"Every Day in Kaimukī," which is having its world premiere at Sundance, is one of those low-key gems that are wonderful to discover at a festival. It is a small, slice-of-life debut film co-written and directed by Alika Tengan, and featuring a charismatic performance by co-writer Naz Kawakami, playing a version of himself. Set and shot in Honolulu during the pandemic (but not about the pandemic) the film has a scrappy indie feel that is endearing. This was obviously a labor of love for Tengan and Kawakami, and viewers who are fortunate to see it and sink into its everyday rhythms will appreciate its modest charms.
In the film, Naz (Kawakami) is spending his last weeks in Honolulu as he and his girlfriend, Sloane (Rina White) are planning to move to New York City. The 20-something Naz works as a DJ for the local community radio station, KTUH, and skates with his friends — who have a bet going whether Naz will actually leave. Much of "Every Day in Kaimukī" features scenes of Naz hanging out and planning the move; he says he feels stuck in Honolulu because he does not feel he belongs in this city where he was born. How Naz confronts the decision point regarding his departure shapes the drama and provides its poignancy.
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Tengan and Kawakami infuse their film with a sense of melancholy and hope. They chatted with Salon about their film in advance of its premiere.
I like how Naz feels he connects with Richard Hell in New York despite having vastly different circumstances. What do you think your film says about Hawai'i? The film does not show the island paradise, it shows skateparks and record stores that a native would frequent, which is far more interesting.
Alika Tengan: A lot of this film was inspired who Naz actually was, and is, and we were trying to be true to his experiences of Hawai'i, which is a little different. That was one of the goals, and Naz is not the most beach person. He skates instead of surfs, so it is grounding in a lot of his reality, which inspired the perspective.
Naz Kawakami: Alika got it right. I don't participate in a lot of things people view as being Hawaiian, and much of Hawai'i doesn't. And a lot of the representation doesn't reflect the lives and experiences of people who grew up there. We are not all surf people or beach people. I wanted to make a story set in Hawai'i and about Hawaiian people, but it is not forcing that on people. It just takes place there.
What decisions did you make regarding Naz's character? He's kind he is a worrier. He gets drunk and says things. He goes about his misdeeds. But he's incredibly likable.
Tengan: Before we embarked on this journey together, just being friends with Naz, and knowing him, he is unlike anyone I knew, and he has a really interesting perspective on being Hawaiian and growing up here — hapa Hawaiian — because we have the same genetic makeup to an extent. But he is also one of the most charismatic and charming people. He naturally had a lot of things that would translate well on screen.
Kawakami: Yeah, I wholeheartedly disagree with most of what he said about me!
Naz, how did you make your character feel human and real, because we like him when he's screwing up.
Kawakami: I think my personality in real life is different, so I was definitely trying to play a character, and I'm interested in characters with conviction who can be not perfect — they are also not antiheroes — but people who make mistakes and not try to lean into any one sort of trope or idea of what a protagonist ought to be. I am always worried. I just was not as expressive about it outwardly as my character was, but my inner monologue was staying up at night wondering what the f**k am I doing? And in real life, everybody was asking me, "Are you going to go?" "When you are leaving?" In that sense, it felt like a distillation of how I was feeling at that time.
Naz's relationship with Sloane is interesting. We see very little of them together. What was your intent in depicting the dynamic between them?
Tengan: When we come into this point of their relationship, they are in this weird place, because we are not really sure how they feel about each other. But there is this larger thing looming over them, this move that they are trying to do and navigate together. In the beginning, it seems like he is outwardly going for her.
Kawakami: I think I was focused on presenting characters who weren't bad or good at any moment. I wanted to make it that by the end you don't dislike [anyone] explicitly. I wanted to give the characters reasons to be, and have their motivations clear. You don't have to hate someone or love them either, but just have them be people with their priorities. That was an elegant choice on Alika's part and it makes the characters more rounded and unexpected.
Tengan: We were talking about what made Naz's character so complex with good and not so good elements. It wasn't us just writing that for his character. Naz was intentional about imbuing each character with humanity, foibles, and good and bad.
Naz is looking for his self-worth outside of Hawaii. Kaden (Holden Mandrial-Santos), his replacement at the station says he has a good life, but Naz "wants more." He's not interested in being a big fish in a small pond. What can you say about his character, and how do you think it represents the moodiness of 20-somethings, especially in this era of COVID? I liked the restlessness of someone trapped in a place.
Kawakami: Our cinematographer and producer, Chapin Hall, [described] growing up in Hawai'i – you're as always in quarantine to a degree. It's not like you grew up in California and can drive to New York City. The literal process of leaving the island is so arduous and challenging and expensive. You have to board an airplane. It's not as simple or casual. You do feel cooped up. It's part of the culture there to take pride in it to a degree. We talked about complacency versus contentment. Are you happy or is this just easy? I don't think Naz was unhappy, but it was easy, and that worry was the initial drive. Life there was pretty good for him. It is hard to choose a challenge and leave a comfortable situation like that. If you start wondering if you are complacent, you probably are, because otherwise, it wouldn't cross your mind.
Tengan: That was one of the things we talked about. We shot it during the pandemic, but we didn't want this film to be "about" the pandemic or lockdown or that type of thing. But it does frame a lot of the characters' decisions. And that is relatable for a lot of people over the past two years, and it's a call to question your own contentment in life, and this period has been really introspective for a lot of us, so it was an interesting dynamic for Naz's character to [consider] doing the hard thing. This is true to so much of our friends' experiences.
Kawakami: I want to double down about not wanting to make a film about a pandemic. It took place in a pandemic, but it's a story much like it takes place in Hawai'i, it's not about sandy beaches and waterfalls. It's a story that happens during a pandemic and has very little to do with it; it's not incorporating it in the plot.
I like that the film has a relaxed, hangout vibe. Can you talk about the mood of the film? which is accomplished in part by the editing and music.
Tengan: So much of this music is informed by Naz's taste and the music we feature is by his friends, Goon Lei Goon, and our mutual friend Holden, who plays Kaden in the film, composed original music which formed the vibe and energy and we edited around that. As we incorporated Naz's friends as actors, we got a larger sense to get a "Dazed and Confused"-esque hangout film. Hopefully, by the end of it, you want to spend time with each character — even those who are in the film for a few minutes. That was the goal in the edit.
Kawakami: Again, presenting a different idea of Hawaiian life, because we used local musicians. There has been a historic punk rock indie scene there, a very vibrant DIY supported music scene there. And it also has to do with the radio station where the film takes place. The experiences and culture of Honolulu life, I wanted to put that forward the best I could.
I am curious about the soundtrack, and what you listen to.
Kawakami: Goon Lei Goon, Hapa Hunting, Lionel Boy. Those are the three big ones.
Tengan: They are all on Spotify. There were other bands and musicians that complimented what we were already working with. Nilufer Yanya, Tei Shi, and Alex G.
Can we talk about Naz's existential crisis? He feels if he doesn't move, he is stuck. He also says he can't escape himself, he is self-destructive at times, and doesn't feel that he is Hawaiian. What accounts for his anxiety, loneliness, and despair?
Tengan: In the writing process, what I realized was that I had a lot of these core things with Naz in common, and I related to him on these levels of being Hawaiian and not feeling Hawaiian enough, and that core feeling has shaped and guided my life and led me to question should I be here or somewhere else? That was a lot of the writing of the character, was the fusion of both of these feelings, our feelings.
Kawakami: Yeah. [laughs]. Having experiences growing up and not really knowing what I am. I'm Japanese, Hawaiian, and white. But I'm Japanese or Hawaiian in Honolulu, but if I come to New York City, I'm not white, either. I'm not understanding the quantification of identity. I can feel like a Hawaiian man myself, and I am trying to gauge all my life how important it is for that to be recognized by other in that community. The analogy I always use is Taika Waititi directed "Thor: Ragnarok" so is that a Maori movie? How do we quantify these things?
Recently, I realized that whatever I do as a Hawaiian person will qualify me as being Hawaiian because I make it that. It's a very special particular culture and place, but it is reductive for anyone to say, "I am a thing, and am defined by these cultural attributes." I go skating with my friends, and I play guitar, and like the music that I like, and it doesn't make me less Hawaiian than someone who goes to the beach, or went to Kamehameha schools, or participates in cultural, traditional things. Maybe that's just part of the modern world, but I think things should be labeled as the artist seeks to label them, and not be defined by or assigned by. Alika do you think this is a Hawaiian movie, or is it an Asian America movie? Are you quantifying things that way, is it anyone else's place to quantify them? I feel like it's what you make it.
Tengan: It certainly has these elements. I may feel differently, but having this multiethnic identity, I'm used to things being hybridized and growing up here, it is such a hybridized culture, so it is all of the things at once and that's what makes it so unique and that's what makes Hawai'i so unique.
Also, Naz is very much playing a fictionalized version of himself, edited and exaggerated for dramatic effect. While it's rooted to an extent on some of his tendencies, he's playing into a persona he and I crafted together, and I think because he's such a good actor the audience may conflate the two.
I'm curious about being indigenous filmmakers and the rise of Hawaiian directors, like you and Christopher Kahunahana ("Waikiki"). What are your thoughts and observations about being a native filmmaker and the film scene in Hawai'i.
Tengan: Hawai'i is so uniquely positioned because we've been a backdrop for Hollywood forever. But they shot here but they weren't about here or made by people form here. It's an exciting time for homegrown filmmakers, and I went to the Academy for Creative Media, which was at the University of Hawai'i Mãnoa. I graduated in 2012 and I've heard it's the most majored in program, so there is a whole wave of indigenous artists coming up. We have more resources available to us now. The stories have always been here, so we're finally catching up. The world will start to know more in the years to come.
What can you say about creating the visuals in the film? I liked the scenes of Naz on the phone, or the moments of him skating at night.
Tengan: The look is so much developed by our DP, Chapin Hall, and the conversations he and I had about the story and what we felt were important elements to highlight. We landed on the 4:3 ratio to have things feel interior. Naz is in a lot of urban spaces, so we built it out from there. Naturalism was a huge part of the ethos of the look, so there is minimal lighting design. It was shaped by whatever environment Naz was in at the time.
I like the gritty indie feel. It makes it a perfect Sundance film. What are your thoughts about debuting your first feature at the festival?
Tengan: It's a huge honor, I've submitted many short films to the festival that have never gotten in, so I was totally blown away to get in. I was thrilled to have this collaboration with Naz be my first. My taste has been so shaped by a lot of the work that has come out of Sundance, so I'm really stoked to be here.
Kawakami: I am personally dreading people seeing me on a screen or hearing me speak in public. But considering the amount of time that we put in, I am feeling astounded maybe. "Astounded" might be appropriate. I'll stick with that.
"Every Day in Kaimuki" makes its world premiere at Sundance.
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