HONOLULU (KHON2) — Naz is a young, cynical but charismatic guy who has spent his entire life on Oahu, skateboarding with friends and hosting a nightly radio show. When his girlfriend gets a chance to go to bustling New York, Naz prepares for their big move and wonders what life outside the island might look like. Will anywhere else really feel like home?

Every Day in Kaimukī premiered online at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23 as the first Native Hawaiian feature-length film. It’s an incredible honor for the Hapa Hawaiian/Asian filmmaker who calls it surreal.

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“The response has been pretty incredible so far,” said Alika Tengan. “One of the most heartening things has been to receive messages from locals who have had to leave Hawaii for various reasons and identified exactly with what the character was going through in the film.”

The 34-year-old director adds that they’ve also received messages from people feeling homesick while watching it.

“[It’s] really touching,” Tengan said, “as I hope that we provide a slice of Hawaii that while is different to an extent, I hope for those who have left that they find some vicarious comfort in it as well.”

Every Day in Kaimukī centers around Naz Kawakami, a University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa graduate, who shares his thoughts and emotions about leaving behind everything he’s ever known. Tengan said some parts are fictionalized to better express what it’s like to leave Hawaii for the first time.

He and Kawakami have been friends for a few years now, often talking about films, dissecting them, and even floating the idea of doing something together at some point. Well, that pivotal moment came just before Thanksgiving 2020 after Tengan found out his friend was moving.

“He was actually about to enter finals week at UH, so it was pretty remarkable because he was able to give himself fully to the project while having so many other things going on in the background,” Tengan explained.

Since Kawakami was thinking about moving in late February or early March, they didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and procrastinate like most students do.

“I went over to his house every night basically, and we would kind of outline and go over things and take turns sort of ideating,” said Tengan. “I would just get really inspired by the way that Naz was writing and the velocity of which it was happening.”

“It just felt like something special was happening, and we wanted to see where that would take us.”

Alika Tengan

Tengan, who graduated from UH Mānoa in 2013 from the Academy for Creative Media, feels fortunate to be doing exactly what he hoped to be doing with his degree. Though he’s submitted several short films to the Festival in past years, he was never able to broach that barrier.

“So I really didn’t know what to expect when we submitted because this was my first feature film and I know that it’s pretty competitive to get in, so it was really surreal when it actually did,” Tengan said.

While Every Day in Kaimukī is the first Native Hawaiian feature-length film to premiere at Sundance, Tengan wants to acknowledge the Native Hawaiian trailblazers that came before him.

“I believe that Chris Kahunahana and Beau Bassett were some of the first Native Hawaiians to get into a Sundance program, and then Ty Sanga was the first Native Hawaiian to have a short play at the festival in 2011,” said Tengan.

He adds that Ciara Lacy was the first kānaka female filmmaker to play at the Festival with her short film This Is the Way We Rise, which played last year and featured kānaka artist Jamaica Osorio.

“That film was actually shot by our DP Chapin Hall who shot Every Day as well,” said Tengan.

From this experience, Tengan says he learned momentum is everything — and he should ride it while it lasts.

“It just felt like if we didn’t let our foot off the gas it would hopefully lead us somewhere special,” he said.

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Tengan’s next project is adapting his short film Moloka’i Bound into a feature film through the backing of Google and Array. He is the first filmmaker to receive this grant.