Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu was the guest of an Inside the doc event this Wednesday at this year’s FIFO. Co-director and narrator of the competing film The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu, it was with a strong voice and tears in her eyes when she explained that she wanted to call on the Polynesian peoples to stand up.

The Healer Stones of Kapaemahu is directed by Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, it tells the story of four extraordinary individuals who travelled from Tahiti to Hawaii to share their healing gift. On the paepae a Hiro, there was a lot of excitement for this Inside the doc to which Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu was invited. She is no stranger to the FIFO,  a documentary dedicated to her called Kumu Hina, received the Special Jury Prize and the Audience’s Prize in 2015. “I don’t present my work with the intention of competing with anyone but with the hope that it will touch someone’s heart, with all my abilities, and the expectation that my tupuna will appreciate and encourage me to continue.” 

In 2022, an animated short film told the story of the Kapaemahu healing stones, the film made it to the Top 10 of the Oscars selection. The same story is told this year in a longer version as a competing documentary. However the idea for the documentary was born in Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu’s mind a long time ago. “The school I went to was a westernised place and it was difficult to be myself at that time. When I went to university that changed, there I met people who helped me elevate my understanding of the Hawaiian world.” Years in which Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu learned to accept herself and understood that a mahu is a normal part of Polynesian society and “I didn’t have to be someone else.”

“The story of Kapaemahu was told to us during my studies and I never forgot it, when I told it to my team (Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson) they thought that this was a fascinating way to tell the story.” For a decade, this project remained on hold and it was only in the last few years that their research and work focused on this film. It took the team four years to make the documentary. “I told Dean and Joe that we had to take our time and that this story had to remain focused on the dignity and respect of the story told by the ancestors.” Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu made a difficult choice when she chose to come to the FIFO this year as she is caring for her mother and had to leave her in the care of relatives. So this is an ordeal for her, but a necessary one because she wanted to bring this story back to its origins. Via this documentary, Hinaleimoana calls on the Polynesian people to stand up: “We must be strong, we must remember who we are, our way of life, our customs, our language. For my people, everything becomes a political and economic fight, we have to fight continuously for our dignity. The respect of Westerners born in Hawaii goes no further than the edge of their lips. My goal is that we, the Polynesian people, stop resisting but move forward and insist on who we are. Let the foreigners learn from us and not the other way around.” In tears, she explains having watched several documentaries here: “It’s always the same story, foreigners come and treat us badly. But it’s over!” Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu concludes by hoping that her work will inspire other Polynesians to speak out and tell their stories.

The healer stones of Kapaemahu

“I want the history of my homeland to be accurate. It is not the stranger who will teach me the history of my people, it is I who will teach it to the stranger.” Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu has made the words of Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau, the great Hawaiian historian, her own. In her deep, gravelly voice, she tells the amazing and fascinating story of the Kapaemahu healing stones, illustrated with beautiful animated images. Four extraordinary individuals crossed the great ocean, travelling from their native Tahiti to Hawaii, settling in Ulukou, in Waikiki. Tall, deep-voiced, and neither male nor female, they were mahu. These visitors had the gift of healing. Kapuni had spiritual power, Kinohi was omniscient, Kahaloa could heal at a distance and Kapaemahu used the laying on of hands. They passed on this gift to the Hawaiian people, who, in their honor and to thank them, carried four large rocks to Waikiki. Then the healers transferred their power to the stones. Now comes footage from the archives and contemporary history. These stones were gradually swallowed up by American colonization. They were returned to the light by a governor and then buried again in the foundations of a bowling alley for 30 years before coming to light again. A public site was dedicated to them with a plaque telling their story, but they were vandalized, sprayed with red paint. They are considered bewitched, a symbol of the Hawaiians’ “barbaric past”. History was even distorted to suit Western thinking at the time: they were no longer referred to as mahu but as two men and two women. In 1997, the stones were restored and the site was enclosed to prevent people from leaning on them or leaving their towels to dry. Today, these stones are visible to everyone, but there is still ignorance and misinformation,” says Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu.

Let us remember that gender and transgender in Oceania is one of the themes that has embodied these past twenty years of the FIFO and a special evening is programmed for this Thursday with the replay of Kumu Hina and the short film The Rogers.

Lucie Rabréaud – FIFO