Kānaka Maoli have been reaching milestones, putting Hawaiian culture on the map, and making an impact in today’s modern world. On December 1, 2022 the UH Maui library was honored to hold an exclusive screening of a short film created by two Kānaka sisters who have proudly represented Hawaiian culture near and far. The film, titled A Tale Of Two Sisters, depicts a visual, modern dance interpretation of a well known moʻolelo, the saga of Pele and Hiʻiaka, or Hiʻiakaikapoliopele. Brigitte Leilani and Angelique Kalani Axelrode combined forces, talent, and inspiration, as well as their real life sisterly essence to create a mana-fueled, creative visual that truly captured the spirits of Hiʻiakaikapoliopele.
The film, which was shot on Maui, opens to a car ride as the sisters sit alongside each other. There is a tenseness felt between them, which correlates to the tension described between Hi’iaka and Pele in the moʻolelo. The scene shifts into what seems like a sort of battle ground, and although Pele has carried Hiʻiaka within her bosom, the tension quickly develops into a fiery mingling between the female siblings. We hear and see a modern yet native combination of music and choreography that evokes a dynamic of love and rage between the two sisters. Indigenous drum beats accompany a tough yet whimsical engagement of dance communication, and the audience feels the confronting nature of the scene.
I sat down to speak with the sisters to learn about their lives and inspiration in creating the film. Brigitte Leilani Axelrode is a graduate student at UH Manoa. She earned a BFA in dance, and dances professionally. She is continuing her education towards a second master’s degree, and is currently studying women, gender and sexuality. As well as producer and choreographer, her role in the film was to depict Pele. In life, she too is the elder sister. She is the more maternal figure of the two, and the sisters recounted the many similarities in their relationship that are reflective of the dynamic between Hiʻiaka and Pele.
Angelique Kalani Axelrode is the writer, director and editor of A Tale Of Two Sisters. She’s a filmmaker, currently based in Los Angeles. She described how encountering the moʻolelo Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, inspired her.
“When I encountered Nogel-meier’s version of the moʻolelo, it was very impactful in many ways. Just seeing the representation in this story, uncovering and learning so much about our culture and dynamic as sisters. It was very clear that we wanted to make something, we have all this energy for it! We really wanted to focus on the dynamic of the sisters,” she told me.
The sisters described what was in store for the audience. An experimental and abstract dance piece that combines contemporary dance with hints of moves from hula storytelling. Brigitte and Angelique really wanted to bring a contemporary element to this ancient tale, Brigitte explained her thought process and how she initially experienced the moʻolelo while taking a course with UH Mauiʻs own ʻIolani Brosio. The sisters gave much praise and gratitude towards ʻIolani, and thanked her for all her help and assistance with this endeavor.
Brigitte continued, “The story was so rich, with so much I could connect to, I feel that so many people connect to it. When we engage with moʻolelo as kānaka, as people from Hawaii, it keeps our culture alive. Putting a contemporary modern spin on things, helps for people to stay connected. What I also loved about the story was that the female Gods were just as powerful as the males, our ancestors acknowledged the power of akua wahine which differs from the westerns perspective that place males at the forefront of these things. Portraying Pele was an intense undertaking and now to see Mauna Loa erupting, it feels really intense- the mana is here. These are our gods, listen to them, our culture is alive.”
A Tale Of Two Sisters has premiered at Hawaiʻi International Film Festival and plans on making its way around the U.S and more. In our library, students filled the seats and watched intently, while refreshments were provided by the Na Leo Literary Review, of which ʻIolani Brosio is the faculty advisor of. Following the film, was a brief question and answer session in which students were intrigued and engaged in asking the sisters questions about inspiration, and the process of making the film. We hope to see the pair soar as they share this cultural piece of our heritage with the rest of the world. I personally would love to see more moʻolelo come to life in this way. Keep up with the Axelrode sisters by following them on instagram at @angiaxe and @gigilaxel.