LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Most people associate Hawaii with resorts and surfing, but the land is rich in history and culture. Isaac Halasima’s inspirational and nostalgic documentary Waterman traces the life of a legendary Hawaiian, five-time Olympic medalist Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. He embodied the principles of “aloha” – “a way of being,” “sharing your spirit.” Providing a rare and penetrating look at one of our most misperceived states and its Native world hero, the film serves as a timely reminder of the power of simple kindness.
Halasima sparingly uses archival footage, letting Jason Momoa’s potent narration, the beautiful Hawaiian imagery, and a multitude of famous talking heads tell his story. Early in life, Kahanamoku wanted to master the ultimate Hawaiian tradition: to become a waterman. True watermen depend on no one but themselves, represent “someone who could do anything in the water,” and master Hawaiian culture’s ancient skills, philosophies, and teachings. The dark-skinned Kahanamoku faced segregation and lived through two World Wars yet remained stoically optimistic, resolutely kind and giving despite the severity of the challenges.
“…traces the life of a legendary Native Hawaiian, five-time Olympic medalist Duke Paoa Kahanamoku.”
Early in life, Kahanamoku “shattered” the swimming world record. He quickly became a role model but was stuck as an amateur athlete due to racist/bureaucratic politics. That didn’t prevent him from winning gold and silver medals. Possessing a “body that worked well for swimming” and “paddles and fins” for feet and hands, Kahanamoku regarded water as his “home turf.” Halasima portrays the difficulties athletes of color faced, and still face, after retirement; in Kahanamoku’s case, his Native brothers and sisters came through for him, electing him Sheriff of Honolulu.
Waterman is steeped in a deep affection for its subject. Watermen are shown lovingly and carefully shaping a surfboard, a “sacred event” akin to “creating new life.” Reenactments can make or break a documentary, and here are used wisely, sparingly, breathing life into a tale from more than half a century ago. And then, of course, are the juicy tidbits: Kahanamoku’s love for the ladies; the Beach Boys arguably setting the foundation for the tourist trap that Hawaii has become; Olympic gold medalist Cecil Healy doing the most honorable thing imaginable during a potentially career-ending point for Duke; Kahanamoku’s foray into film; and the solidification of his status as a true hero after he saved lives on his surfboard during a terrible accident.
Kahanamoku’s secret? He relaxed before swimming or surfing, never apprehensive or anxious in the least. Halasima avoids too much scrutiny – and sometimes seems to lack archival footage to back up his compelling plot. Luckily, the story of Waterman is so riveting and the hero so charming that it’s hard not to grow nostalgic along with the filmmaker. Here’s a man who didn’t tolerate racism or prejudice, who valued “every life like family.” We could all learn something from Kahanamoku, and his culture, during these divisive times.
Waterman screened at the 2022 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
"…serves as a timely reminder of the power of simple kindness."