life on the island.

Every Day follows twenty-something Naz, a student-radio DJ and skateboarder, who is planning to finally move away from a lifetime on O’ahu after his artist girlfriend, Sloane (Rina White), lands a spot at the Pratt Institute in New York City. Naz, who is Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), has talked plenty about moving off the island, but his skater pals will believe it when they see it.

Co-written by Alika Maikau Tengan and the film’s lead, Naz Kawakami, Every Day is set in the titular Honolulu neighborhood of Kaimukī, a stone’s throw away from beaches we never see. Instead, the settings are the streets and parks that Naz and his friends skate down, the studio at KTUH 90.1 FM, indie art galleries, and Naz and Sloane’s small apartment, which feels increasingly cramped as Naz struggles comically to divest his belongings and work out how to get his cat to New York.

Co-writer and lead actor Naz Kawakami on a night skate in Every Day in Kaimukī.
Co-writer and lead actor Naz Kawakami on a night skate in Every Day in Kaimukī.

There’s a fresh, authentic feel to the cast and soundtrack, which are populated with the filmmakers’ friends, including cinematographer and producer Chapin Hall and actor Holden Mandrial-Santos, who plays Naz’s friend Caden, and wrote many of the film’s original songs. You can listen to those on the film’s Spotify playlist alongside other indie Hawaiian artists including Goon Lei Goon, Hapa Hunting and Lionel Boy (two members of Goon Lei Goon are also in the film).

On a Zoom call with Tengan, Mandrial-Santos, White and Hall, we reminisced about the many in-person film festivals we are missing, where so many Indigenous filmmakers have made priceless connections. These range from the Hawai’i International Film Festival, to imagineNATIVE in Toronto, to Māoriland in New Zealand, which is where Hall first met Tengan and Mandrial-Santos. That get-together led to them making Tengan’s 2019 short, Moloka’i Bound, and they are now adapting it into a feature with the proceeds of the inaugural Array and Google $500,000 prize.

Kia Ora [hello] everyone, I am Letterboxd’s Indigenous editor Leo Koziol (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka). I know you would all rather be shivering in the snow at Sundance right now than enduring the warmth of Hawai’i, but this is the world we live in. Privileged to meet you all, privileged for this time. Kia Ora! Alika, we maybe met at Māoriland, or maybe at imagineNATIVE 2019? It was like the grand Indigenous convergence before we weren’t allowed to see each other in person again.
Alika Maikau Tengan: We didn’t know how good we had it, I think. But we will return, I’m sure, to the in-person festival experience at some point. Hopefully this year down the road.

Firstly, could you explain what Hapa Hawaiian is and maybe you and each of your actors can let me know what your various backgrounds are? My mother lived in Hawai’i for a bit and she said, “Hawai’i is not like New Zealand where you are half-Māori, half something else. Hawai’i is where you are like [the dish] ‘Chop Suey’, and you have lots of different ethnicities.”
AMT: Your mother was right. It is, I think, very “Chop Suey’d” here. Hapa Hawaiian means, in the most traditional sense, mixed Native Hawaiian with other things. For myself, I’m part-Native Hawaiian, part-Japanese, part-Okinawan, part-German and part-Chinese.

Holden Mandrial-Santos: For myself, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese. And I think like Alika said, a lot of ethnicities blend down here through history, through plantation workers and everything like that, it’s been a melting pot of all different ethnicities. A lot of different cultures mixing here, working together well. It’s a great experience to live down here. Definitely.

Rina White: I am not Hawaiian. I’m actually the only person in my family that’s from Hawai’i and has lived here. My mom is Japanese and my dad is just white.

Co-writer and director Alika Maikau Tengan on the set of Every Day in Kaimukī.
Co-writer and director Alika Maikau Tengan on the set of Every Day in Kaimukī.

Alika, could you talk about how, as an Indigenous Hawaiian filmmaker, you express it in film, but you don’t necessarily have to make it all about that. For example, I loved in particular the scene when they’re eating Hawaiian food and of course Naz, who’s planning to go to New York, is eating the most westernized food that you can eat: Kalua pork.
AMT: When me and Naz were writing the script, I guess we wanted it to be about a lot of things, but at the same time, not be so heavy-handed with any one particular thing. Naz is also Hapa Hawaiian like myself. That sort of assessment of your identity and how you fit into the larger diaspora and how you relate to the culture, that stuff, he and I and Holden have talked a lot about. That really informed a lot of the writing.

I think that scene is a really perfect example of what you’re talking about because Naz really loves that place—that restaurant Yama’s—and he loves Kalua pig and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving Kalua pig. I don’t think that makes you any less or more Hawaiian. Holden is in the scene… What did you order, Holden?

HMS: I had the Lau Lau Plate.

AMT: Maybe that’s a little more Hawaiian.

HMS: I can understand that. Growing up in the current culture, of course, we all kind of gravitate towards what we like. With traditional Hawaiian food, because it’s not in our direct kind of environment, we might not be exposed to it as much, even living in Hawai’i, you know? So something like Kalua pig is the closest to a roast pork dish. That’s a pretty universal meal versus Lau Lau, or you were talking about opihi [sea limpets] in the scene too, which is a little more out there.

For me, it was a pivotal scene because of course if you’re going away from a place, it’s the flavor of the place, the feel of the place that you’re going to miss. Having said that, I found your film to not be a postcard for tourism in Hawai’i. I don’t remember seeing a single palm tree; instead it was about Kaimukī and hanging out at the skate park by the freeway and that urban life. Can you tell me what drew you to make a film that explored the life of urban Natives?
AMT: This film is such a collaboration between Naz and myself and when we started writing it, we talked about the things that we’re interested in depicting, in ways that we haven’t really seen—in narrative format, at least. While some of this film is rooted or based on what Naz was actually going through, or some of his characteristics, a lot of the other things are sort of exaggerated and he’s kind of playing a fictionalized caricature of himself.

But one thing that is true, in his real life and in the movie, is that he is a skater. He doesn’t really go to the beach. He lives a very sort of urban life. We thought that would be an interesting kind of perspective to showcase because it’s also still a valid one. He’s still a Hapa Hawaiian. Is he less Native Hawaiian because he doesn’t engage in the culture in the way that many others do? It’s a really complicated question, but it’s interesting to explore.

Chapin Hall: I want to jump in on that thought. There originally was a scene where Naz’s character went to the beach, but he only went to the beach at night and we ended up not shooting that scene for a number of reasons. I don’t think we miss it, but it’s interesting because early on that was kind of a core conception of the film, that you don’t really see the ocean or these stereotypical images of the islands.

The beauty of Hawai’i [is] framed within the city, so it’s always behind buildings or through buildings or whatever. That was a core part of the visual language of the film as it came together over time, from early conception through pre-production and production.

Cinematographer Chapin Hall focuses his lens on Naz. 
Cinematographer Chapin Hall focuses his lens on Naz. 

Chapin, what drew you to the project?
CH: This project, in many ways, is an outcropping of both of us having a certain amount of frustration with 2020 and not being able to move other projects forward, and talking about what we could make, and eventually Naz coming onto the radar, and Alika going to him and saying, “Can we make something together?” Then [he] and Naz furiously writing a script and us diving into production.

AMT: This film was really a labor of love and a true passion project in every sense, because it was really driven so much by the creative process and the lead, me, Naz and Chapin. But also Holden and Rina had input on their characters as well. Everybody in Naz’s extended friend group who ended up being in the movie really gave so much of their time and of themselves to the film. I think it really shows in a major way because the performances are really captivating and singular all around. I’m really proud of everyone on this film.

Rina, having been born and raised in Hawai’i, do you feel like part of the culture is that you have to leave Hawai’i to reach your full potential?
RW: No, definitely not. I think there’s absolutely room to grow and reach your full potential while being in Hawai’i. Personally, I was born in Guam and then moved to Hawai’i and my parents aren’t from there and I just felt like it wasn’t home for me. I wasn’t Hawaiian. I didn’t have roots here, so it’s very easy for me to up and leave. I find that I learn more when I’m traveling in new cities. So that’s just a personal preference, but I don’t think that that applies to everybody.

HMS: I would say when I was younger, growing up and after high school, there was definitely that feeling of like, I wanted to see more. I wanted to get off the island. But now that I’m getting older, I feel like I am coming into a space, and especially working with Alika on these projects, I think it’s important to be here and tell the stories that we have been telling, because we do have a voice. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn more to being here on the island.

CH: As a creative, it’s a small community. There’s a certain amount of growth that feels harder here. Not necessarily impossible, but I do think because it’s a small community, sometimes it can feel like everybody’s in competition with one another. And I don't think that’s always true. I think there’s some really great things about the creative community in the islands and it can really lift people up.

But I think it can also feel like if you’re ambitious or wanting to spread your wings, that sometimes it’s helpful to get out of here. I know I did that in my early twenties. It’s a double-edged sword because I think it depends on what you’re interested in doing with your creative self.

Speaking of that creative community, the film explores the Hawaiian art scene and the indie music scene. Do you want to talk a little bit about the indie musicians featured in your soundtrack?
AMT: First of all, we have one of the indie musicians on this call. Holden made seven original songs for the movie, including the very first song you hear. That sort of mysterious, lilting guitar, all played by Holden. We started with a lot of Naz’s actual friends who were in bands; this band called Goon Lei Goon—some of the band members are in the movie—and this other local artist named Lionel Boy.

We had this foundation of music because that’s the music that Naz loves and that’s his friends’ music. The Hawai’i indie punk scene is very different than it is in many other places. In line with the way that we’ve been designing the film in all the ways, it was just another perspective that we haven’t seen.

Naz pulls a late shift breaking new local bands on KTUH 90.1FM.
Naz pulls a late shift breaking new local bands on KTUH 90.1FM.

All the radio-station scenes and the record-store scene gave Every Day the feel of a nineties indie movie, which is just perfect for Sundance. Here’s a question: what’s your favorite nineties indie movie?
AMT: Wow. Well, first of all, it’s really cool to hear you say that. We had another programmer kind of say the same thing where it reminded her of those early Sundance films. For us, that’s a huge compliment because obviously we’re so shaped by those films.

I was just trying to think of something besides Reservoir Dogs. I almost said Reservation Dogs, because that’s now obviously so top-of-mind and related to everything we’re talking about! Clerks. I haven’t watched it in a long time, but at the time it changed a lot of things for me.

I would say Reality Bites, most definitely…
AMT: That’s a good one. Someone just compared our film to Slacker. I view it as more Dazed and Confused than Slacker, because there’s kind of a little bit more direction, but definitely in that milieu. I’m obviously a huge Linklater fan.

What’s your favorite Indigenous film of all time?
AMT: I have two answers. [Taika Waititi’s] Boy is like a seminal film for so many of us as Indigenous filmmakers. I was in film school taking an Indigenous Aesthetic class and my professor actually brought Taika to our class to talk to us. This is in 2010, before the Taika that we know now. That was a huge movie.

Also, Merata: How Mum Decolonised The Screen was a very impactful film. She [Merata Mita] was actually my first film professor at the University of Hawai’i. You may have heard that she had a short tenure there towards the end of her life. I feel really grateful to have had that. Obviously the film is such a beautiful tribute to her and I’ve gotten to know [her son and the film’s director] Hepi a little bit. A really profound film for me.

Te Aho Eketone-Whitu as Rocky in Taika Waititi’s Boy.
Te Aho Eketone-Whitu as Rocky in Taika Waititi’s Boy.

Rina and Holden, what are your favorite Indigenous films?
HMS: Honestly, to be frank, I’m not well versed in a lot of cinema, but one Indigenous film that really stuck out in my mind was Once Were Warriors. Although a very heartbreaking film, seeing something like that and where I come from, it was big for me to see something that was reflected in my own life growing up. It’s like what we’re doing now. I feel like we are trying to portray very real stories that people can connect with. Not only an Indigenous or local Hawaiian space, but around the globe, hopefully.

RW: I don’t watch too many movies, but I do have an answer for the Indigenous one. I’ve seen a couple. Boy is absolutely one of my favorites, but also Rabbit-Proof Fence. I am kicking myself right now because I saw a fantastic movie and I can’t remember its name, but it played at HIFF and the actor from Hawaii Five-O was in it. It was about this lemon tree and it had this significance to the culture.

I think it’s called One Thousand Ropes, by Samoan director Tusi Tamasese.
RW: That is the one. Thank you. That was one of my favorite movies that I’ve seen, ever. It really stuck with me.

And the actor is Beulah Koale, who is also in Dual at this year’s Sundance.
AMT: Chapin, I don’t know if you wanted to also give an answer to your favorite Indigenous film. I’d be very interested.

CH: There’s so many great ones. I think one that stands out in recent years is The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open. It’s such a statement film in some ways. Not in a bad way, but it’s both stylish and powerful and confronting. That’s a movie with a lot of teeth and I really respect what they were able to do with that film. But I also wanted to just make the stupid joke that we’re a ‘pillarboxed’ film and you’re Letterboxd. That’s all!

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open.

Okay then, since we are in a comedy vein, I’ll ask you my other obtuse question. Tell us about Naz’s cat, Meow Mix.
AMT: The cat steals the movie, obviously. The movie is really about the cat. Holden has a cat. He can speak to being a cat person. I don’t know. Describe the cat, Holden.

HMS: Naz and I go back a little bit. I was around when Naz was considering getting the cat initially. So it’s funny to see where that started and then how it continued to go.

So, hang on. It wasn’t a stunt cat?
AMT: No, it was not a CGI cat. That was his cat. I feel like Rina has some insight into the cat too. Do you have thoughts?

RW: Meow Mix is doing fine. She’s the star of the movie and I think it’s funny because that’s his anchor in real life and it shows in the movie as well.

Rina, I felt the cat, all the way through the movie, was plotting against Naz staying with Sloane.
RW: Probably.

CH: The cat is your character’s direct competition in this movie in some ways. Right?

RW: Yeah. I would happily sacrifice myself for Meow Mix. No competition there for me.

I know when you’re leaving Hawai’i to go to other parts of the US, there’s all these complicated biosecurity rules, even though you are in the same country. So I could imagine the problem of putting your cat on a plane. It’d probably be harder to bring the cat back, actually.
AMT: As you saw in the movie, there’s that sort of five-minute scene when he is walking up and down the stairs and he is having that conversation with various airlines. I think a lot of that was exaggerated versions of the actual pains of what he was going through to try to make this happen for him and his cat.

To Naz’s credit as a writer, like a beautiful metaphor for just how hard it is in general to fly across the country and pack up and leave. It’s a very delicate and complicated and stressful process.

CH: The whole drama of getting the cat to New York really speaks to what you’re talking about, about the overseas experience. We’re isolated islands as you know, and so you can’t drive anywhere. To move is a big deal. Even if technically speaking we’re in the same country, the things he expresses in the movie I think are very real. To get up and move requires getting on a long plane ride and selling all your stuff or shipping all your stuff. It’s a bigger deal than it is to move from Arizona to New York in a lot of ways.

I think that that’s not always clear to outside people who haven’t spent time here: how separate we really are geographically from the rest of the country. I think that’s an important part of this whole thing that the film leans into for dramatic stakes. It’s true, but it’s also a huge part of the drama of the movie.

And you don’t know necessarily whether Meow Mix will make it to New York.
AMT: Yeah. I mean, that’s part of the drama.

Privilege to meet you all, privileged for this time. Kia Ora!
AMT: Kia Ora. Thank you so much, Leo.

Every Day in Kaimukī’ is dedicated to the memory of Leanne Ferrer, as is this interview. Leanne, who was the director of PICCOM (Pacific Islanders in Communication), had an instrumental role in bringing ‘Every Day in Kaimukī’ to the screen. She sadly passed away in mid-2021. Moemoea Leanne Ferrer, haere atu ra e hine, haere atu ra ki Hawaiiki Nui, Hawaiiki Roa, Hawaiiki Pamamao. Moemoea!

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