"No man is an island," wrote John Donne in 1624. While there's reasonable certainty he wasn't thinking of the movies, the thought resonates through the programming for this year's Maui Film Festival.
Every day brings offerings that build bridges from the remote Pacific mountaintops we call home to the great world beyond. What happens here matters out there, and what happens out there matters here.
That theme pervaded the opening program at the Celestial Cinema last night. The main attraction was "Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau," a heartfelt tribute to the champion surfer and patron saint of lifeguards everywhere. At a reception before the show, the director Sam George noted Eddie's official log of 500 rescues comes to perhaps half the true number. (Not a single swimmer lost his life on Eddie's watch.)
But in 1978, barely into his 30′s, Eddie's own life was lost in the waves. What was to have been the Polynesian Voyaging Society's second voyage to Tahiti had hardly begun when the Hōkūle'a, the society's flagship canoe, capsized in high seas off Molokai. (Students of John Donne may be flashing back to A. E. Housman's classic elegy "To An Athlete Dying Young" right now, or even "Lycidas," John Milton's baroque lament for a friend drowned in the Irish Sea, under less heroic circumstances.)
George, at the time a vacationing surfer from California, remembers waving to the distant Hōkūle'a from his surfboard the day it set sail.
"So you could say it was fate that I got to continue Eddie's legacy," he said privately before the screening.
Nainoa Thompson, assistant to the master navigator Mau Piailug, was much closer to the tragedy. He was there when Eddie headed out into the waves to get help for his struggling crewmates. Before the screening, Thompson paid tribute to Eddie, recalling Eddie's poor vision.
"He was paddling off to an island he couldn't see," Thompson said, adding that he lives with the guilt and shame of Eddie's loss every day.
But I wonder — could anyone have stopped him? Surely the best way to honor Eddie's memory is to keep voyaging, to keep spreading the word.
We caught a glimpse of the Polynesian Voyaging Society's great enterprise in the six-minute short,"Hōkūle'a's Worldwide Voyage: Island Wisdom, Ocean Connections, Global Lessons." On camera, Thompson calls the Polynesian seafarers "the astronauts of our ancestors."
Under his direction, navigators of a new generation are now preparing to sail the Hōkūle'a on a 46,000-mile, 38-month circumnavigation of the globe, beginning in May 2014. Their intention, as Thompson states in the clip, is "to honor, celebrate, and strengthen all cultures on the planet by respecting them." Cultures and languages are being lost around the world every day, he notes, but a renaissance like the one unfolding now in Hawaii is unique.
"Safety is our priority," Thompson answered. "We've examined 16 risk factors, in consultation with the Navy, the Coast Guard, the National Weather Service. Otherwise we wouldn't do what we're doing.
"Within the Pacific, the Hōkūle'a has already sailed the equivalent of six voyages around the earth at the equator. So in the Pacific, we'll be sailing the traditional way, without instruments. The Indian Ocean is a different story. The Indian Ocean has two hurricane seasons, five monsoon seasons, and the highest incidence of piracy in the world.
"In the Indian Ocean, the objective is just to get across, using whatever techniques we need to make the trip quick and safe. And we'll have pilots aboard who know," he said.
Later, Thompson added from the stage: "We're not going to change the world by taking this voyage. But we're going to create a network of people who will."
No man is an island.
BEFORE WE move on, don't look for "Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau" at your local cineplex. The film will air on ESPN beginning in October. (It will be number 47 or 48 in the network's "30 for 30" series, originally planned as 30 documentaries in honor of their 30th anniversary.) Anticipated viewership far exceeds what could be hoped for in a theatrical release. So will that mean a handsome royalty stream for Sam George?
"Nope," he said. "There's no money in this."
Looking ahead, today's "Sine Qua Non: The Psychology of Wave Surfing with Greg Long," Friday's "Big Sur" and Saturday's "Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert" all strike various chords a local audience will find appealing, even as they sound themes of broader appeal.
And then there's "Isolated," filmed in West Papua New Guinea.
"Like 'Endless Summer' with cannibals," the brochure promises, not to mention teasers about military violence and human-rights violations. Ryan Philippe ("Gosford Park," "Flags of Our Fathers") narrates. ¡Venceremos! Bon appétit!
Right now, though, the film I'm looking forward to most of all is "More Than Honey," screening today, Colony collapse in the bee world, and in America in particular, has been making global headlines. (Some scientists tell us that the extinction of the bee would not actually spell extinction for humans, but ask yourself: what kind of a world would this be without apples, oranges, chocolate, and coffee?
Yet it seems there is more to the story than gloom and doom. The director Markus Imhoof circled the globe four times to collect the footage for his 90-minute documentary, which promises state-of-the-art close-ups of bees in flight and in their hives. According to Emil Lynch of Maui's Best Honey, whose hives festival visitors whiz by every evening on the mauka side of Piilani Highway, 30 to 50% of all queen bees exported to devastated mainland farms come from the islands of Maui and Kauai.
Buzz! No bee is an island. John Donne had it right.
Addendum, June 27, 2013: Since this text was posted on honolulupulse.com, I learned of "Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūleʻa, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance," a new book by Sam Low, a Harvard-trained anthropologist who has been on the crew for several voyages of the Hōkūleʻa and has written about it extensively. A first impression suggests that the material will richly reward a close and thougtful reading.
And I'd like to add a few words on "More Than Honey." I was hooked from the opening sequence, which shows an old-timer in the Swiss Alps axing a swarm of bees from a tree branch and collecting them in a wooden box. (Having grown up in Switzerland, I was overcome by nostalgia at the visuals and even more by the sound of the man's countrified Swiss dialect.) Historic images document the family business in its glory days (watch for the bee palace, like a chalet for a grand duke). Later we hear from itinerant beekeepers who service American agribusiness, as well as from Chinese farmers, in the wake of Mao's demented extermination of the sparrows who eat the grain, now must pollinate their orchards by hand. The closing episode deals with bee cultivation in Australia, the only continent uninfested by mites that are ravinging colonies throughout the rest of the world. The goal is to foster genetic diversity, a noble experiment fraught with the risk of unanticipated consequences. For safety's sake the "experimental" populations are confined to islands off the coast of Australia, too far from the mainland to migrate back on their own. Science? Science fiction? Ours is indeed a brave new world.