Registering the Registry 2020: Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege (2005)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, it’s one of the 2020 class’ most unjustly underseen works, a video documentary from the Hawaiian islands produced to increase knowledge and raise awareness around the issue of telescopes upon the Big Island’s highest mountain. It’s Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege from 2005, and we’ve got a LOT to talk about here, so no dawdling! Let’s go!
Today’s piece — a video documentary covering protests on the titular mountain, produced from 1999 to its release in 2005 — comes courtesy the husband/wife videography team of Puhipau and Joan Lander of the Hawaiian Islands. The pair first met during Lander’s time working as an editor on Victoria Keith’s Videololo coverage of The Sand Island Story in 1980, during the State of Hawaii’s attempts to evict locals from the garbage-strewn isle as squatters blocking planned developments. Puhipau (whose name means “Blown Away”) was amongst the residents whose struggles and arrest were filmed for Keith’s documentary raising awareness around their plight, and a combination of exposure to the Keith film crew and reading about his people’s violent overthrow from control of their own lands through the unjust American military-backed ousting of Liliʻuokalani inspired him towards the possibilities in video documentation. Through this medium, one could capture the ongoing indignities inflicted upon Hawaii’s native population in hopes of educating those at home and in the wider world, as well as spread knowledge about the islands’ long-fractured culture, then as now in the process of gradual rebuilding by residents concerned with connection to their past. So it was Lander and Puhipau formed Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina (or “Eyes of the Land”), a video production house with Lander behind the camera and Puhipau as sound man, interviewer, and narrator, dedicated heart and soul to preserving as much of Hawaii’s ecology, culture, history, modern concerns (including one video on the effects of nuclear warfare) and struggles past and present as possible on tape. Thirty-five years, one marriage, and nearly one-hundred tapes to their name later, their endeavors produced a rich body of information and activist resources on Hawaii’s numerous prides and pitfalls near unheard of in the stereotypical view of the island chain as a tourist’s paradise.
They’ve uploaded a good deal of their videography to Youtube under the Hawaiian Voices channel, and you can find resources for learning about and purchasing their tapes through their website of the same name. If one clicks through the link (or at least does so while the version of their homepage I see now is still live), one will note an article about their induction into the National Film Registry front and center, which seems a little sad given Lander notes in an interview for the Star Advertiser that she was not contacted about their picture’s induction until she saw a press release about the 2020 class. Kindly note the Library of Congress’ own press release — the first piece noting any information about the 2020 class — contains numerous statements and interview snippets from the famous and eye-catching names amongst the class’ numbers clearly arranged in advance, yet nothing about Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina and a comparatively brief write-up about Mauna Kea. Ever since Puhipau’s death in 2016, Lander has partially dedicated her time to raising a fund for preserving the thousands of hours of tapes they shot on a format ill-suited to storage in a tropical environment, a task you’d maybe think worth advertising alongside celebrations of comfortably preserved, popular mainstream works from celebrity directors and actors. While I’ve no doubt the Library of Congress has made some effort to protect the documentary in question, there’s a far larger collection of unspeakable value at risk of deterioration that received practically no wider recognition, benefit, or even preemptive contact from induction into the Registry. The work accomplished through inclusions like this is good, but unless these smaller, lesser-known productions receive equal treatment to the famous headline grabbers, we may well not have a National Film Registry at all.
Doubly so when considering the subject of today’s film. Mauna Kea (shortened from Mauna a Wākea) is the dormant volcano that comprises a large portion of the Big Island of Hawaii’s landmass, and though it does not account for half so much surface area as the neighboring Mauna Loa, it does rise higher by a hundred feet or so. If measured from its base at the sea floor, Mauna Kea stands taller than even Mount Everest, its peak towering well above the cloud layer. Coupled with the island’s geographic isolation and lingering glaciation effects from the last ice age, Mauna Kea’s slopes and peak play host to a unique and delicate ecosystem, one the residents respected and studied for centuries prior to Captain Cook’s landing. Myths and folk tales about the mountain have their roots in many generations’ observation and scientific study of its properties, which in turn led to sustainable quarrying of the volcanic rock for incredibly sturdy tools and laws restricting access to the highest summit to all save certain nobility, meant as much to preserve the environs as keep the mountain holy. Signs of ceremony linger in the forested and arid zones alike, pillars and shrines and grave markings untouched as pieces in the puzzle of an unwritten history from a people who were nearly subject to total genocide and are still a ghettoized minority in their own home. To argue the entire mountain is a temple deserving reverence and respect is not at all exaggeration to those who live in its shadow. It is, to paraphrase a speaker in the documentary, a reminder of something greater than human concerns, an undeniable symbol of the need for responsibility across collective culture down generations.
Mauna Kea’s status as prime real estate for astronomical observation thus proves a problem. Ever since the site’s dedication as a scientific reserve in 1967, the mountain’s remote location situated in an arid climate high above the cloud layer has made it attractive to astronomers looking to build new telescopes — some argue Mauna Kea is the single most ideal point on the planet for cutting-edge telescopic construction projects. Though backed by the University of Hawaii and the State of Hawaii, construction has rarely gone over well with residents. Agreed upon limits for the number of stations at the peak have been continuously violated, first by simply ignoring the agreements and constructing more, lately by creatively classifying different sorts of scientific structures conducive to telescopic stargazing as not technically in violation of the the hard thirteen limit. Clearing the site for construction in the first place required the removal of forty feet from the peak and flattening what was left, alongside significant road networks and electrical apparatuses and plumbing stations and all manner of development tangentially related to scientific discovery. Concerns about the ecological impact of the telescopes’ operation have only been addressed to locals’ satisfaction recently, and though some studies claim nil negative impact, not every study agrees and proposed future developments render their findings inert anyhow. At present, the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (or TMT) is the hot button issue, an enormous eighteen-story building housing a segmented mirror lens capable of greater resolution than any other telescope in service, land- or space-based, meant as replacement for three outdated stations and the latest promised final telescope in a long line of broken promised final telescopes. Protests and attempts to block construction continue to this day, even after the Hawaiian Supreme Court gave builders the go-ahead.
Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege was produced from 1999 to 2005, a six-year period well before the TMT’s proposal, and instead concerns itself with the matter in a generalized sense. Fact, for a good half its runtime, the film scarcely mentions any of the telescopes upon the mountain, their presentation a purely visual, oddly silent blight on the lessons and celebration about the place; Lander and Puhipau’s subjects instead speak at length about the islanders’ history with the mountain, how the mountain was formed through volcanic activity and tectonic forces and glaciation. Footage in this first half places us primarily in the natural surroundings upon Mauna Kea, marveling at the mountain from a distance before traversing its various biomes to explore their importance. The above-mentioned legends play a big part in the early going as we interweave stories about how the gods shaped the mountain with modern understanding of its formation and composition, or compare the purpose of long-lost rituals against recent ecological preservation programs. Numerous activists and scientists interviewed agree on the mountain’s importance as a unique biome in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, which in turn feeds into its holiness for the residents, which in turn historically protected the ecosystem and rock formations, which in turn gain further sanctity as something rare and precious. Sacred and secular understandings mingle as we discuss the import of the cinder cones, the singular plant and animal life on the higher slopes, the aquafers created by lingering glacial effects, the remnants of human habitation and ceremony. In intertwining the two views on why Mauna Kea’s protection is so vital, Lander and Puhipau make clear there is no distinction between these arguments for those who fight hardest in the mountain’s name. Study and comprehension of the mountain’s totality dates back further than any western power occupying Hawaii, even if the peoples who attained this comprehension did not “advance” to so high a technological point as their colonizers.
Such technological heights, alas, require abuse of the land and natural resources to make itself possible, and while it is hypothetically feasible for one to industrialize and enjoy the benefits of industry in an environmentally conscious slow-roll, such is not and never has been the way of global powers. As pointed out many times over, Mauna Kea has suffered the impact of get it done now now now progress long before the first telescopes were erected: wholesale clearing of native plants to make way for cattle ranchers, the introduction of invasive species, the constant presence of military personnel and vehicles across the mountain. With the introduction of the telescopes, we can add reckless desecration of burial grounds, perpetual new construction to the point of nullifying the “environmentally sound” aspect of simple scientific observation, and active denial of the people’s will in the name of doing more. Nations around the world have established an astronomical presence upon Mauna Kea, and as we see through a number of public meetings recorded for the documentary, protest from those who want anything from a total halt to simple slowed consideration of the impact before moving forward are not shot down, but simply ignored as the boards vote wholesale on exactly what they planned in the first place. Claims of good stewardship ring hollow when those who primarily look on the mountain as a convenient location for their work do not listen to those who call it their home, do not listen to fellow experts simply because they camp with the wrong group, do not keep their promises.
In the interest of fairness, one must note the documentary has no illusions towards being unbiased. It’s right there in the title, innit? Temple Under Siege. The scientific perspective is wholly constructed as one whose best intentions and benefits to the world do not matter, because it is an intruder upon the community, unwanted and persistent despite decades of pushback. While one is sympathetic towards the people for their voices’ inability to make a difference during the meetings, one also observes they are constantly overcome with emotion during their speeches, speaking in strong condemnation and appeals to human spirit without much countering any hard data likely presented by other participants. This does occasionally lead to bad form filmmaking in the back half, when we switch from pure focus on the mountain’s history and environs to presenting snippets of town hall meetings and arguments on why the telescopes’ presence is harmful. The same loving and passionate perspective which makes the documentary so worthwhile also leads to poor tactics like snipping statements from activists that sound snappy while including similarly brief statements from scientists and political representatives that sound harmful without diving into anything substantial from either camp. It is natural for the documentary to manipulate and shave edges off the truth for the sake of a narrative or cause (as we’ve recently discussed), but something sits somewhat ill within my stomach in listening to some of these typically reductive tactics at play. Not because I think the major scientific and political bodies with ample resources and opportunities to spread their side of the issue all across the mainstream infospheres are done any substantial harm by these potentially misrepresentative tactics; rather, because it runs the risk of devaluing the natives’ arguments.
As the documentary goes on, more and more footage creeps in of native Hawaiians speaking before town and county and state leaders, scientific experts, providing all manner of testimony as to why there should not be a single telescope on Mauna Kea, much less endless plans for future development. To the last, they are impassioned, given to emotional appeals, several prone to open expressions of anger or tearful displays. To the wrong ear, “Good science; wrong mountain” can sound like little more than, “Not in my backyard,” and if we assume this is how the natives’ message has been taken over these decades, it’s easily understood why those they speak against have not listened. When there’s such immense gain to be had for our understanding of the universe, what’s a little localized ecological damage? Why should we listen to those who cannot provide cold, calculated reasons we ought to do our work elsewhere? Bearing in mind these perspectives from those who are looking for cold, hard, data-driven reasons they should not proceed as usual, an audience unsympathetic to the cause could easily see these emotional outbursts coupled with the less-than-ideal counter-arguments presented in the documentary, and come away thinking this whole thing overblown.
Frankly, I do not find this a flaw in the natives’ strategy. Rather, I see it as a flaw in the hearts of those with the power to make change happen. Remember, the understanding at play here vis a vis the importance of the mountain’s preservation and sanctity is a tight bind between scientific observation and deeply-felt ties to the land, based in evidence and heritage one. Moreover, the struggle over Mauna Kea’s usage is not an isolated issue — this whole thing is entangled with the legacy of the rapid decline in native Hawaiian population resultant from western contact and occupation, the at-gunpoint overthrow of their self-governance, the century-long use of the islands as strategic military grounds, tourist’s paradise, and commercial output without any consideration for the needs of those who were there first. To act as if scientific institutions have an inherent right to use the mountain as they see fit simply because they cooperated with those who inherited the land from those who seized it by force is to ignore the blood and tears and constant abuse soaked into the islands. This is thereby no mere issue of, “I don’t like the new thing, so I’m going to oppose it to keep myself comfortable”; it is the latest piece of colonialist action guised by an air of legitimate business. Do I believe those who wish to simply work under ideal conditions and increase the total body of scientific knowledge about the stars act in bad faith? No. Neither, however, do I believe they can act in wholly good faith if they do not acknowledge the systematic issues they perpetuate through their presence.
By the same token, I consider Puhipau and Lander’s presentational tactics in the back half damning only to a mind looking for reason to discredit the Mauna Kea movement as overblown, or one swayed by the reasoning of those who think such. Looking on this as a struggle between even-footed powers, of course giving the astronomical community brief clips through which to speak for themselves and not seriously investigating the data is a bad move for a persuasive documentary. Except this is not a battle on even footing — this is a matter of beneficiaries to colonialist conquest treating the victims of such like they are the mildly annoying indignants at a town assembly who don’t understand “government ownership” and “private property.” As noted time and again by numerous speakers, they very much do understand the concepts, except they also understand what the legally-recognized owners DID to gain their ownership, and consider the whole affair a presumptive extension of that historical, ongoing violence. These outlooks from an already marginalized people marginalizes them further, and the answer should not be reserved, calm speaking in the hopes of winning over those who’ll never give ground in the first place. The answer has to be, can only be giving the impassioned and hurting a voice, imparting their perspective on those who so casually deny them basic respect, cutting through the excuses about meaning no harm and just doing one’s job to show no, this issue is important, this mountain and island and their residents deserve to decide their own destiny. If this means the telescope operators on Mauna Kea come off looking worse due to some sloppy documentary making, bully on them; we can hash it out in the literature later.
I do not look to excuse the convenient omissions present in the back half of Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege. They are poor choices, and the documentary would be 100% better off if the “they say one thing, but they are liars so we say it is not so” editorial rhetoric were ditched in favor of further emphasizing the community’s plight and arguments. What I do mean to say is they are understandable choices under the context of a marginalized people looking to speak loud enough to be heard, and they do not dilute from the film’s best aspects. Its footage of the mountain remains beautiful, its interviews with experts and activists and residents who love and revere it with all their hearts are compelling, its strikes against the very notion anyone has a right to decide Hawaii’s destiny except those with legitimate ties to the land hard-hitting. Moreover, it represents a direct challenge to the ever-onward-and-upward cult of technological progress sickening modern civilization, a point I think worth ten times as much as any fairness towards those who would impose on an already long-harmed people.
There has to be a change in thinking. Getting the absolute most possible work done on the fastest possible timescale is not sustainable. It’s killing the whole damned planet faster than any insight gleamed from the telescopes can be put to practical use. Ignoring those who rage and cry and plead for someone to let them tend the land their ancestors lived upon rather than allowing outside forces to rend and rape and exploit it for their own purposes is a microcosm of the mindset that allows oil companies and crypto farms and fisheries and farming outlets to build more more more all the time always upwards never once breaking to think maybe we should sustain or decrease, find SOME way to not maximize short-term output at the expense of long-term survival. This is, unfortunately, an issue deeply engrained in the thought patterns of the powerful; those who can exercise their will over the world tend to believe they can do so because they did something to deserve their power, and those without should not be considered because they don’t have the power nor any path to it. Whether consciously expressed or unconsciously felt, this pattern permeates and perverts those at the top, and makes it very difficult to dissuade them from deforesting another rain forest, or scraping another reef to shit for better fishing prospects, or exporting a choking burning fuel, or listening to those who do not want another round of construction for yet another telescope on their mountain. That affecting a change is difficult is no reason to stop trying, though; if one understands the cause of tending to life and slowing our roll to ensure all can survive and thrive regardless background as so important, one should never give in.
Criterion’s presentation of Mauna Kea includes a second, shorter documentary from 2019, Like a Mighty Wave, which presents modern activist efforts to halt construction on the TMT. Gains in ground have not been substantial, but the struggle goes on, and we nowadays have names big as Jason Momoa using their clout to spread awareness around the issue. Whether this ends in an equitable reconsideration of future plans, shutdown of the current telescopes, or their total dismantling for relocation to another, less contentious site, any next step is better than the Hawaiian people’s will being denied for their lack of influence in the outsider-imposed power structures. As to Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina’s productions, it is good to know the struggles on Mauna Kea convinced the Library of Congress to induct one of their films as representative of an underseen yet resonant aspect of the conflict between progress and tradition, science and sanctity, and one in which the conservative element has an informed, passionate stance unpoisoned by the movement’s mainstream elements. I only wish there were acknowledgement of the connection between preserving Lander and Puhipau’s larger body of work and raising awareness for the mountain’s preservation — again, I encourage you use the link on their homepage and donate to their cause, as well as to any funds for defending Mauna Kea. If LoC won’t take the necessary steps to preserve aspects of our world linked to the National Film Registry, least I can do is encourage a little financial activism in my own corner while registering their catalogue.
One never looks to speak over marginalized voices, of course, only in solidarity with them; as such, I ask you the wider readership your thoughts on both the Mauna Kea issue and today’s documentary. Hash it out in the comments (with special reminder to stay civil this time round), and look forward to our next installment! Me brain’s a lil’ frazzled and I’ve got Halloween coming up, so the next installment of Registering the Registry is gettin’ bunted to the start of November to make sure I don’t start resenting the task. I promise it’ll be worth the wait, though, cause when we come back we’re talking The Dark Knight — available now and most likely then through either HBO Max or the usual digital rental/purchase platforms. See y’all then!