Few stories in Hawaiʻi’s recent history have the mythical lore of George Helm’s – a charismatic leader and Native Hawaiian activist from Molokaʻi who mysteriously vanished at sea in the 1970s. Helm’s life story was captured in a short film called “Hawaiian Soul,” which earned multiple awards during its debut at this year’s Hawaiʻi International Film Festival.
“Hawaiian Soul” tells the story of Native Hawaiian activist George Helm and how his love of music played an instrumental role in his path to activism.
(SOUND BITE FROM "HAWAIIAN SOUL")
ʻĀina Paikai, the film’s writer and director, says Helm would captivate audiences with his music and then argue his case.
"For a lot of us who, we knew of him as the activist and put him on a pedestal in that way because he was so charismatic,” says Paikai, “But what you really didn't I thought was the reason why people came out was because of his talent and music.”
(HELM SINGING "KUʻU PUA I PAOAKALANI")
Paikai got the family’s approval to use Helm’s actual musical recordings in the film. He even used the music on set to help capture some of the cast’s raw emotions on camera.
“When we first played the recording, the whole inside of the church - crew included - we were all just like in tears. And so that was kind of a really passionate moment,” says Paikai, “And then we had to ask them to do it again (laugh). We had to do it several times.”
Helm is known best for his advocacy of Native Hawaiian rights and the protection of Hawaiʻi's natural and cultural resources. As a child growing up in Kalamaʻula, Molokaʻi, he witnessed U.S. Navy bombing practice on nearby Kahoʻolawe.
Helm joined the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana, and in 1977, he and fellow activist Kimo Mitchell mysteriously vanished at sea on their way from Kahoʻolawe to Molokini. The movie title is borrowed from the song "Hawaiian Soul" by Jon Osorio and Randy Borden. The song was written the day the search was called off for Helm and Mitchell.
Helm is portrayed in the film by 34-year-old Kōlea Fukumitsu, who bore a striking resemblence to Helm.
“It was intense,” says Fukumitsu, “I grew up knowing Uncle George Helm’s music quite personally. My dad was a huge fan of his music. He had the cassette tapes and I would listen to him on our car ride. It was almost like he put you in a trans into this state of aloha ‘āina.”
Prior to the film, Fukumitsu - an eighth-generation taro farmer - was new to acting and film. He may have largely been cast for his physical traits, but Paikai says having Helm portrayed by someone who perpetuates the cultural practices of his ancestors is a fitting tribute.
"We knew casting was going to be difficult. One thing that I've learned from Hollywood folks coming in was just like a constant whitewashing of folks trying to tell our stories," says Paikai, "And so it was important to me to make sure that we found the right folks, that knew this person and his story and what it means to all of us that follow in his wake."
Paikai was just as concerned about finding the right cast as he was the right crew. He says more than 90 percent of the crew was Native Hawaiian.
“Hawaiian Soul” has been a passion project of Paikai and fellow Native Hawaiian filmmaker Kaliko Maiʻi, who produced the film, for seven years. Prior to the project, both worried Helm’s legacy was lost on Hawaiʻi’s youth today. The greatest challenge was in gaining the trust of the Helm ‘Ohana.
“There was a swirling of like, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you about?’ And just really trying to make sure that we had the right intentions because weʻre not the first person to pitch a George Helm film," says Paikai.
Fortunately, the family signed on and “Hawaiian Soul” debuted at the Hawaiʻi International Film Festival last month winning the Audience Award for a Short Film and Best in Hawaiʻi Award for a Short Film.
“ I think what we’ve been able to accomplish is to put the bait out there to get people interested to find out more about this man and his message, and what aloha ‘āina means to them,” says Paikai.
Hawaiian Soul will be playing at the virtual Maui Film Festival beginning this Friday.