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Documentary film tracing the legacy and impact of Duke Kahanamoku is already making waves

Duke Kahanamoku, surfer and Hawaiian Olympic swimmer, poses in a swimming pool in Los Angeles in 1933
In this Aug. 11, 1933, file photo, Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian Olympic swimmer, poses in a swimming pool in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/File)

"Surfing legend. Olympic superstar. Hawaiian icon. American hero." The Hawaiʻi International Film Festival kicks off with the in-person premiere of a documentary film about Duke Kahanamoku called “Waterman.”

Take a look at the trailer.

The film, directed by Isaac Halisma, explores Kahanamoku's legacy as a swimmer and as a father of modern-day surfing. The first screening takes place Friday on the Great Lawn of the Bishop Museum. But the 400 available tickets have already been snatched up.

The Conversation talked to Brandon Bunag, who is in charge of education and public programs at the museum, about a bonus display for ticket holders that honors not one, but two Olympians — Kahanamoku and recent Olympic gold medalist Carissa Moore.

Interview Highlights

On the "Hawaiian Olympians" display at the Bishop Museum

BRANDON BUNAG: "Waterman" is sold out. We are expecting people on our campus this Friday for the world premiere of that screening. However, in conjunction with that, we are opening our "Hawaiian Olympians" display inside our Hawaiian Hall. What we're doing is really connecting the story of Duke Kahanamoku, one of our first Hawaiian Olympians, to Carissa Moore, our most recent Native Hawaiian Olympian who won a gold medal in the inaugural surfing games this past summer.

On what the exhibit hopes to share with visitors about Duke Kahanamoku's impact on surfing

BUNAG: We're really trying to display, trying to communicate and share sort of this story that spans generations — and that it doesn't necessarily end. It really began with Duke and Carissa as just an example of how the story of contributions by Native Hawaiians to this worldwide sport continues today. I think sometimes we get lost in the international popularity of surfing. The story of its early beginnings, as far as we know, started right here in Hawaiʻi. And people like Duke took this sport worldwide. He brought this attention to Native Hawaiians and their athletic ability with water and water sports to the international level when he was at the Olympics and won in swimming.

Tokyo Olympics Carissa Moore
Francisco Seco/AP
Carissa Moore celebrates winning the gold medal in the women's surfing competition on July 27, 2021, at the 2020 Summer Olympics at Tsurigasaki beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. The first Olympic gold medalist for surfing, Moore, is the only Native Hawaiian surfer at the Games. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

He's an amazing person, definitely an ambassador of Hawaiʻi. I think we've heard the term "Ambassador of Aloha" be used before. He's definitely taken Hawaiʻi and placed us on a map and the contributions that he's made to watersports in general, you know, in Waikiki, and I think we just want to continue to honor that legacy. Bishop Museum is honored to care of some of his memorabilia, not a whole lot, but some of his memorabilia which will be on display in the "Hawaiian Olympians" display.

We plan to have it up for at least a year, possibly a little bit longer — definitely through this upcoming big wave season that's upon us, and perhaps partly for the next big wave season and next winter. We want to celebrate the stories of these two individuals who lived 100 years apart from each other — yet that same story of aloha for Hawaiʻi and aloha for the world, aloha for the water continues to thrive in the 21st century. I think we really want to just honor them and help to continue this story and share it with our visitors locally, nationally, internationally.

While tickets are sold out for the Oʻahu screening, neighbor island screenings are still available — click here for more information. This interview aired on The Conversation on Nov. 4, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
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