Alika Tengan Makes Movies He Enjoys

Lee A. Tonouchi
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Alika Tengan. (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)

Alika Tengan, 2006-Castle-High-School grad, stay da director and co-writer behind one movie das getting crazy buzz. Earlier dis year his first feature length film “Every Day in Kaimukī” got into da prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Shot in one naturalistic style, it’s one movie about one aimless skateboarder Naz and his longing for leave da small town of Kaimukī. An’den if das no nuff, dis talented Japanese/Chinese/German/Hawaiian/Okinawan filmmaker already get his next feature all lined up already too, tanks to one big time $500,000 Google grant. I wen go talk story with Alika where he dropped some science on da art of filmmaking.

LT: For your short films your name wuz Alika Maikau. But den all of a sudden for “Every Day in Kaimukī” you became Alika Tengan. How come you came Okinawan all of a sudden?

AT: Tengan is my Tutu’s maiden name. Alika is still my first name. It’s still a Hawaiian name. But I also felt very connected to my Asian heritage as well, so that was sort of the mana‘o behind this name change.

LT: Why you came one filmmaker?

AT: I think throughout most of my school career in Castle [High School] and even at [the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa], writing was the only thing I wasn’t terrible at, so I always gravitated towards creative writing and then I started a liberal arts degree at UH and when I found out they had this film program called the Academy for Creative Media, it seemed like a really interesting way to combine my interests, like stories about Hawai‘i, writing and music. With film I could share all of the things that I care about in one format.

LT: What’s da one bestest wisdoms you got from film school?

AT: Certainly one of my biggest mentors is Lisette Flanary. She was one of my Indigenous Film professors at UH. When I had her in 2011-ish, she brought Taika Waititi to our class to talk. He had just done the film “Boy,” which I really loved and obviously he wasn’t the world-famous Taika he is now. But seeing this Polynesian person talk about this film that was so specific to where he grew up in New Zealand, it really inspired me. It made me say I wanna do that for Hawai‘i.

LT: In “Every Day in Kaimukī” (“EDIK”), da protagonist Naz wuz one hard character for me to get behind cuz it’s not really clear what he wants and he spends most of da movie just skateboarding with his friends. We no really know what his career ambitions are and he has kinda one vague sense that he wants “more” but he not sure what dat means exactly. So tell us why should we root for dis guy?

AT: I think it’s really difficult when you feel like you’ve outgrown a certain situation, but you can’t articulate why to the people that you care about. Like it’s one thing if he just got a job in New York then it’s very easy to explain that to people. But when you don’t have concrete reasons, it’s a lot harder and your friends don’t really understand, just like in the movie. I think we liked it being more ambiguous even it risks the audience not fully comprehending the character’s motivations.

LT: Did any celebrities come up to you at Sundance for say you awesome!?

AT: Unfortunately, it was supposed to be in person, but they cancelled it a week before due to [the] Omicron [variant pandemic restrictions], so it was mainly virtual. But you know Destin Daniel Cretton, he gave us a shout out on Instagram! (Laughing)

LT: The film has one visual style that seems raw, so even though I knew dis wuz one work of fiction, I felt like I wuz watching one documentary. Try tell how you wen achieve dis.

AT: My friend, [co-writer and star] Naz Kawakami was thinking he was gonna leave Hawai‘i in February or March of 2021 and I had approached him around Thanksgiving 2020. So there wasn’t a lot of time to dilly dally. He and I had sort of these intense writing sessions throughout the first week getting an outline in place. We used Naz’s real-life story about his move and incorporated a lot of his actual friend group and some of my friends as well. And it just turned out they were all wonderful actors. Since they had a preexisting dynamic with Naz we kind of just played off of that. In terms of the amount improv, I would say it ended up being about 50/50. We had written the foundation for things but they were so in character that they could just riff about whatever was happening in that moment.

LT: I heard you got some kinda big time $500,000 Google grant.

AT: Me and my DP Chapin Hall, we shot a short film called “Moloka‘i Bound” in 2019 and we used my roommate Holden Mandrial-Santos and we really liked the way that it turned out, so we decided to write a feature length script based on the short film and we were put up for this Google and Array grant for up-and-coming filmmakers and we were fortunate enough to be selected for that. We’re hoping to make that film sometime this year.

LT: Would you advise aspiring filmmakers for make movies more faster den if dey want greater truth? Do dey ruin their movies by having too much script and acting?

AT: (Laughing.) Well, it’s funny because with my “Moloka‘i Bound” we’ve been trying to make this feature for like two years now and the script is a fully fleshed out thing with a lot of actors. Maybe I should take my own lesson from “EDIK” and just go shoot it. (Laughing.) No, I think it just depends on the story you’re gonna tell. Sometimes you need a lot of resources to tell a larger, grander story. But there was something to the energy of knowing that we didn’t have a lot of time so it forces you to sort of ride the momentum no matter what.

LT: In da tree short films you made before, “Keep You Float” (2017), “Mauka to Makai” (2018) and “Moloka‘i Bound” (2019) da dialogues wuz mostly all Pidgin, but for “EDIK” only had little bit. What’s da deal, lemon peel!?

AT: (Laughing.) I just wanted to show that not everything that I do has to be huge Pidgin, not that I’m against that. And for my feature film “Moloka‘i Bound” it is gonna be more Pidgin-centric. But the reality is not everyone speaks Pidgin in Hawai‘i. Most people do on some level, but we just wanted to depict a different side growing up here.

LT: Can dea be one blockbuster Hawai‘i movie with all real kine Pidgin inside?

AT: I hope so. I don’t how much of a blockbuster “Moloka‘i Bound” could potentially be, but I think it’s gonna be a really interesting litmus test.

LT: One connecting thread through your movies is da effects of colonialism on top da Native Hawaiian population. In da world of your shorts da Hawaiian characters battle with health issues like diabetes, with substance abuse, with how incarceration affects da family unit and with da loss of language and cultural knowledge. Try talk about how come you felt wuz important for highlight these issues.

AT: These are just the things that the Hawaiian community has been facing for a very long time. And the power of film is to reconstruct narratives or recenter the narratives. A lot of films and shows have filmed in Hawai‘i and used it as a glorified backdrop but rarely have Native Hawaiians been at the center of these narratives and so our story has been told by many, many other people and I think the power of film is that we’re starting to take back the narrative.

LT: In “EDIK” Naz gives his philosophy about being one DJ: “I think that a lot of people try to play music that they’re like everybody will like this song. Whereas I feel like I took an approach where it’s like one person will probably like this song. Cuz I feel that if you try to only play songs that will appeal to everybody, you kind of limit yourself. I’d rather have one person dancing in their car than have a hundred people just have it on for background.” Is dat one metaphor for how you feel about filmmaking?

AT: Yeah, “EDIK” is not a movie for everybody, but we loved making it and we loved the finished product. It’s not for everybody, but for the people that it is for, we really resonate with them. 

Lee A. Tonouchi’s book “Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai’i Okinawan Journal” won da Association for Asian American Studies Book Award. An’den his East West Players play “Three Year Swim Club” wuz one Los Angeles Times Critic’s Choice Selection.


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