Image by John Hook

Ty Sanga is among a select group of filmmakers—Native Hawaiian or otherwise—who can call themselves Emmy award-winners. The food travel show pilot he directed, Family Ingredients, won a regional Emmy in 2014, and traces Hawai‘i’s family recipes back to their origins.

His work has garnered praise from big-time film producers, critics, and audiences alike. His acclaimed Hawaiian-language short film Stones, which screened at Sundance in 2011, captivated audiences with its poignant portrayal of a couple living in isolation, struggling to accept newcomers. The noise from Sundance was undeniable.

Recently returned to Hawai‘i from graduate school at Chapman University in Orange County, California, Sanga couldn’t be happier to be back in the islands. Although the young filmmaker acknowledges that leaving the trappings of Hollywood, known as the filmmaking capital of the world, was tough, he realizes the importance of his return. Finding himself writing films solely about Hawai‘i, Sanga knew he needed to be in the place in which the stories were conceived; it was pointless for him to be anywhere else.

But contrary to all appearances, Sanga didn’t always want to be a filmmaker. His parents managed hotels in Hawai‘i, and he was headed in that route, studying travel industry management and working in hotels himself for five years. It wasn’t until he screened his first film at the Hawaii International Film Festival—Plastic Leis, about a young Hawaiian hula dancer’s struggle to find her roots—did he realize a career in film could be a reality.

Sanga’s films tend to relay true experiences he had growing up in Hawai’i, eloquently weaving together heavy issues that face our islands while tapping into the lighter side of entertainment.

As a child, Sanga spent the summers with his family in Los Angeles, where the disparities that existed between Hawai‘i and the mainland became apparent. “My cousins would tease me about my Pidgin accent, and it was there I really saw the differences in social and economic class,” he recalls. “But, my father would always tell me to be a proud Hawaiian … that I was Hawaiian first, then Filipino, and Chinese. When I got into filmmaking, I wanted to tell stories as messages.”

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Sanga’s films tend to relay true experiences he had growing up in Hawai‘i, eloquently weaving together heavy issues that face our islands while tapping into the lighter side of entertainment. His film Follow the Leader, about a boy growing up in Kalihi collecting basketball cards, “addressed racism and the divide between private and public schools,” says Sanga. Instead of straight historical storytelling, Sanga’s films are wandering narratives, echoes of legends, and thoughtful dialogue, spoken in native tongue by actors such as Moses Goods and Rava Shastid. They are inspired by the past but are retold in a way that reshapes our understanding of modern-day society.

Part of what makes Sanga’s films so authentic is that they stray from the mainstream model. He credits his Native Lab fellowship, which connected him with Runningwater and other industry advisors, for giving him the tools to tell his stories the right way. “They want to invest in storytellers,” he says. “They want to help strengthen our voice and artwork and equalize the balance of what’s coming out of Hawai‘i besides Hawaii Five-0.”
Sanga speaks energetically about his current projects, including the continuation of Family Ingredients, which was recently picked up by PBS Hawaii to go national in May of 2015, as well as his documentary The Life of Pinky Thompson, the closing film at the fall 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival. “I have been working on it for four years, and I forgot how long documentaries take!”

Among his other works in progress is his feature film After Mele, which he began working on during his fellowship with Sundance. “It’s about my relationship with my father and brother. My father passed away when I was in high school, and growing up, we were disconnected from his side altogether. This film deals with what it means to be a native to Hawai‘i, what was expected of us, and how everything finds its balance.”

Meet the other Sundance Native Lab fellows from Hawai‘i:

Beau-bassett-FLUX-Hawaii Aina-Paikai-FLUX-Hawaii-Sundance Ciara-Lacy-FLUX-Hawaii-Sundance Christopher-Kahunahana-FLUX-Hawaii-Sundance