The short film success story of Last Hawaiian Sugar showcases the catalytic power of Hawai‘i’s Creative Industries Division and the critical role of collaboration.
In 2014, Déjà Cresencia Bernhardt was invited to bring her first feature film script to Creative Lab Hawai‘i’s Screenwriting Immersive in Honolulu. Set in the final days of Big Sugar farming in Hawai‘i, Half Angels channels Bernhardt’s experience growing up amongst the sugar and pineapple fields of East Maui to tell the story of 12-year-old Samoan protagonist Nua as she’s forced to trade her innocence to survive in the paradise lost of Waikīkī.
“The East Maui Irrigation ditches were a playground for my younger brother and me. Like Hawai‘i’s history, our childhood wasn’t all a paradise,” says Déjà of the inspiration behind the script. “These controversial waterways carried stolen water from the rainy side of the island to feed the farms. Still, the love I had for my home, the island, and the ability to escape in it was profound.”
Over the five-day intensive workshop led by producer and writer Michael Andres Palmieri, held during Hawai‘i International Film Festival, Bernhardt and nine talented fellows worked with film industry mentors on script development and the vital nuances of filmmaking’s tricky business landscape. Creative Lab Hawai‘i continues to mentor fellows over the course of a year in the business and craft of media development, elevating Hawaiʻi’s content creators to be ready for deals in mainstream media licensing and distribution. Creative Lab Hawai‘i endowed the writer with a platform and connections to pitch and promote her project with industry mentors, including Oscar-nominated screenwriter Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
The immersive served as a catalyst. After nearly five years of rewrites and networking, Bernhardt wrote a prelude short to help her screenplay gain momentum. Crafted from the first part of the feature script, Last Hawaiian Sugar follows Nua as she comes to terms with the parallel traumas of displacement at the hands of Big Sugar and abuse at the hands of her stepfather. The script featured a raw take on industrialized farming’s impact on families and the land, showcasing the enduring force of resilience through Bernhardt’s complex cast of characters.
It earned her a spot in the 2019 ‘Ohina Filmmakers Lab, a short film workshop that helps Hawai‘i creatives translate their cinematic visions to the big screen. During the two-day ‘Ohina Lab, Bernhardt completed a major rewrite of the short film with guidance from twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell, screenwriters and producers of Disney’s Moana, and worked with other Hollywood veterans on pitch refinement and production strategy. She also signed on key members of the film crew, including Executive Director of ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase Gerard Elmore as producer.
“It’s definitely a passion project for most of us,” says Elmore, who also volunteered to operate the additional camera, edit, and color the film. “We’re not in it to make money; we’re here to build up really good stories with a sense of place from Hawaiʻi.”
On the final day of the workshop, Bernhardt’s revised script won the ‘Ohina Greenlight Award, garnering the project its first $10,000 and a commitment from ‘Ohina to help fund and produce the short film with support from Pacific Islanders in Communication, a nonprofit media arts organization that funds authentic, well-told stories about the Pacific Islander experience. With ‘Ohina Lab as a lightning rod, Last Hawaiian Sugar became a powerful proof of concept that demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between ʻOhina short films and Creative Lab Hawaiʻi screenwriting and producing programs, which opened doors for the feature film to achieve critical acclaim on its own.
Launched in 2012 in partnership with Writer’s Guild America West and funded by CID, Creative Lab Hawai‘i helps content creators like Bernhardt grow into business-savvy creative entrepreneurs.
CID’s ongoing sponsorship of ‘Ohina Labs, and growing synergies between Creative Lab Hawai‘i and other creative content development programs is vastly improving creators’ access to critical filmmaking resources and providing a platform to develop and finance local projects. And now that CID has formalized the Creative Lab Hawaiʻi Partners program—welcoming ‘Olelo Community Media, Hawai‘i Women in Filmmaking, Hawaiʻi International Film Festival, and other new partners in 2022—homegrown works like Last Hawaiian Sugar can enjoy a clearer path to getting off the ground and out to the world at large.
In October 2021, after a lengthy pre-production marked with COVID delays and nine days of intensive shooting on Maui, Last Hawaiian Sugar premiered during Hawai‘i International Film Festival to two sold-out theaters. It went on to screen at more than a dozen film festivals and earn Bernhardt Best Director at the Made in Hawai‘i Film Festival in May 2022.
A year after the film’s debut, Last Hawaiian Sugar is not letting up. In October 2022, the short film screened at the Austin Film Festival, fulfilling a supreme goal for Bernhardt. Meanwhile, Elmore took the film to the Sundance Producer’s Lab Intensive, where he worked with seasoned Sundance producers on packaging and pitching strategies for the feature-length version.
As Bernhardt, Elmore, and the rest of their team work to greenlight the feature film, recently retitled Last Hawaiian Sugar, Creative Lab Hawaiʻi and collaborators are paving the road to the finish line through assistance with grants, sponsorships, tax incentives, and production support.
For aspiring independent filmmakers, Bernhardt encourages them to engage the local creative community and link up with industry-wise allies to help navigate the creative marketplace.
“No matter how good your idea or your script, you can’t do it alone,” she says. “There are a lot of great people supporting Hawai‘i storytelling… they really rallied around me and were active in helping me find solutions. It just takes a village to make a film.”