The loss of cultural knowledge is always a tragedy, but it seems doubly so when it comes to oral cultures where, once a story is gone, it is truly gone. That makes the very existence of Kapaemahu a bit of a miracle.
The story of Kapaemahu centres on four healers who settled in Waikīkī, serving the local population, teaching the healing arts, and who ultimately leaving their powers in four stones that still stand on Waikiki Beach. Or, rather, that once again stand on the beach. After hundreds of years of being honoured within their culture, the stones had a rough go in the 20th century, eventually being buried under a bowling alley, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s and restored to their former site in 1997.
Even then, though, the story behind the stones was incomplete. It wasn’t until 2015 that kumu, cultural practitioner Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu found a 100-year-old manuscript containing a part of the story that had been long suspected but never confirmed. The four healers were mahu, a third gender combining male and female that was revered in Polynesian culture—a tradition that did not sit well with future worldviews, and may have played a role in the attempted erasure of the Kapaemahu.
As unlikely as the story’s re-emergence may be, Wong-Kalu’s retelling of it would be captivating even without the backstory. Enlisting award-winning filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson to co-direct, and handing animation duties to award-winning director Daniel Sousa (whose 2012 short Feral was honoured for “Innovation in Animation” at that year’s GIRAF fest), Wong-Kalu clearly put a great deal of thought into how best to tell this mo’olelo. Every detail of Kapaemahu feels well considered, from its glowing orange and brown hues to the narration in Olelo Niihau (“the only continuously spoken form of Hawaiian“) to a 2D art style that balances a contemporary aesthetic with visual cues from traditional Polynesian art. It’s a style that’s respectful of tradition while still feeling very much alive.
That tone is ideal for a story that has survived despite the odds. Literally buried and forgotten only to be recovered after decades of neglect, it’s a story that seems to demand to be retold—and in its telling, it restores the significance of the Kapaemahu stones, and the complex portrait of gender, culture and history that they represent.
(This writeup borrows heavily from Puanani Fernandez-Akamine’s article in Ka Wai Ola.)
dir: Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson
syn: Long ago, four extraordinary beings of dual male and female spirit brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii and imbued their powers in four giant boulders. The stones still stand on Waikiki Beach, but the true story behind them has been hidden – until now.