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Wāhine Directors @HIFF43: Shirley Thompson

Aleta welcomes Shirley Thompson to discuss her short documentary on Shaneika Aguilar part of Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi season 4, which was screened at the 43rd Hawaiʻi International Film Festival (HIFF). Shirley is also the co-producer of the Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi series. This episode is part 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.


ST: My name is Shirley Thompson. I'm a Honolulu based documentary filmmaker. I had the privilege of making a short film about Shaneika Aguilar, who is a wildly talented young cinematographer and editor and colorist. She wears a lot of hats, she really brings to life the work of a whole generation of filmmakers who came of age coming out of film school right around the same time she did. And she took a lot of people's work to the next level. I was really, really excited to make a film about a young camera woman. I had made a film a couple of seasons ago about Victoria Keith, who was basically the Shaneika Aguilar of the seventies and eighties in Honolulu. Shaneika is doing it now, now with current tools and and having, you know, just this enormous capacity and yes, she's just really smart when it comes to the camera. So I was really just stoked to show off her work.


AH: What was it about her and her story that you were so excited to delve into?


ST: I've had the fortune of profiling some really storied filmmakers that have had, you know, 40 year careers. But it's a different lens to look at someone who is emerging as an artist and also someone who's a millennial, which is a really different experience than mine. With millennials who have always had cameras in their hands and have always had cameras trained on them. There's a sophistication to a millennial's level of visual communication and that they have a natural gift for composing within a frame because they've always been doing it and that they've always seen the world through this, through this lens. And so she brings, you know, basically a lifetime of experience in someone who is so young. So I was really interested in kind of exploring that and exploring her background as a young filmmaker, literally as a girl who started off as a camera woman at age 12 or something, and how that has devolved into her work now.


AH: What was your favorite part of this process? Did you also edit?


ST: I also edited that film, but I had help, worked with Malia Adams as a production assistant and I pressed her in a service as a, you know, doing some assistant editor work. And so I had her do the first edit, the first pass, which was so helpful because I had my preconceived notions or what I thought this film was going to be. And I just took gave up control and gave it to another editor and said, here you, tell me what you jumped out at you and you thought was the most important parts. And they were in some cases really different than what I would have chosen. But it gave me ideas and also allowed me to look at the work with fresh eyes, and that was really valuable.


AH: Is there something that you would advise for other people, like if, if you directed especially?


ST: I think it's I think it's really hard to do all the jobs when you're the writer and editor and the producer and you were on the shoot and you invented all the questions and asked all the questions and you're holding a different you're holding the big vision of the film. But then there's what you actually got. And so there's this moment where you have to divorce yourself from the dream, and you have to focus on what the camera actually captured. And I think that that was my shortcut to break, to make that break was to allow a young assistant to look at the material. Also, my young assistant was also a millennial, right? Really different worldview than me. I really appreciated her point of view looking at someone who is really almost a peer.


AH: So interesting. I didn't really realize that. Maybe it's because I'm an even younger generation. I'm in Gen Z. I wasn't thinking about that perspective and so interesting to hear that from you and especially watching her episode, it does stick out because the rest are kind of reviewing their careers, whereas hers is very much like, This is what I'm looking forward to and this is what's it's been building up to it. So I thought that was really interesting. So kind of going off of that, how did you prepare going up to the shoots


ST: I had, literally a notebook where I had sort of story mapped a bunch of potential questions and things. I was curious about. I had watched all her films, including, things that she had made as a as a young girl, as a student. So I had a real sense of her work. There were some favorites in in there. I absolutely love her personal film, Mama's Wish. That is a narrative film that she directed and wrote. And then I really, really love the film she did with Krystal Mackay, which is kind of crystal bucket personal film about her own life. And and so I really I knew I wanted to speak about those projects really specific because I'm such a fan of the work. there were really specific questions about certain things and then some of them didn't really play out the way I thought they were going to. I thought I knew what the answer was. And then the interview took a really different direction. And so when that happens, you have to be in the moment. You have to listen and you have to respond to what you know, to the gift of this conversation and just be really present and and make the most of that conversation that's happening and and draw people out and and give Shaneika her opportunity to talk about her creative process and her why.


AH: do you have a directors philosophy when it comes to when you're doing docs. you have a guiding idea or way that you like to approach your subject?


ST: I take the responsibility very seriously. When someone entrusts you with their story. And so first and foremost, I just want to honor that and tell the story in a way that I feel that will be true to their experience in every way possible. You know that it's like to get to the emotional truth of their lives. So I think that the most important part for me is to get it right. Also, these films in particular are all people whose work we really respect and admire, and that's why we cast them in the first place. And so no matter whether it's someone who has a 40 year career or if it's somebody who's an emerging young artist, they're already someone who I have a tremendous respect for their work. And so I approach it with a lot of curiosity about like, why do you do it that way? Why do you love it? What made you decide to make that choice? You know, it's like, I want to know kind of what makes them tick and get to know their creative process. For me, that's the juicy part.


AH: Did you have a favorite moment or memory from this production at any phase?


ST: The funniest part for me is that, I mean, I'm 60 years old and I gotta make this film with everybody and there is nobody over 30, you know. So that was really fantastic, right, to just have that opportunity to be around young people and because I think I think it's so important to work with young people because they teach you things, you know, I feel like I have a lot to teach, but there's so much I don't know.  I'm not a millennial. I don't know how they lived experience. And they're just also really plugged in to what's happening now and what's new and what's, you know, here's the new technology or here's the way that I do it. I'm like, I never thought of doing it that way because I've been editing the same way for 40 years, even though the technology is changing. So that part is enormous value to me is to just be around smart, young people and let them teach me.


AH: That's so wonderful. you can answer this next question as a director of this episode, but also as a series producer. Who is your intended audience and why?


ST: there's probably a 50 year range from our youngest or oldest. And so that's fantastic, right? Is that that I think there's something there for everyone. And I think also because by watching really, you know, you learn the history of Hawaiʻi, right, because all these filmmakers have been over all those years and all their different ways have been documenting what life is like here in Hawaiʻi. And so, you're interested in Hawaiʻi, Hawaiʻi culture, Hawaiian language, Hawaiian history, it's all in the series because it's all part of their work. And so I think anybody who would be interested in Hawaiʻi would be interested in Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi.


AH: And you've touched on this already, but what do you hope this audience, this broad audience kind of walks away with, not only with the entire series itself, but also specifically your episode with Shaneika.


ST: I want the audience to have a real keen understanding that women helped build the independent film community in Hawaiʻi and continue to build upon and expand that community. And so I think that's one is that we started off because, when, when we would ask, you're reading the credits and you see what I call a bunch of dudes made this film and then you ask yourself, could they have not hired one woman except for the casting person? the answer was frequently, Well, we were, but we don't know any women or there are no women. There are no women filmmakers. I would have people say that to my face. And I'm like, okay, well, I'm a woman filmmaker and I know a lot of other women filmmakers, so that can't possibly be true.

So we just felt like, okay, well, let's start documenting and let's start showing the work. And, by the way, let's all hire all women, you know, or or, you know, women crews to document these stories so that we can all work together and get to know each other. And guess what? Now there's this huge community of women filmmakers.


AH: Do you have any advice for other female filmmakers really trying to get their start? I think I got a follow up. I'm going to ask you about the importance of community.


ST: I think that's one in the same answer. really hard for us as filmmakers. We're all kind of toiling away in our little hovels behind our little computers, just like, you know, writing and editing. And it can be an incredibly isolating experience. to transform that experience of filmmaking into, hey, let's two or three or four of us get together and make a film together is a is an amazing, remarkable, you know, transition in how to do these things, because now it becomes a collective idea and we riff off each other and we make each other's ideas better. And some of us have skills that we can throw into the mix, and other people have different skills and we help each other. And so I think it's more collaborative. Filmmaking is inherently collaborative. But I think it falls naturally into the way that women tend to do things. If I can give a slightly more gendered answer there is that, you know, I think women are natural collaborators and are more interested, less hierarchical and more interested in dispersed responsibilities, but we all somehow come together to to make a hole. And so I think that's kind of been the model for the way we've made these films. And so I think for someone starting out, if someone is new to filmmaking or dreaming of filmmaking, you got to go hang out and be where the filmmakers are, you know? And it's like if you can go to film school right on. If you can't go to film school, there's other ways because you can volunteer to be a production assistant. There are organizations like Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking and, you know, Hawaiʻi Filmmakers Collective and different groups that offer workshops and offer ways to get on a crew and just start learning by doing. And over time, you gain the skills. And, you know, filmmaking is one of those things where you can't learn how to make a film until you make a film.


AH: What is the best piece of advice you've ever received as a filmmaker? It could be about editing or directing, producing.


ST: Because filmmaking is a collaborative experience. You're really your collaborations are only as good as your relationships. Everything all business is about personal relationships. And people want to work with people they know, like and trust. So you need to collaborate with people and kind of show that you've got to offer. And that is just such an important part of just showing up and being your best self and, and, and treating a project like it's yours, you know, you put all your all into it, even if it's someone else's film. The other thing I think is super important is to only work with people who are crazy about you and want you to succeed. It is really easy to get caught up working for someone who can't be pleased. Or is it really interested in helping you further your goals? They're only extracting as much work as they can out of you. And then when you collapse, it will step over your body and latch on to the next person and extract away, you know. So you don't want to, you don't want to have those kinds of relationships. You want to work with people who really care about you and believe in you and want you to succeed. And if you have that, the sky's the limit.


AH: One last one. Okay. We have one minute. You mentioned that you're kind of guiding force is always staying true and following the emotional truth of the story. And I'm wondering if you have specific examples of ways that you stay true to the emotional truth of your episode with Shaneika.


ST: It was really easy with Shaneika, because she is what you see is what you get. She is exactly who she is and she doesn't ever pretend to be anybody else. And so she spoke her truth it's like a shining light. And so it was really that she made my job so easy. If anything, what was hard is I had too much good material I could have made. I could have made a whole other film eventually that did not include any of the things that were in the film that I made. And it would also be an interesting film about Shaneika! 



Shaneika Aguilar Born and raised on the island of O‘ahu, cinematographer Shaneika Aguilar has always been fascinated with cameras and the ability to capture and materialize a moment in time. She is best known for her work on independent films as well as branded content. Her work as a filmmaker with NMG Network garnered 2 Emmy Awards and 5 Pele Awards and included brands like Halekulani and Flux Media. She is a 2018 graduate of the University of Mānoa Academy of Creative Media, and is the new lead content producer for Redefined Weddings, a boutique photography and video company. She continues her work as a commercial photographer and freelance cinematographer, focused on capturing local stories that build connection and unity in her community.


Shirley Thompson is a seasoned Emmy™ Award winning documentary producer, writer, editor and director. She is best known for the documentaries she has edited, written and co-produced including The ‘Ilima Lady (2023), Baseball Behind Barbed Wire (2023), Finding Kukan (2016), and Pidgin: the Voice of Hawai‘i (2009). She co-produces and co-directs the Reel Wāhine of Hawai‘i film series in collaboration with Hawai‘i Women in Filmmaking. Many of the films she has worked on have received major funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She is a long-time member of the New Day Films collective. As a Latina and a daughter of immigrants, she is committed to filmmaking that builds bridges across cultures and communities.



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.

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