The song bird of puna

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Treasured songstress of the Big Island Auntie Becky Pau put her trust in a young, untested but vibrant filmmaker, Keoni Kealoha Alvarez, to tell her life story for his first film, a documentary called "The Song Bird of Puna: Auntie Becky Pau."

Born on March 13, 1929 in Ka'u, Hawai'i and raised in Kalapana, this respected kupuna has endured tragedy in her life, one of them being the day her home was destroyed in 1986 by lava.

Yet, in the documentary, this lovely lady reminisces about her fond memories of being raised in Kalapana and sings about her love of the black sand with a voice so sweet that it wipes away any tears or bitterness.

"It's still in her mind," said Alvarez, who directed, wrote, did the camera work, edited, and produced the 47-minute, color documentary. "That's why she sings the songs to keep the memory alive."

"The Song Bird of Puna: Auntie Becky Pau" opens with many beautiful scenic shots of the Big Island and a gentle, upbeat sound of a guitar playing. Reeva K. Kalima provides voice-over narration introducing viewers to the unique topography of the island, from its lush green landscape to its snowcapped mountains.

As Auntie Pau shares her life story, the documentary entwines footages of her being interviewed by Kalima with vintage photographs, replicas of items from bygone days, hula dancers to illustrate her songs, interviews with friends and families, and news footages of the Kalapana devastation.

The effort that Alvarez put into the editing really shows through in the documentary. He takes great care to obtain as many different shots as possible, even to the point of finding a train to replicate the old train that use to go into Pahoa. Alvarez' day job is a video editor at JC Communications and the day-in, day-out grind of editing regularly really paid off in his approach to making this documentary.

It's a beginner's film and has its rough spots, but in the end "The Song Bird of Puna" is still very charming because of its love for the subject and its lovely subject, Auntie Pau.

For a film shot on mini DV camera, the picture quality is good. It took about four months to complete the documentary.

Alvarez is grateful for the support he received from the Big Island community in getting this film made. He says this is a film done with aloha. "It cost about $10,000 to produce the film, but since the whole documentary was (made) from aloha, the production cost, (in a sense), was zero in that you couldn't really put a price on it."

Sergio Goes, who selected the documentary for the Cinema Paradise Film Festival, said, "I'm happy to see that a young filmmaker was willing to make a film that's preserving the local heritage and telling a story (that's) important for the Big Island and (the rest of) Hawai'i."

Goes, an award-winning documentarian himself, adds, "His film has a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes it falls into the traditional documentary style that becomes boring to my taste. It's a matter of pacing and editing. Maybe his film could have been 15 minutes shorter (and) not affect the film."

Having an eye for fresh, new talent, Goes says, "Overall, it's really good. It's not easy to make a film. For his first film, it's very accomplished."

Alvarez says that when he did "The Song Bird of Puna" about 18 months ago, he was just learning. Though he's proud of his work, he acknowledges some flaws but says he has improved as an editor since then. He plans to move on to feature films.

In putting a documentary together from scratch, Alvarez made some hard decisions. "The difficult thing was how much to shoot, how much not to shoot. For Auntie Becky's interview questions, it was a matter of which (ones) to pick and which questions you have to ask to make sure that it's going to capture (the person). It's important not to leave out anything but there were some things that I left out to cut down (the length)."

He adds: "I wish I could have put in more Kalapana people ... more of the community because 400 homes got destroyed."

Asked if there were other dramatic moments in Auntie Pau's life that weren't in the film, Alvarez thinks for a moment before answering: "No, I think I pretty much got it in there. I feel (what we got) was personal enough for Auntie Becky, because it's hard enough (to have to relive what she had gone through). Some things are left just to keep it personal. She did mention in the video that one of her children had died, but we didn't want to get deeper than that."

Auntie Pau was thrilled with the documentary, but admitted that it was hard to watch the news footages of the lava approaching her home.

"It brought back memories," said Auntie Pau. "After living practically all my life there, it's my home ... for over 50 years I lived there and to see the lava come and take it all away. ... It was like my whole memory was tied up (to that) area ... from my youth on."

Though the shooting of the documentary took a little more time than she expected, Auntie Pau said she was amazed by the final product. "When I saw the film, it really struck me to see such a young boy making a film like this. He has so much talent."

Pau hopes the public will also recognize his talent. Alvarez' aspiration is to become a producer and a director. "I think he's got the makings to be one," she said.

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