Interview with Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez

Keoni-AlvarezNative Hawai­ian film­mak­er Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez is a man of many tal­ents and inter­ests. He is a direc­tor, pro­duc­er, teacher, and author, and most of all, a storyteller.

We are pleased to wel­come Keoni to our blog today as the first post of 2024.

What inspired you to go into the arts and film­mak­ing, espe­cial­ly producing?

I was always into cre­at­ing art — acrylics, char­coal and sculpt­ing art pieces — fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of my father and broth­ers. I won a few awards for my accom­plish­ments ear­ly on and made a few art pieces for art shows local­ly. My art has always had a Hawai­ian theme — Hawai­ian  land­scapes, peo­ple or native plants. 

My first pro­duc­tion expe­ri­ence was back in my senior year in high school [Pahoa] I  pro­duced and direct­ed  “Romeo and Juli­et.” Thanks to sup­port­ive teach­ers and class­mates who believed in me, I focused on drugs and sui­cide aware­ness and pre­ven­tion. I rewrote the script to the Eng­lish we speak today because it was impor­tant for every­one to under­stand its strong mes­sage. I got all my class­mates to be char­ac­ters in the play or help back­stage. I asked all the stores and restau­rants in Pahoa town to donate food or mon­e­tary dona­tions to make this play pos­si­ble. It was the biggest per­form­ing art pro­duc­tion ever at Pahoa High School. 

What do you like best about being a producer? 

I love being a pro­duc­er because no one changes your sto­ry. When you have that plat­form as the pro­duc­er, you are in charge from begin­ning to end of what the film will look like. I hap­pened to be the pro­duc­er, direc­tor, edi­tor and main char­ac­ter of my film, Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als. These were all hard and dif­fi­cult roles to fill.  I felt it was impor­tant for me to be in con­trol of these roles because the sub­ject was so kapu (for­bid­den) in Hawai­ian cul­ture.  I real­ized how much was at stake if I had some­one else in con­trol of this sto­ry and mis­led peo­ple or changed our his­to­ry and the impacts it could have on our peo­ple. So this was a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty to tell this sto­ry well.

I want­ed to share my sto­ry through Hawai­ian eyes — my eyes and my words. Look­ing back it was the best choice I made in my life. Even though it took 23 years to cre­ate and com­plete, it was well worth every step to com­ple­tion. I can hon­est­ly say I have no regrets. The feed­back I received from our Hawai­ian peo­ple make me proud of the film. 

What are some of your great­est chal­lenges you face as a filmmaker? 

My great chal­lenge, espe­cial­ly here in Hawaiʻi, has been to believe in myself, that it is ok to express myself and that there are peo­ple who will stand by me. One of my first jobs was a film edi­tor for a direc­tor, Jay Curlee, for­mer direc­tor of sports for our local news sta­toin KHON2 News. His small pro­duc­tion busi­ness was involved in many dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions: live per­for­mances,  com­mer­cials and doc­u­men­taries. Jay was the best boss and taught me every­thing about film­ing and edit­ing. I worked for him for over ten years. Jay allowed me to gain skills and expe­ri­ence by work­ing on oth­er major film pro­duc­tions and my per­son­al film projects.

Can you share what it was like to work on your film, Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als? What made you decide on that sub­ject?

I loved work­ing on this 23 year project. It was not easy. Lots of tears, mon­ey, time and hard work went into this project. This was my sto­ry and my life, and I want­ed to do the best that I could. For over 30 years my fam­i­ly has been pro­tect­ing an ancient Hawai­ian bur­ial cave which has been in our fam­i­ly and kept secret for many years. I found out a land devel­op­er had pur­chased the land which con­tained the bur­ial cave. He want­ed to bull­doze the bur­ial cave to build over it. I was heart­bro­ken and sad that out­siders would ever try to do such a thing. So I picked up my cam­era and start­ed to film my sto­ry. I filmed many inter­views across the neigh­bor islands of Hawai­ian elders shar­ing their sto­ries of tra­di­tion­al  Hawai­ian bur­ial practices. 

My film was final­ly com­plet­ed in 2022, and our bur­ial cave was saved. Today I own the bur­ial cave and act as the stew­ard for this his­tor­i­cal site. Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als is shin­ing light on this impor­tant top­ic pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing ances­tral buri­als of indige­nous culture.

Click the images to view the film on PBS Hawaiʻi.

Still from Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als @ Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez (PBS Hawaiʻi, 2022)

You were with ʻŌle­lo Com­mu­ni­ty Media for four years. What did you like best about your work there?

The num­ber one thing I loved about work­ing at ʻŌle­lo was allow­ing peo­ple to share their 1st amend­ment right to free­dom of speech uncen­sored. I loved work­ing with the staff and all the inde­pen­dent pro­duc­ers I’d met over the years. Teach­ing my stu­dents the basics of film­mak­ing and see­ing them grow have been the most reward­ing. Some of my stu­dents have sur­passed me and cre­at­ed award win­ning films. I am so proud of every­one I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet and teach.  There is no place like ʻŌle­lo Com­mu­ni­ty Media. 

What do you think are the most impor­tant ele­ments of filmmaking? 

I believe in allow­ing peo­ple the time to speak their true and hon­est feel­ings and view­points. This is the core of any great sto­ry or inter­view. I always look for peo­ple who have a sense of style, how they car­ry them­selves and speak. Their voic­es are just as pow­er­ful as any celebri­ty or big box office movie when they are giv­en the chance to share their sto­ry. When you find [a great sto­ry], you know you’ve struck gold.

Have you had to han­dle a dif­fi­cult con­flict or unex­pect­ed chal­lenges in your career as a producer? 

A the pro­duc­er wears many hats. There is nev­er a time that every­thing is easy. Every inter­view and every scene has some sort of dif­fi­cul­ty. Audio, light­ing and cam­era are a few things that will go wrong on film shoots. I always plan for the worst. This way I nev­er get sur­prised or expe­ri­ence major setbacks. 

If you had to choose a favorite project, which would it be and why? 

I’ve trav­eled the world sev­er­al times work­ing on Nor­we­gian Cruise Line. I was hired on the broad­cast team onboard. It was amaz­ing. I met so many peo­ple and vis­it­ed so many places in the world. I would love to trav­el again incor­po­rat­ing Hawaii as the main sub­ject to teach peo­ple about our Hawai­ian her­itage, his­to­ry and our cul­tur­al places. 

Still from Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als @ Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez (PBS Hawaiʻi, 2022)

Can you share a bit of your cur­rent work? 

My cur­rent work is to cre­ate a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion which pro­tects and pre­serves  Hawai­ian bur­ial from des­e­cra­tion. This non-prof­it will have a team ded­i­cat­ed to help Hawai­ian fam­i­lies iden­ti­fy ances­tral buri­als and pro­vide lawyers, legal assis­tance, land envi­ron­men­tal impact stud­ies, and land acqui­si­tion to pro­tect his­tor­i­cal buri­als from des­e­cra­tion. We will use expert teams in arche­ol­o­gy field to mon­i­tor all known his­toric buri­als in Hawaii. 

Where do you get your inspirations? 

My inspi­ra­tion comes deep with­in me of the expe­ri­ences of things I learned and expe­ri­ences which have failed. That always helps me on my next move to stay­ing rel­e­vant as a Hawai­ian film­mak­er. I take that per­son­al data then decide if the idea will cause more good than harm. I learned a lot from film­mak­ing; my deci­sion mak­ing process means it is eas­i­er to see a clear path to reach my next goal. 

What are your hopes and dreams for the year and beyond in terms of your artis­tic career and what you would like to see for your career in the future? 

I would love to own my own mul­ti-media cen­ter for the com­mu­ni­ty, a per­form­ing art the­ater in my home­town, and my own per­son­al art gallery. 

What beliefs is your work challenging? 

The most chal­leng­ing thing, which is iron­ic to me, is that out­siders do not under­stand the mean­ing of sacred. That word is so sim­ple, but they make it seem dif­fi­cult to under­stand because they can­not have it or be a part of it. That’s the sad part liv­ing in Hawai’i. To us Hawai­ian peo­ple, our ances­tral ʻiwi (bones) are sacred.  Some non-Native Hawai­ians who move to Hawaiʻi want to take part of those bones, and to me thatʻs sick and disturbing. 

Still from Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als @ Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez (PBS Hawaiʻi, 2022)

What tips would you give aspir­ing film­mak­ers just start­ing their careers? 

I would say always plan that the road will be rough with lots of obsta­cles and no short­cuts. Stay focused, fin­ish what you start, and NEVER give up. At the end of the day, you will look back and say it was worth every step. You are strong, you are brave and you can still be humble. 

What is your proud­est accomplishment? 

Iʻm proud of cre­at­ing a web­site ded­i­cat­ed to bring­ing aware­ness about the tra­di­tion­al prac­tices and beliefs of Hawai­ian buri­als. It’s been receiv­ing very well its 2nd place on the top­ic on google. 

I also wrote four books about Hawai­ian buri­als. Keoniʻs inde­pen­dent­ly pub­lished books include: Kapu: Sacred Hawai­ian Buri­als, Kapu: The Hole Truth, Kapu: Hawai­ian Bur­ial Meth­ods, and a chil­drenʻs pic­ture book, The Boy and his Hawai­ian Cave. All are avail­able on Amazon.

About your books, tell us what you enjoy most about writ­ing, espe­cial­ly for kids? Can you share a bit about your book, THE BOY AND HIS HAWAIIAN CAVE? With­out giv­ing too much away, what is it about? 

The Boy and his Hawai­ian Cave is one of my proud­est achieve­ments because it made it pos­si­ble to share the Hawai­ian val­ue of alo­ha and respect about ances­tral buri­als to young chil­dren. This book is about a Hawai­ian boy named Keoni who is on a jour­ney gath­er­ing spe­cial gifts of alo­ha for his fam­i­ly bur­ial cave. The col­or­ful illus­tra­tions and excit­ing sto­ry help chil­dren to appre­ci­ate Hawai­ian cul­ture. My read­ers describe the book as a per­son­al mem­oir. This book took two years to com­plete, and I am very hap­py with the outcome. 

You choose to inde­pen­dent­ly pub­lish your books. What was that jour­ney like? Would you do it again? 

Self-pub­lish­ing was the best thing I did. It gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be cre­ative while hav­ing no bound­aries to share this impor­tant sto­ry. I was able to work with my per­son­al team of writ­ers who gave me valu­able feed­back. Addi­tion­al­ly, I am not oblig­at­ed to any pub­lish­ing con­tract. I own 100% of my copy­right. My print-on-demand book print is high qual­i­ty but at the low­est author print cost. This means read­ers can afford to pur­chase prints of my books. 

Can you share a bit about the projects you’re work­ing on next? 

Com­mu­ni­ty Mul­ti Media Cen­ter, Hawaii Island The­ater — Per­form­ing art the­ater and Keoni Alvarez Art Gallery

How can read­ers con­tact you? What’s your online presence? 

My web­sites are keo­nial­varezpro­duc­tions and (Keoni also has a YouTube chan­nel, Hawai­ian in the City. His social media includes Face­book, and Insta­gram.)

A few of niele ques­tions ke ʻoluʻolu. What is your favorite film of all time, and what makes it a favorite? 

I love Mar­tin Scors­ese’s film Good­fel­las. I love every­thing about its sto­ry line, plot, dra­ma and nar­ra­tion. Scors­ese uses so many dif­fer­ent styles of sto­ry­telling, and it all works. He choos­es the right time and place to add his sig­na­ture to his films. That’s what makes him great. He is an artist of film. 

Who is your biggest supporter? 

My mom is my biggest sup­port­er and my biggest pro­duc­er lol. She was there for me from the begin­ning. Maha­lo, mama. I love you!

Yay! What do you enjoy doing in your down time? 

Play­ing with my dog, clean­ing my yard, going to the beach, surf­ing, paint­ing some­thing, and going to the gym — any­thing qui­et is always a good thing for me. 

This was fun talk­ing sto­ry with you, Keoni! We look for­ward to hear­ing more from you in the future! To learn more about Keoni, vis­it his web­site.

Images cour­tesy of Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez, stills from PBS Hawaiʻi.

6 thoughts on “Interview with Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Keoni Kealoha Alvarez”

  1. Thank You for shar­ing this infor­ma­tive and insight­ful inter­view with this young Hawai­ian film­mak­er and author. I ;ove that you give voice to our own .

  2. What an excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to hear from Native Hawai­ian film­mak­er Keoni Kealo­ha Alvarez! Indige­nous voic­es in film­mak­ing bring invalu­able per­spec­tives and nar­ra­tives to the fore­front, shed­ding light on cul­ture, iden­ti­ty, and press­ing issues fac­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. I’m eager to learn more about Alvarez’s cre­ative process, inspi­ra­tions, and the sto­ries he aims to share through his work. It’s cru­cial to ampli­fy the voic­es of Indige­nous film­mak­ers like Alvarez, offer­ing a plat­form for their sto­ries to be heard and appre­ci­at­ed by a wider audi­ence. Look­ing for­ward to the insights and expe­ri­ences he’ll share in this interview!


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