Grant Spotlight: Hawai'i Women in Filmmaking 

By Aunye Boone
Woman with long dark hair and white earrings (top left), woman with brown and blonde hair smiling to her right (top right), woman with long brown hair smiling front and center (middle left), woman with short brown hair smiling front and center (middle right), woman with long dark and wavy hair smiling front and center (bottom left), and woman with dark and blong curled hair turned to her right side and smiling (bottom right)

Cast of Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi (Season 4): Sancia Miala Shiba Nash (top left), Shaneika Aguilar (top right), Ann Marie Kirk (middle left), Stephanie Castillo (middle right), Leanne Ka‘iulani Ferrer (bottom left), and Jana Park Moore (bottom right). Photo courtesy of Cast

In 2011, Vera Zambonelli, founder and executive director of Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking, recognized the need to create a space in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where women could gather to produce films and learn the ropes of directing, editing, and creating various forms of media. Zambonelli explained, “I decided to create a place-based response to the underrepresentation of women in the film industry and sought to provide opportunities for women and girls to learn and create in the field of filmmaking.” Committed to helping women filmmakers sharpen their craft, the organization provides training, mentorship, and a vast network of resources to elevate storytelling. 

In May 2022, the organization recieved an Arts Endowment grant to support the production of a new season of Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi, a short film series that features the personal stories of Hawaiʻi women filmmakers who helped build the local independent film industry as well as current working women filmmakers at the top of their field. As Zambonelli described, “When you only have a small sliver of the population telling our collective stories, many stories are left untold.” This series aims to document and showcase the rich histories and journeys of Hawaiʻi women, past and present, and their contributions to the state's arts and culture.

From Oʻahu, Zambonelli spoke with us about the obstacles and opportunities for women filmmakers, the creative process for Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi, and the power of film in lifting up and celebrating women's narratives.

NEA: What are some of the challenges and opportunities in the industry for women filmmakers?

VERA ZAMBONELLI: Some of the challenges for women filmmakers include gender bias and discrimination in the industry, limited access to funding and resources, and lack of representation in key decision-making roles. However, there are also opportunities for women filmmakers to tell their unique stories and perspectives, and to contribute to greater diversity and inclusivity in the film industry. Here in Hawaiʻi, we have a strong history of women behind the camera, including Native Hawaiians and women of color. We need to research, record, and disseminate this knowledge to counter the ways that academic and cultural histories regularly neglect women’s authorship and work in film and in the arts in general.

NEA: Part of Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking’s mission is to “raise awareness and visibility of women's and girls' work in film.” Why do you think film is an effective vehicle for promoting gender equity and women's empowerment?

ZAMBONELLI: Film is an effective vehicle for promoting gender equity and women's empowerment because it has the power to reach a wide audience and can provide representation of diverse perspectives and experiences. Through film, stories can be told that challenge gender stereotypes and highlight the achievements and struggles of women, inspiring and empowering viewers. Additionally, film can create a space for dialogue and discussion, leading to greater awareness and understanding of gender issues.

Left: Woman with short red hair and a blue button down shirt holding a camera and wearing headphones. Right: Woman with earl length brown hair wearing a grey goodie with headphones around her neck.

Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi series producers, Shirley Thompson (left) and Vera Zambonelli (right). Photo courtesy of Stanford Chang

NEA: What are some of the ways in which this organization engages with the community?

ZAMBONELLI: Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking engages with the community through various initiatives, such as film screenings (ITVS Indie-Lens Pop-Up), youth filmmaking workshops (Reel Camps and Making Media That Matters), mentorship programs (Wāhine in Film Lab), work-in-progress screenings (DocuClub Hawaiʻi), community events, and more. We also collaborate with other local organizations and individuals to promote social justice conversations and diversity and inclusion in the film industry.

NEA: With funding from the NEA, the organization will be producing Season 4 of Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi. What impact do you think this will have?

ZAMBONELLI: In a film industry overwhelmingly dominated by male content makers and gatekeepers, Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi creates opportunities for women filmmakers to direct, produce, write, edit, and work as production crew on films about women. Each director mentors an aspiring young woman filmmaker through the process of making a film, creating an intergenerational conversation, and growing our community of film creatives. Roughly 84 percent of the budget goes to pay Hawaiʻi women filmmakers and their crew to make our films. Our film series ensures that the stories of women filmmakers in Hawaiʻi will be told, by women, in films that employ women. This will likely have a positive impact on audiences in Hawaiʻi and around the nation by increasing the visibility of women filmmakers from Hawaiʻi and promoting diverse perspectives in the film industry. Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi records women's unique roles in shifting or changing the film culture of Hawaiʻi.

NEA: How do you select the filmmakers you work with?

ZAMBONELLI: Shirley Thompson, series co-producer, and I meet to decide on casting of the subjects to participate in the series, the directors and producers to produce the short films, and the interns. We cast subjects by purposely selecting women in different filmmaking roles, ages, emerging versus established, and based on islands other than Oʻahu. Each film is a collaboration between a working Hawaiʻi woman filmmaker and the aspiring young woman filmmaker whom she mentors through the creative process. The series fosters an intergenerational conversation between established and emerging filmmakers; increasing opportunities for women to direct and create, and expanding the number of films featuring stories by and about women. These filmmakers have created essential works that document Hawaiʻi ’s unique culture and history while inspiring a new generation of current and future filmmakers and leaders.

Three women sitting in chairs filming an elderly Hawaiian woman.

Interview of late filmmaker Stephanie Castillo for Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi, directed by Marlene Booth, Alison Week (camera), and Ashley Del Vecchio (sound). Photo courtesy of Vera Zambonelli

NEA: What advice would you give to a young filmmaker trying to find her way in the industry?

ZAMBONELLI: Keep creating and honing your skills. Practice, practice, practice. Network and build relationships with other filmmakers and industry professionals. Be open to constructive criticism and feedback to improve your work. Stay up to date on industry trends and technology advancements. Take risks and try new things. Get involved with Hawaiʻi Women in Filmmaking!

NEA: Finish this sentence. Women’s representation matters because…

ZAMBONELLI: It ensures that diverse perspectives and experiences are included in decision-making processes, leading to more equitable and inclusive outcomes.


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