Film review: An ocean of stories from Pacific Islanders

The moving, imaginative film "Stories of Oceania" is the centerpiece of MediaRites and Theatre Diaspora’s Oceania Celebration.

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In the Honolulu Theatre for Youth Ensemble’s wondrous film Stories of Oceania, Kāpili (Sean Choo), a new student at a school in Hawaii, approaches Inise (Destiny Qalo), a classmate he has a crush on. Wrongly assuming that she’s a Black American, he begins bombarding her with questions about Beyonce and Cardi B.

After an offended Inise walks away, Kāpili learns that she’s from Fiji. Mortified at his ignorance, Kāpili begins to wonder about the ancestry of all the students in his class. What if he knew their stories? What would that teach him about them? What would it teach him about himself?

Those questions flow through Stories of Oceania, which is part of MediaRites and Theatre Diaspora’s virtual Oceania Celebration, which continues through Saturday, Nov. 27. Stories of Oceania remains available to view online through Dec. 4. Like the rest of the festival—which features everything from hula dancing to poetry readings—it is a tribute to the people and traditions of Oceania, the region that encompasses lands and nations across the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii, Australia, Micronesia and New Zealand. 

Sean Choo as Kãpili in “Stories of Oceania.” Photo courtesy of Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

Stories of Oceania, which was directed by Moses Goods and Chesley Cannon, is told from the perspective of Kāpili, who feels adrift after spending most of his life traveling with his mother, who is in the military. He is Hawaiian, but until now, he has not been able to truly call Hawaii home—and he is unprepared to be in a class of students from places across the Pacific.

Kāpili’s sense of dislocation inspires him to invite the students in his class to tell stories of their homelands. It’s an enlightening experience, and an opportunity for Choo, Goods, Maki’ilei Ishihara and Pōʻai Lincoln—who devised the film—to unleash phantasmagorical visions that beckon us into the souls of their characters and the stories of their homes.

Stories of Oceania offers a sweeping spectrum of beauty. Asi (Goods) tells his story through song and shadow puppets that look like inky silhouettes in a white void, while others use bold swaths of color, including Manu (Lincoln). At one point, she kicks her foot toward the screen, sending yellow lines radiating outward, a stirring and striking vision of self-possession.

While Stories of Oceania wants us to revel in its wonders, sadness looms over the students. Some of them live lives shadowed by heartbreak, including Tana (Ishihara) and Anitelu (Goods). Both are from Micronesia, which was ravaged by the United States’ infamous Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954, which caused countless health problems among Micronesians, including birth defects and cancer.

In the most striking scene in the film, we see Micronesians reckoning with nuclear fallout, one of whom wonders why she is losing her hair. The images are filmed in black and white, creating a ghostly impression that we are hearing the voices of people who have been silenced forever.  

Some may be shocked to see such brutal realism in a film that is often as peppy as Kāpili, but Stories of Oceania wants you to absorb everything about its characters—their exuberance, their trauma, their guardedness, their hope. It is straightforward enough that kids will follow along easily, but it never panders. The filmmakers trust that audiences of all ages are ready for the hard truths it has to tell.

By the time it reaches its cathartic conclusion, Stories of Oceania fully embodies the words of James Joyce: “In the particular is contained the universal.” Each story it tells is the story of an individual, but in some ways, it is about anyone who has ever been marginalized. It is a film for all the Tanas and Anitelus who have suffered and for all the Kapili’s who have shown them compassion.

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Tickets and scheduling information: https://mediarites.org/oceania-celebration/

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