Ni’ihau shell lei making is a traditional art of the Hawaiian people that is slowly fading away. Many of the practitioners are aging and newer generations are moving on to more modern lifestyles. New artists with contemporary styles are emerging but traditional designs are practiced less and less. This art form is at a pivotal point of change.
The privately owned island of Ni’ihau where the majority of these shells are collected has less than fifty full time inhabitants remaining. This film along with our Project aims to highlight the practitioners as well as the art itself to generate new and greater interest in the craft and it's history in order to keep the practice alive and vibrant.
Ni’ihau shell lei making has a rich history on the Hawaiian islands and can trace its origins to Polynesian shell and floral leis that go back thousands of years. In this film we will explore the origins and current state of the craft by interviewing current practitioners to better understand their culture, artistry and any hardships they face. We will weave a story surrounding multiple subjects across different islands and give them a platform to share their carefully curated knowledge and passion for the art. They will be free to speak on anything they wish and the path the story takes will not be known until we film. The people will determine the final direction of this film.
We will explore external challenges facing the lei makers such as global warming, pollution, agriculture, military presence and tourism which are impacting the social conditions and vibrancy of the islands and it's reefs. We will examine how such factors have effected the craft over time by coordinating interviews with Oceanographic institutes, cultural centers and museums on the islands.
We will determine where this unique type of ornamentation fits in with the larger jewelry industry. A single Ni’ihau shell necklace can cost over $10,000 yet the fine jewelry industry is largely unaware of their existence. We aim to promote this craft to generate recognition for the practitioners and allow them to receive genuine interest and appreciation for their hard work. We will coordinate with industry experts including our Executive Producer, a GIA Graduate Gemologist, to determine what challenges need to be addressed and how to overcome them.
The History & Our Cause
Hawaiian culture is rich with vibrant practices but many do not have the same following they once did. With the opening of trade, the pineapple & sugar cane industry and the military many of the islands have drastically changed in the last hundred years alone. They have been commercialized and the people exploited. We will examine the connection Ni’ihau shells have to Hawaiian royalty, society, the tourist trade and the changes which took place on the islands overtime. We will coordinate with cultural institutes such as Iolani Palace and gain a better understanding of how this art has evolved over the years and what its future looks like. We will examine the recent resurgence and interest of traditional practices and how this is shaping the future of the craft.
The filming of this documentary will primarily take place on the Hawaiian islands where the craft of Ni’ihau shell lei making is practiced. We plan to film for a for a short time on Maui and The Big Island starting with the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo at the end of April 2023. We plan to spend more time on O’ahu and Kaua’i as that is where the majority of the practicing stringers reside. We are hopeful to acquire permission to film on Ni’ihau, but as it is a private island that could present a challenge. At a minimum we will be able to charter a boat to film the island (without landing) while hosting interviews back on Kaua'i.
Additionally we plan to film at a variety of museums and cultural institutes located across the islands for historical context and expert interviews. Locations will be determined based upon permissions and arrangements made with these institutes.
Budget & Use of Funds
We are operating on a slim budget. The bulk of our funds will go directly towards film equipment, transportation, housing and crew. Everything has been self-funded so far and we keep meticulous track of our spending and plan to do that for the entire film. We want every penny to count. We are resourceful and determined and believe we can create something wonderful under a very tight budget!
Visual style is bright, colorful and relaxed. We aim to bring the beauty of the islands and vibrancy of the community to life. The film will include a 4K main camera, drone & underwater shots and a slow paced story telling feel. Crisp macro cinematography will be used to showcase the fine detail and craft of the jewelry items.
We are hoping to keep our budget tight enough to go directly into editing after we conclude filming. Our aim is to have a finished film in early 2024. We believe the film should be beautiful and an accurate representation of the people and the community and we will not cut corners. We will hold the project to secure additional footage or funding if necessarily and will only release a film everyone can be proud of.
PBS, Museums, Cultural Institutions
Our main goal is to have this film distributed as widely as possible and do not want to charge to view it. We are working with PBS Hawaii in order to make sure we meet all of their requirements to submit the completed film for broadcast.
We also plan to gift it to cultural institutes, museums, schools and individuals who will use it for educational purposes. We plan on creating DVD's and gifting the first run to these establishments with reorders only costing what we pay to create them. We will also offer DVD’s for sale on our website with proceeds going toward hosting fees and continued distribution of the film. The film will always be free and available on our website: niihaushellarchive.org.
We do not plan to sell this to any streaming services that require exclusive rights but will consider distribution through this channel as it allows for an even larger audience to view our work. This film will never exclusively be on a paid platform.
We plan to have the main film created with English audio but will have dubbing and subtitling done in Hawaiian, Japanese and possibly Spanish, budget permitting.
We hope to premier this film in Hawaii & California in spring/early summer 2024. Follow our social media for updates!
A Note On Cultural Sensitivity
In the spirit of complete transparency we want to clarify who we are, our mission and our goals in relation to cultural sensitivity and respect of the originators of art of Ni’ihau shell lei making in Hawaii.
We are fully aware cultural topics are a sensitive subject and can be an area of contention among people. It is not our goal to appropriate or dilute the traditions of Ni’ihau artisans or other Hawaiian peoples. What we strive to achieve is greater recognition and public awareness for this craft so that the community has a more stable platform to practice their arts. Our long term goal is to become an online community where people can converse, share their passions and support each other. We will be sourcing as much of our crew as possible on the islands and bring on board cultural advisors or other community members who have a genuine stake in this art.
Connect With Us
Questions? If you have any questions do not hesitate to ask! We try to be as open and detailed as possible but can sometimes overlook something important.
Want to join our team? Please reach out! We are a community project running on a small budget and appreciate all the help we can get. We are looking for people of all backgrounds and skills. As long as you have a willing and kind spirit we can put you to work!