An uplifting film tells the story of how George Jarrett Helm Jr became a leading voice in a movement for environmental and Indigenous rights in Hawaii
1 December 2021
WHAT IS the best way to carry out activism? How should we communicate bad news in ways that stir into action those who, not unreasonably, just want to get on with their lives?
Hawaiian Soul, a 20-minute short film directed by Hawaiian film-maker ‘Āina Paikai, asks those questions through the dramatised experiences of one man: the Hawaiian falsetto singer and musician George Jarrett Helm Jr.
Born in 1950, Helm was a guitarist and singer with a legendary vocal range. In his 20s he became a leading voice in Hawaii’s emerging Aloha ‘Āina movement, which translates as “love of the land” and spawned campaigns on environmental rights and Hawaiian sovereignty.
In 1976, Helm was part of a group called Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO) which campaigned to stop the US military’s use of Kaho’olawe, the smallest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, as a firing range and for bombing target practice.
After an initial attempt to halt military activity failed, the group decided to land repeatedly and illegally on Kaho’olawe. In March 1977, Helm disappeared in high seas as he was attempting to reach the island on his surfboard.
In the film, Helm’s gentleness, charisma and regrettably short lifetime of activism – he was 26 when he vanished – comes to a head in a scene in which he and his fellow campaigners attempt to convince a sceptical and straight-laced church congregation to support the cause. While unilaterally unimpressed at first, Helm’s singing, and a stirring call to protect their shared homeland, ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the church. It is a moment that sounds like the purest schmaltz, but thanks to the film’s skilful editing, its talented lead actor and its use of archive music, the scene proves moving enough – and is entirely convincing, despite it being a work of fiction.
“Helm was a leading voice in the emerging Aloha ‘Āina movement, which translates as ‘love of the land’”
There is plenty that is authentic about the film, however. Kolea Fukumitsu, the son of one of Helm’s fellow activists, plays the adult Helm in Hawaiian Soul. Fukumitsu’s son, Kamakani, plays him as a child. The actors playing the three PKO leaders are all from Helm’s home island of Moloka’i, where the film was shot, and all have connections to the people they are portraying.
The film was awarded the inaugural Ocean Bottle Film Award at the Climate Crisis Film Festival, which ran alongside the COP26 UN climate change conference. It was the first film-making prize to highlight the perspectives of Indigenous and marginalised people on the climate crisis.
“The most vulnerable communities have the least to do with carbon emissions,” Susanna Basso, who organised the festival, explained in an interview with the Sierra Club. “The least we can do as a festival is to give over our platform… and pass the mic.”
This is a film about the challenges of making your voice heard. Helm’s clout came from his artistic and cultural authenticity, and we see that this came not from where he was born, but from his effort, study, commitment and, above all, his patience.
Helm didn’t live long enough to see Kaho’olawe get the protection he wanted – that didn’t come until 1994. But in the setting of COP26 – the point of which was to allow nation states to posture, bargain and reach compromise – his music and simple, sincere words were an inspiring refreshment.
Hawaiian Soul will be available to watch online until 13 December.
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