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‘Aloha From Lavaland’ Explores Life In Hawaii's 'Unpredictable Paradise'

Courtesy of "Aloha from Lavaland"

The Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has been actively erupting since May. Last week the U.S. Geological Survey reported Kilauea produced a steam plume that rose about 1,000 feet above the ground surface. The energy released by the event was equal to a magnitude 5.3 earthquake.

The steady lava flows are transforming the land, and the volcano’s power is also remaking the communities near Kilauea.

The documentary “Aloha from Lavaland” told that story, about the special relationship between the families in the small towns of Pahoa and Kilauea, during a much milder eruption in 2014.    

WSHU’s Tom Kuser recently spoke with filmmaker Zoe Eisenberg about the film.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Now I understand that you’re originally from Trumbull in Connecticut. How did you develop a connection to Hawaii?

I’ve always had a bit of a connection to Hawaii. My grandparents moved out there when they retired. And then one by one all the members of my family went out to visit them and never returned. So over the last 20 years, I’ve had cousins who were born out there and we just sort of transplanted ourselves.

What’s it like to live near Kilauea? Have you witnessed the eruptions?

Definitely. I’ve witnessed the eruptions first hand, as well as the way it impacts pretty much everything around it.  

And the place that I live, the town of Pahoa, is particularly unique on the big island because we are in Lava Zone 1. So we are in the danger zone when the volcano erupts.

Why did you decide to make this film, “Aloha from Lavaland?”

The 2014 flow was a lot different than what’s happening today. We only lost one structure for instance, and now we’ve lost, I think over 700 private homes, which is really sad. But when that flow was happening there was a lot of news coverage. We had PBS, we had National Geographic, everyone was out there. But because they wanted to make news, there was a lot of sensationalized, kind of fear-based headlines, coming out. And that just wasn’t what we were seeing within our community. Of course people were scared, but they were really bonding together to kind of stand in the face of this and help each other out and figure out how they could continue to live in a place they loved so much.

You know the 2014 flow, what it was threatening, was isolation. Because it was threatening to cut off the only real access road that that part of the area had to get out. So we wanted to make the film to kind of tell a story that was inside out, the community’s reaction and their relationship to the volcano. Because everyone asks, ‘Well if you knew this could happen,’ and they still ask this today, ‘If you knew this could happen, why do you live there?’ And we wanted to show why.  

So in the film, you show how over the course of seven months, the lava slowly flowing toward that main road connecting Pahoa to the rest of the island. As the lava moves closer to that road, you intersperse scenes of the creeping lava with what appears to be either rising tension or either rising excitement with the people who live there. One resident that you talked with in the film, Harry Uhane Jim, he’s a Hawaiian cultural teacher, talked about a cultural difference between how locals and newcomers respond to an eruption.  Here's what he said:

"You know, I’m just gonna kind of make it how simple it is for me. There’s never been a death at any of these lavas. What’s that? That’s the consciousness of the community finding the purpose of the flow greater than their appointments for the day. That’s unacceptable to the newcomer who says my mortgage depends on getting there. Us Hawaiians are like, Yeah, no more insurance.”

Why the difference in the reactions to the same event?

Well, I think it just comes down to perspective. The Hawaiian people view the volcano as very much a part of their land, a part of their culture. It’s why they’re there. The volcano created that land. That’s how they get to live there. And they just see it as completely different than how, what we like to call the mainland perspective or the transplant perspective – and I’m included in that population – where we grew up in a society where we have land ownership. We can say this is my tenth of an acre, and I own this land. But the Hawaiian people they really, truly don’t believe that. So when the volcano comes and it threatens to take their land, they’re like, “Ah, well we’ll just move.”

You had to leave your home because of this latest eruption. Is your house safe? 

Right now my subdivision that I live in is structurally safe, but I did have to leave because of the air pollution. And also, to be frank, we had a 6.9 earthquake hit that area, which was really alarming, so I actually left when that happened.    

So you mean air pollution, the fumes from the fissures and the lava?

Yes. We have stuff called Pele’s hair they call it, it’s like small fibrous glass that falls from the sky. Also Punia is unique in that we don’t have county water, so we rely on catchment water. So we’re drinking filtered rainwater from our roofs. But right now the air pollution is so bad that we have volcanic ash, we have this Pele’s hair, clogging up our water supply, we really can’t filter it out.  

Why do you choose to live near an active volcano?

That’s a good question. Well, I have family there and that’s really what makes a home in my opinion. But, I’ve lived a lot of different places across the United States and Lower Puna is the first place where I really felt connected not only to my community but to the actual land. It’s a connection that is sort of hard to describe, yet I’ve heard so many people talk about it, about this kind of raw energy that you feel when you arrive there. And I really do think it’s because of the volcano. So it’s a little bit ironic that we live there because of the volcano, but it’s hard to live there because of the volcano. 

And I guess I don’t need to ask if you’re going back.

I’m definitely going back. Yeah. I have a ticket, July 15th I’m headed home. I don’t know where I’ll be living right away. But I’ll be kind of landing with family and figuring it out. 

You can learn more about “Aloha from Lavaland” on Facebook or you can watch it on the film’s website or Amazon.

Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.