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There are new voices and themes rising in the world of cinema, and they deserve to be listened to. Hawaiian director Etienne Aurelius has made his feature film debut with the stunning film, ‘Kapō.’ The film was an official selection at the 2022 Hawaii Film Festival, Maui Film Festival, and New Zealand Film Festival. Produced by the Oscar-nominated Chelsea Winstanley (who previously produced ‘JoJo Rabbit’), the story follows a young Polynesian girl, Nanea (played by Mainei Kinimaka) as she escapes from an abusive relationship and into the mountains of Kauai. From there, she must overcome her personal battles and reform her relationship with the earth as a mythical creature guides her.
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The script was written by Aurelius, Mojean Aria (who also stars in the film), and Lauren Campri. Before the story starts, a reading appears on the screen which explains Kapō: “Our relationship to Pō is one of fluidity and rebirth.” Fluidity and rebirth certainly play an important role as we uncover the themes of this film. Nanea comes from a broken home and has fallen into an abusive relationship and an addiction to methamphetamine. She is at her lowest point and must fight for herself. The audience remains right beside Nanea during her journey, both internal and external one. It is an inspiring work of art with captivating details and complexity, which showcases Etienne Aurelius’ directing ability and future potential.
‘Kapō’ – A Character Piece
As the premise suggests, this is a character-driven story. Nanea and her evolution is the center point of the film, though we also get perspectives from her boyfriend, (played by Mojean Aria) who is tracking her down for his own revenge, and Nanea’s childhood friend, Joey (played by Joey Koehne) who is searching for her in the hopes to help her. Charmaine Bingwa (who recently starred in ‘Trees of Peace’ and ‘The Good Fight’) portrays Yahdella, a creature who acts as Nanea’s guide and a physical representation of her relationship with nature. The scenes between Nanea and Yahdella are a definite highlight. Because we are spending so much time with Nanea, we need to understand her and root for her as a protagonist. Manei Kinimaka does a masterful job, of making our leading heroine feel grounded. We want her to survive and face her own demons. She is likable through her vulnerability and relatability, but she is deeply flawed. Those flaws go hand-in-hand with her struggles and make Nanea seem that much more real.
Character pieces such as this are difficult to convey because they are so intimate and personal. In the medium of film especially, it can be hard to feel attached to the emotional intricacies the protagonist is feeling because we’re blocked by the screen itself. ‘Kapō’ invites us into the many emotions of Nanea through Kinimaka’s acting performance and the moods created by the film’s mise en scene (from the lighting, to the landscape, to the cinematography). I think Nanea’s personal journey of redemption is one many can relate to and find hope within. She has been knocked down and now must push herself to stand up and transform from within. How many of us have found ourselves at a point where all hope is lost? How many of us have needed to pick ourselves up and persevere through all the hardships?
The Whispers of the Wilderness
The cinematography, done by Aurelius himself, is absolutely striking. Nearly every shot was gorgeous and made the audience feel like a part of nature itself, watching and observing our characters every step of the way. That intimacy makes character-driven narratives so difficult to capture through specific camera angles. Furthermore, the natural setting is abundant and makes a wonderful companion to a story about Mother Earth. The most iconic scene and shots from the film take place by a waterfall, and it is all done so vividly, it feels like you’re right there. Seeing as this is Etienne Aurelius’ directorial debut, he rises up from the tropes of early filmmakers through his unique eye for storytelling.
Nanea is running through rivers, falling down hills, trekking through mud, and more. She experiences beauty and brutality through nature, and we get to experience it with her. Without this bountiful setting, the film and its themes may not have been as powerful. Speaking of themes, the main one that stuck out to me was that of inner strength. During the first conversation we hear between Nanea and her boyfriend, Eli, he gives his thoughts on how one has to be strong enough to survive the world. And if you aren’t strong enough, you have to find something or someone to protect you. Nanea starts out being “protected” by Eli, though we all know this isn’t true protection. She then has to discover her own strength and become her own protector with nature on her side. This theme, along with many others, is wrapped in artistry and poetic cinema.
Polynesian Culture and Final Thoughts
‘Kapō’ shines a big light on Polynesian culture and beliefs. The film demonstrates Hawaii in its most authentic form and not as just the tropical tourist destination it is so often referred to as. Films like this remind audiences of how important new and diverse voices are. I’ll be honest, most of what I know of Polynesian culture comes from Disney’s ‘Moana,’ and that is not a sufficient amount of knowledge. Through ‘Kapō,’ I have been able to tap deeper into the culture and gain a further understanding. If we only listen to one set of voices, we close ourselves off from other parts of the world and whole groups of people. The indigenous aspect of this film is front and center and is woven into the plot itself, making it all the more impactful.
All in all, ‘Kapō’ is an inventive story told by an outstanding crew. Though certain sets of dialogue didn’t hit for me and certain metaphors left me scratching my head, this film reminded me of the beauty of the medium and the stories that are possible. It’s about finding your roots and finding yourself, and those are voyages that are timeless. Aurelius’ voice as a filmmaker is one to listen to.
Cast: Mainei Kinimaka, Mojean Aria, Charmaine Bingwa, Joey Koehne, Jane Davis, Butch Helemano, Eli Olson, Dustin Satz
Director: Etienne Aurelius
Writers: Etienne Aurelius, Mojean Aria, Lauren Campri
Producers: Etienne Aurelius, Mojean Aria, Monte Brem, Lauren Campri, Chelsea Winstanley
Music by: Andrew Dalziell & Carisa Bianca Mellado
Editor: Etienne Aurelius
Cinematography: Etienne Aurelius
By Rachel Beltwoski
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Rachel Beltowski is a screenwriter and film critic, with a passion for character-driven stories and thought-provoking themes. From adventure to horror, Rachel enjoys stories which take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster and allow for personal expression that would otherwise go silent. Rachel was drawn to The Hollywood Insider’s dedication to individual perspectives and positive world impacts. The Hollywood Insider has provided a foundation for Rachel to share her insights and leap into the center of the entertainment industry. Rachel hopes to bring a fresh voice into the world of film and television, and share her love of stories with others.