Aleta welcomes Alison Week to discuss her documentary Island Cowgirls, which was screened at the 43rd Hawaiʻi International Film Festival (HIFF). This blog post marks the beginning of our weekly series of WĀHINE DIRECTORS @ HIFF 43 - a series of interviews that are a great opportunity to learn more about the directors' films that were screened at HIFF and their creative process. Also available on our podcast.
Alison Week (AW) is the co-director of a feature documentary film playing at HIFF this year called Island Cowgirls. She co-directed this film with Liz Barney, and they're excited about their festival premiere on Oʻahu. Interview conducted by Aleta Hammerich (AH) on October 17, 2023.
AW: Island Cowgirls tells the story of two Wāhine Paniolo or Hawaiian cowgirls who live on opposite sides of Hawai'i island. On the northside of our island, we follow the story of a teenage girl named Laʻi Bertlemann from her final high school rodeo to whether or not she's going to stay in Hawai'i to continue her education and learn more about her culture and her family, or go to the mainland for university and continue her studies there in the rangeland management or ranching.
On the opposite side of the island in the second profile, we share a woman named Lani Cran Petrie runs 34,000 acre ranch less than three miles from Halemaumau or a volcanic crater right there. And she's facing a similar issue where both of these families are ranching on lands, state leased lands and are facing uncertainty of whether or not they'll be able to continue and perpetuate both their cultural practices and their passion for caring for the lands during sorting for the land for future generations.
AH: And what drew you and Liz to the story?
AW: So Liz and I connected during the pandemic in 2020, and I had just moved back to Hawai'i where I was born and raised and Liz was just coming over to the island for the first time after kind of like growing up herself over on Oahu over the last ten years.
And we connected over our shared love of filmmaking, storytelling and wanting to profile stories of women and uplift women in the state. And being that we were living in Waimea, which, if you're familiar with that island, it's Paniolo country. So like the stop signs, instead of saying stop, say, whoa. And so in thinking about the stories we wanted to tell, we wanted to sell something that was connected to our community. And so we reached out to some friends and directly to the women that became the protagonists of our film. And that's kind of how we got started there. It was a little bit of a we didn't really know what we were doing. The story sort of unfolded as we progressed. It took us three years just to get to this point where we could share this film here. And so it's been a long, long ish process. That's normal for documentaries, though.
AH: What do you want your audience to walk away with after they see your film?
AW: I think what I'd love for the audience to feel is both invited into this world and that they have an opportunity to see a bit of Hawai'i Island and how important these lands are to this community. And, you know, if there's anything I think that they could take away from this story, I think it's just like documentaries are such powerful tools that we can use to bridge our hearts and souls and connect with different people that you might not have. And I love that so many people that we've talked to who maybe never been to Hawai'i island or to like, travel with Lani on her ranch along 34,000 acres on the slopes of Mauna Loa and see this volcano right there. It's just, it's so cool to see the way that people connect and connect both with the stories and the people, but also these places.
AH: What was your favorite part of making the film? Do you have a favorite memory?
AW: That's such a good question. I think it's so hard to pinpoint a favorite moment, but one of my favorite moments while working on this project was an incredible experience and I've never co-directed before, so working with my co-director Liz was both. It was such an incredibly powerful experience to be able to work with somebody who has strong ideas, brings so much to the creative collaboration and yet can hold space for another person. And I think that that just made the story so much better to be able to work with somebody like that. And we got to go to some incredible parts of our island and work with some amazing people and so to be able, especially during during COVID when so much was shut down and there's so much uncertainty to be able to really focus on our home, our community, to be able to tell these stories just in general was such such a moving and powerful experience. But in getting to these ranches, too, or just so much fun, you know, from the rodeos to the ranches and being able to just be out in in nature. And now I will say that one little thing that was fun was going to visit Lonnie and finding out that they fly Bill over his ranch to go see the check on water and everything and so that was a real treat to be able to get a quick flyby of the volcano, especially when that was going going off earlier this couple of years ago.
AH: So that wasn't planned? You got there, and they were like, oh by the way?
AW: Yeah. You know, you get into these places and just sort of discover like, like that makes sense that he's a pilot and they have the resources so that would be the most efficient way to look over so many acres of land.
AH: Do you have any advice for other filmmakers?
AW: I think the most powerful piece of advice I've ever gotten is just to go out and do it. You know, I think that sometimes, especially at the very beginning, we are our own worst enemy. And it's so easy to find an excuse to not do something. And so finding a community of people, other people to support you, other people that you have fun creating and collaborating with, I think to find those people and just go out there and do it True.
AH: So true. What are you working on next?
AW: As a creative producer, I'm interested in not just doing documentary films, but also more narrative films that help uplift stories of women in front of and behind the camera. And one of the next projects that I'm excited about is I recently optioned a short story by a Hawaiian writer named Kristiana Kahakauwila called Wanle and the short story is from her debut novel called This Is Paradise. And it's about a second generation female cock fighter. And it's a look at legacy and love and loss and these ties that bind us and this short story, Zoe Eisenberg and I are working on a short script that we're hoping to go into production on maybe next year and developing from that short film, a feature length version that we can shoot here in Hawaii.
And then I'm also going to give a plug to and then also say, I just started working with a local nonprofit on Hawai'i Island. I'm looking at continuing to tell stories of people in place and in the nonprofit is an organization called Hui Aloha Kīholo and they have been doing some amazing work, restoring and continuing to keep this bay, the Kīholo bay on Hawai'i Island. You know, just preserving this incredible space for future generations. So I'm excited about that as well.
Alison was a 2022 Wāhine in Film Lab Fellow and this project was part of the 2022 DocuClub HI virtual work-in-progress screening.
ISLAND COWGIRLS is featured in PACIFIC HEARTBEAT Season 12.
Learn more about Alison: https://www.alisonweek.com/
Aleta Hammerich is a local filmmaker and graduate of UH Mānoa School of Cinematic Arts with experience in directing, cinematography, and editing. She has worked on projects such as Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi (2021), The ‘Ilima Lady (2023), and Homestead (2023). Aleta is passionate about using filmmaking as a platform to share women’s and LGBTQIA+ stories.