Pandemic Can’t Stop the Mother Tongue Film Festival

The much-loved event kicks off this weekend online with the first indigenous film from Hawaii and extends through May with 45 offerings

Waikiki, by Hawaiian filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana, will kick off this year’s Mother Tongue Film Festival, a free, Smithsonian-sponsored event that begins Sunday, February 21. © Waikiki The Film, LLC,

Growing up in Waimānalo near the eastern end of O’ahu, Christopher Kahunahana’s first visions of filmmaking came from the sky. “It happens to be the place where they shot "Magnum P.I." We’d hear these helicopters buzzing our house, and that’s rare at that time, in the 1980s, so we’d go out and sit on the roof and we’d watch,” he recalls. “Watching that happen—people hanging out of a helicopter with a camera—was really inspiring. I thought at that moment, it was something I wanted to do.”

Decades later, he did so, becoming the first indigenous Hawaiian to write and direct his own first feature. The resulting Waikiki, already a prize-winner at two previous film festivals, will kick off this year’s Mother Tongue Film Festival, a free, Smithsonian-sponsored event that begins Sunday, February 21. Coinciding annually with the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, the festival that celebrates linguistic diversity and multilingualism will be held this year entirely online for the first time, due to health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Its theme, accordingly, is the healing power of storytelling.

Waikiki follows the contemporary story of a woman juggling three jobs. She is a hula dancer for tourists, a teacher of native culture for Hawaiian kids, and a barmaid at a karaoke lounge who suffers domestic abuse, lives in a van and befriends an even more down- and out-guy that she literally runs into. As she survives, she recalls her childhood, and the rich, ancient traditions of the island that sustain her.

A key phrase, amid this desperation, is repeated twice in a classroom scene: He ali’i ka ‘āina, he kauwā ke kanaka, the land is the chief and the people are its servants.

WAIKIKI The Film Official Trailer

And while Waikiki has dialogue in both native Hawaiian and English, it shows how language can be a conduit to the culture it represents. When it played the Hawaii International Film Festival, Waikiki won both best feature and best cinematography; at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, it won the special jury award for best cinematography and grand jury winner for best feature. Variety called it “a dramatic and visceral allegory.”

After the film was suggested to Joshua A. Bell, curator of globalization at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, who is a co-director of the festival, he had to watch it on his phone, “but I found it that compelling. I came out an hour and a half later totally amazed.”

He considers Waikiki “an example of a film that not only hits the theme about the healing power of storytelling, but also deals with larger themes of dispossession, reclamation, healing, a whole set of things through a very distinctive lens of perception. It upends a lot of things and is a major milestone in Hawaiian cinema, which is fantastic.”

Bell and Amalia Córdova, the Latinx digital curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, came up with 45 features and 36 short films from 26 regions that will be shown in this year’s festival.

Moving it online from the museums, theaters and embassies where the festival has grown in its first five years, means the 2021 Mother Tongue Festival will be without the live panel discussions or live indigenous performances that have occurred in the past; nor will there be the opportunity for in-person mingling among filmmakers from different parts of the globe.

But the availability of the festival to every computer in the world means “we’re hoping to reach wider audiences,” Bell says. “We’re not the first film festival to shift online.”

There still will be some panel discussions, albeit virtually, beginning with one February 21 with Waikiki director Kahunahana, moderated by Kālewa Correa, curator of Hawai’i and the Pacific at the Smithsonian Asia Pacific American Center.

On February 25 at 6:30 p.m. will be a discussion with Tzotzil filmmaker Maria Sojob about her film Tote/Abuelo/Grandfather, with Córdova and filmmaker Sebastian Diaz.

But rather than jamming the entire festival into four days, this year’s event will extend through May 2021.

“We’re extending it in time because we understand that we can’t expect people to drop everything and come join us for four days to watch films,” Córdova says. “We realize everyone is kind of Zoomed out and we should be generous.”

Some films will be available online longer than others; additional films will be added as the festival goes along. Viewers are asked to register in advance for online panels to secure a space. Additional panels, talkbacks and roundtables will be posted as the festival continues. Most films will be subtitled in English, though some shorter films will be presented in their mother tongue, Bell says.

Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has two official languages, a fact that hasn’t necessarily been reflected in previous filmed productions from the 50th state.

“Thus far, Hawaii has always been the backdrop for Hollywood pictures,” the filmmaker Kahunahana says. They include not only television’s “Magnum P.I.” but also films like From Here to Eternity, South Pacific, Blue Hawaii and Blue Crush. The TV show “Hawaii Five-0” is in the credits of some of the Waikiki cast including its star Danielle Zalopany. Another of its cast, Kimo Kahoano, appeared in both the original “Hawaii Five-0” and the recent remake (and in both versions of “Magnum P.I.” as well).

“So far, Hollywood has misrepresented our culture and who we are as people,” Kahunahana says.

“Only now, and it’s growing daily, has there been a strong, independent indigenous film community and scene here, which is pushing to tell our own stories. That’s what Hawaii needs and I feel privileged to have made a feature film, and I know it inspired other people to push just as hard to get their films made.”

Filmmakers, Kahunahana says, “are part of a long continuum of native storytellers. and I feel privileged to be able utilize the medium of filmmaking to tell our stories.”

The Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival celebrates cultural and linguistic diversity by showcasing films and filmmakers from around the world, highlighting the crucial role languages play in our daily lives. This year, the festival will be hosted entirely online. The festival opens on the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, February 21, and runs through May.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.