An Interactive Documentary

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Hawaiian for elders – whose stories, knowledge, and wisdom are lost with their passing.
Kūpuna is a portrait of a rural community as told through the lives, memories, and stories of elderly Hawaiians born and raised in the small town of La’ie, Hawaii, on the north shore of O’ahu.

About the Project

Kūpuna is a story that is begging to be told, but can only be told through the voices of those who have lived through so much of the 20th century and into the new millennium.

A unique storytelling project, Kūpuna is an interactive documentary portrait of La’ie, a small Hawaiian town on the island of O’ahu. The project combines personal documentary portraits, oral histories, storytelling and performances, animations depicting important cultural myths, and interactive historical and geographic data.

Kūpuna is made up of multiple visual and storytelling components: interviews, performances, and three animated recreations of important cultural myths. Primarily, the film will focus on the memories and oral histories of an informal Kūpuna council that are regularly consulted by area religious, cultural, and civic leaders. While this group of elders did not build the town of La’ie - that honor goes to their parents and their grandparents - they are the respected stewards of the La’ie ahupua`a as well as its dwindling parcels of kuleana land. Having spent the last 150 years as gracious hosts, often taking a backseat to more outspoken or dominant cultural groups, the goal of Kūpuna is to put Hawaiian culture, the histories of La’ie, and its elderly stewards, at the center of the story.

Today’s generation of Kupuna in La’ie have witnessed statehood, have lived through the dramatic growth and expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, watched and assisted as a university and cultural center were constructed by mostly immigrant volunteers. They were on the rim of the Pacific theater during World War II, have seen military and US government expansion across their islands, have been leaders in education, church, community, and government, and have even advocated boldly in the sometimes tumultuous relationship with the land-holding entity of the church.

In the introduction to Gathering to La’ie recently published by the Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian And Pacific Studies, the authors note: “[We] want the story to be told as much as possible by those who experienced it ... We want them to speak for themselves. The reader must bear in mind that their descriptions are written through their cultural lens and may not represent the native Hawaiian point of view ... However ... their recollections and experiences were seldom written or recorded. That story is still waiting to be told.”

Nathaniel Hansen, the film’s producer and director, will conduct a number of formal and informal interviews with each of the Kūpuna, over a period of 4-6 months. He began this work during a pre-production visit in September 2012. The content from these extensive interviews will help establish the history of the town, and its place in Hawaiian history and culture. The interviews and cultural gatherings that will be filmed will also examine the tender but sometimes tenuous interpersonal relationships held by this group of elders.

The interviews will cover a range of topics including local history both contemporary and ancient, personal memories and stories, myths, legends and folklore, as well as religious and family experiences. By exploring the lives of La’ie’s elderly Hawaiian’s, the film and interactive experience will have a foundation from which it can successfully tell a more comprehensive La’ie-centered narrative. Supported with b-roll from the area, archival footage provided in conjunction with BYU-Hawaii’s extensive archives, and additional scenic footage, Kūpuna will provide a rich visual experience for viewers.


Perhaps the most fragile and precious source of information available to us, and the one most often overlooked, are our elders—Kūpuna, those who stand at the source of knowledge (life’s experiences)...The voices of our elders, those who have lived through the histories that so many of us seek to understand, are silenced with their passing.
—Maly, Kepa and Onaona. He Mau Mo’olelo ‘Ohana: Traditions and historical recollections of the families of the land

About La’ie

La’ie has a population of just over 6,000 people. Approximately half of these residents are students at BYU-Hawaii, a highly ranked liberal arts college owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s also home to the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hawaii’s most visited tourist attraction and a facility built in the 1960s to showcase the cultures of the pacific islands.

It’s a town rich with history and tradition both ancient and modern. In ancient times, the city was considered a safe haven under Hawaiian law for those who had committed crimes. During the Christian missionary expansion into the Pacific Islands during the 19th century, while most of the other communities of O’ahu were Methodist, Wesleyan, or Catholic, La’ie became a predominantly Mormon community and a community committed to helping immigrants and converts from around the pacific to learn what it was like to live in a “zion” society. Many who joined the Mormon church during the 19th century in Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji, and other islands, came to La’ie first before making the pilgrimage to the Mormon church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

But in today’s world we witness the increasing intersection of global forces in the day-to-day life of local communities. The small town of La’ie, Hawai’i, on Oahu’s north shore, makes a compelling case study as a microcosm of cross-cultural (mis) understanding among diverse groups struggling to have their stories and interests represented: a worldwide church, a top-rated university, an underrepresented indigenous Hawaiian minority, diasporic Polynesians, and transient/displaced mainlanders, among others, all make up the local population. This ancient “city of refuge” is arguably one of the most culturally diverse and nuanced places on the planet.

La’ie coast, 2006
La’ie coast, 1929

An Interactive Experience

As a new form of storytelling, interactive documentaries are non-linear and exploratory in nature, and as the name implies, they’re interactive. Anytime a film is made, particularly a documentary, there are often many hours of footage that just don’t find their way into the 60 minute televised story. Does this make that unused material any less interesting or important?

Imagine a film experience that extends beyond the “big screen” or television. Imagine a story you could explore at your own pace with your iPad, or on your laptop after watching the film on Netflix or on a DVD! The Kūpuna development team is working to create a computer and tablet (iPad) experience that allows site visitors to explore the community (through detailed and custom maps, interactive genealogical charts, narration, census data, short videos and community profiles), and connect with the lives of its elderly residents.

Ultimately, the Kūpuna Interactive Documentary project will serve as a digital resource for future generations of Hawaii’s residents, but also as a means of connecting the larger and often transient La’ie community to this small but vitally important group of people whose rich experiences and stories are often lost with their passing. No effort has been made at this scale, to digitally record and interactively share the spirit of these aging Kūpuna.

Through the use of new technology, Kūpuna strives to make Hawaiian elders’ stories available to the community and the rising generation, encouraging trust among the community at large, working to become an online space where users can share stories from the past along with ideas for the future.

Director’s Statement

“Everybody and everything has a source. We all have a history of some kind. Everybody not only has a story, everybody is a story. You are creating your own story every day of your life, just by living.”

This remarkable statement was shared with me by my dear friend Louise, a 95 year old novelist from Waco, Texas. Louise was interviewed as part of my last film, The Elders, in which she is featured prominently, and her words have proved a guiding metaphor for my own work documenting people and their stories around the world.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I was invited to screen The Elders and to present a series of lectures at BYU-Hawaii. Given the profound impact Louise’s statement had on me and the many stories that were shared with me by the 23 elders I interviewed for the film, I chose to lecture on the power and role of storytelling in our lives. After the lecture and screening I spoke to my friend, college Dean and Anthropologist, Dr. Phillip McArthur. He urged me to consider producing a project that would focus exclusively on the elders, or Kūpuna, of La’ie. We talked at length about the subject, and he gave me a stack of books for reading. We agreed to keep in touch about the project.

Knowing there are a dozen or so Kūpuna in La’ie who will not be with us in years to come, I am currently raising funds for a groundbreaking interactive documentary project that will collect and share the stories of these elders, helping to paint an intimate portrait of this wonderfully complex town. What follows below is a brief overview of my vision for this project, one in which I hope you’ll join me!

Nathaniel Hansen, MFA
Filmmaker, Producer

The Deliverables

It is apt that this storytelling project is uniquely ‘transmedia’ in nature – viewers will be able to experience the rich cultural content through multiple forms of technology.

We will develop an interactive documentary experience that can be viewed on a dynamic HTML5 website, on iPad and mobile applications, as well as other “hard” deliverables such as a DVD, photobooks, photography prints, wet-plate photographs of the film’s participants, and prints of historical photos.

The entire experience is designed to provide an intimate look at a version of La’ie’s history that has largely been ignored – a version which we believe will soon be lost.

Select youth from the community will be invited to participate through a variety of activities that will need to come together to bring this project to life – from film and photographic production to website and app development, to cartography and community ethnography. Select students from BYU-Hawaii’s Hawaiian Studies program will be invited to participate (in an internship/scholarship capacity) in a variety of activities that will need to come together to bring this project to life – from film and photographic production to website and app development, to cartography and ongoing community ethnography as well as archival research.

Project Outcomes

It is the intent of the Kūpuna interactive project to conduct in depth interviews with the Kūpuna communicating the historical,cultural, social and economic significance of the elders and collect a comprehensive history of the town of La’ie. We also hope to empower the community by giving residents a chance to capture their town, their own stories, and the stories of their own family elders through community workshops and forms of participatory mapping.

Additonally, we desire to build an online interactive environment for people globally to understand a) the role elders play in our communities, b) the impact and importance of recording, sharing, and utilizing indigenous knowledge, and c) the vital importance of connecting today’s youth with today’s elders.

The Team

  • Nathaniel Hansen, MFA – Director, Producer, Editor
  • Phillip H. Mcarthur, PhD – Producer
  • Kali Fermantez, PhD – Co-Producer
  • Michelle Larson – Associate Producer
  • Matt Kester, PhD – Associate Producer
  • Kristal Williams, MFA – Associate Producer
  • Rich Vial, JD – Executive Producer
  • Bill Gallagher – Consulting Producer
  • Marc Ford – Consulting Producer
  • Robert Hall – Technology Director & Senior Developer
  • Russell Goldenberg, MFA – Developer
  • Eric Bladh – Cartographer
  • Ian Ruhter – Photographer
  • Jerry Thompson – Director of Photography
  • Mark Lee – Photographer
  • Monique Saenz, MFA – Photographer
  • Jeff Jeppesen – Art Director
  • Case – Motion Graphics, Animations