As part of our All Roads Film Festival coverage, today IT talks to filmmakers Puhipau and Joan Lander, whose film Na 'Ono o ka 'Aina – Delicacies of the Land is featured in this year’s festival. Part music video, part documentary, the film is narrated by taro advocate Jerry Konanui, who addresses the importance of preserving traditional taro cultivation and the controversy of genetic engineering.
The film will be screened this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC. The complete schedule for this weekend’s festival can be found here. A National Geographic program, All Roads provides an international platform for indigenous and underrepresented minority-culture artists to share their cultures, stories, and perspectives through the power of film and photography. Read more from this series here, here, and here.
What prompted you to make the film?
In 2004, we participated in a film festival panel discussion with the producers of The Future of Food, a seminal documentary on the genetic engineering of food crops and the threat to world agriculture. Little did we know then that two years later we would be producing a Hawaii version on the same subject for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, a half-hour piece entitled Islands at Risk – Genetic Engineering in Hawaii.
During production, we learned that Hawaii is the genetic engineering capital of the world and that there is a lack of awareness as to what the GMO industry and the university research scientists are doing in the islands. The highly secretive bio-ag industry often influences legislation so thoroughly that not even the governor had the right to know where experimental and potentially dangerous bio-pharmaceutical test plots were being grown. We were able to shed light on all of these facts in our documentary.
But when we learned that the genetic engineering industry was going after the kalo (taro), sacred staple food of the Hawaiian people, we knew that another, more focused, video was in order. In addition, legislation to protect kalo from genetic modification was coming up in the Hawaii legislature and a video was needed to inform lawmakers and the public.
What role has taro traditionally played in Hawaiian culture? How has this changed over time?
In Hawaiian tradition, Haloa the kalo is not just a plant. Haloa is family, our elder brother, the first-born of sky father Wakea and Ho'ohokukalani, daughter of Papa, earth mother. In Hawaiian families, it is traditional for the older sibling to care for the younger ones. We believe that Haloa the kalo takes care of us by feeding us. In return, we love and respect our elder brother and ensure that he survives forever.
There are families who have cared for the kalo from generation to generation. This is a Hawaiian cultural tradition that was not forgotten about, like many others that went underground for decades and are now being revived as part of the Hawaiian renaissance. There was never a minute in Hawaii’s history where there was no kalo.
We honor the ingenuity of our ancestors in the cultivation and crossbreeding of the several hundred varieties of kalo that we have today, each bred to withstand various and extreme environmental conditions.
These many kalo varieties give us a glimpse into a world of the past where science and culture were an integral part of our ancestors’ everyday lives, allowing them to reach a pinnacle of understanding of how to utilize their natural resources to feed their people.
It is our responsibility to malama (take care of) Haloa the kalo. What has changed over time are the political obstacles that have blocked our access to land and water and the ability to grow kalo.
What role, if any, does tourism play in the fate of taro cultivation?
Let’s put it this way. There is a Hawaii Tourism Authority with a $60 million budget but there is no government entity that supports the taro farmers in a significant way. The amount of land being developed for resorts continues to rise while the acreage dedicated to kalo growing has steadily decreased. Our limited supplies of fresh water have been taken from our streams and diverted for other uses while taro farmers are left with little or no water for their taro patches.
Can you tell us about the location where this was filmed, and who Jerry Konanui is?
Locations include taro patches all over the Hawaiian islands. Two of the locations where we shot principal scenes were Kahanu Garden in Hana, Maui and the Amy Greenwell Ethno-botanical Garden in Kona on Hawaii island.
Jerry Konanui is a Hawaiian raised in the taro patches of Hawaii island. His familiarity with cultural and scientific traditions regarding kalo is a veritable library of information, learned from his parents and grandparents.
His mission is to push for a total ban on genetically-engineered kalo and, at the same time, to encourage others to save from extinction the approximately 200 Hawaiian taro varieties. There is no need for GMO kalo, Jerry says, as kalo has been naturally engineered by generations of Hawaiians who bred different varieties to withstand disease, drought, flood, wind and other extremes. It is only the industrialization and mono-cropping of one variety of kalo that has produced problems in the commercial poi and taro industry, leading to the false “need” for genetic engineering.
Jerry is an engaging and colorful on-camera personality who conveys an aloha for kalo that will inspire many to take up his call: hanai i ke kalo (“adopt the taro”). We feel that his voice of reason, wisdom and humor is exactly what’s needed in these times.
Why did you choose the title "Delicacies of the Land"?
The full title is "Na 'Ono o ka 'Aina – Delicacies of the Land" and it is actually the title of the song that is used in the video. The song was inspired by Hawaiian kumu hula (dance master) and cultural icon Edith Kanaka'ole and written by Kalani Meinecke back in the 1970s. George Kahumoku, Jr. composed the music and all three of them are heard in the 1979 recording. The song conveys the special aloha and appreciation Hawaiians have for the beauty, taste, fragrance and spiritual significance of the different taro varieties.
The lyrics demonstrate the play on words typical of Hawaiian songs where double meanings convey a deeper understanding of cultural values. Examples include use of the word “mana,"which refers to a variety of taro with branching corms, but also alludes to the concept of power and vitality. The word “lehua” refers to the variety of taro with coloration similar to the red lehua blossom, but also means “strength.”
We felt the song serves as a thematic lei for a short music video that celebrates both the efforts of Jerry Konanui and taro growers throughout the ages.
For travelers to Hawaii who want to learn about this issue and sample the different varieties of taro, what recommendations do you have on places to visit?
Visitors can view taro growing in the Hanalei district of Kauai, the Keanae-Wailuanui and Hana districts of Maui, Waipio valley and the Amy Greenwell Ethno-botanical Garden in Kona on Hawaii island and, on Oahu, the farms of the windward valleys, the upper elevations of Waianae on the leeward coast, and the taro patch at the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.
As far as sampling, many community events are held that feature kalo, from the growing to the harvesting, cooking, poi preparation and eating.The Seed Exchange at the Amy Greenwell Garden in Kona is starting to feature taro. And the East Maui Taro Festival is an annual event, usually held in the spring.