Beautiful Hawaiian songs harmonize with commentary on indigenous affairs in the 50th state in “One Voice.” A highly entertaining docu in the “Spellbound” mode, pic blends profiles of teenage choir directors bidding for glory in the 2008 Kamehameha Schools Song Contest with eye-opening historical detail and proud messages about the reclamation of Hawaiian culture and language in recent years. Fests and pubcasters should check it out.

Early segs maps out the history of the contest in between snapshots of 10 teens given the honor of conducting choirs on the big night. Students are all pure or part-native Hawaiians enrolled in a group of schools founded in 1887 and named after Kamehameha the Great, who established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810. First held in 1921, when the Hawaiian language was not officially encouraged, the contest commands massive local media attention and has been broadcast live on TV since 1968.

Helmer Lisette Marie Flanary (2007’s “Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula”) is gifted with subjects to whom auds will instantly warm. From varied socioeconomic backgrounds, and covering the spectrum of playground types from geeky guy to popular girl, they all have engaging stories to tell.

Junior Girls choir leader Sienna Achong excitedly says the performance “lives with you for the rest of your life.” Sophomore Girls director Ka’ai’ohelo McAfee-Torco is inspired by an emotional visit to her ancestral homeland on Molokai. Her male counterpart, G. Maxwell Mukai, says “At first it’s so lame” before transforming into a passionately committed conductor. All believe that learning to speak and sing in Hawaiian instills pride and a strong sense of identity.

The manner in which these teens accept no-holds-barred criticism from staff members and visiting musicians is both surprising and delightful. Typical is the response of Mukai after flubbing the first note of his song 10 times in a row; far from being humiliated, the spirited lad simply picks himself up and starts all over again — with a big smile to boot.

There’s no doubt that Flanary’s sympathies lie with the interviewees who maintain Hawaii was “invaded” by the U.S. in the late 19th century and believe indigenous Hawaiians are still paying the price for past inequalities. With that in mind, the docu might have benefited from addressing the Kamehameha Schools’ racially guided admissions policy, which has been the subject of two federal lawsuits in the past decade.

But the positive power of music is the headline act, and the film comes home strong with stirring highlights of the night everyone’s been waiting for. Trophies are awarded, but the beaming faces of all participants say loud and clear that there are no losers here.

Brian Wilcox’s smooth HD lensing and crystal-clear sound recording top a thoroughly pro tech package.

One Voice

  • Production: A Pacific Islanders in Communications and Juniroa Prods. production. (International sales: Pacific Islanders in Communications, Honolulu.) Produced by Heather Haunani Giugni, Ruth Bolan. Directed by Lisette Marie Flanary.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Brian Wilcox; editor, Zelda Greenstein; music supervisor, Jennifer Tracey; sound, John McFadden; second unit camera, Na'alehu Anthony. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival (Gala Presentation), Oct. 20, 2010. (Also in Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.) Running time: 84 MIN.
  • With: With: G. Maxwell Mukai, Sienna Achong, C. Ka'ai'ohelo McAfee-Torco, Joshua "Baba" Tavares, Kahala Rowe, Truman Ray Chun, Brolin-Duke Kawewehi, Nadia Le'I, Zachary Lum, Isaiah Pamatigan, Les Ceballos. (English, Hawaiian dialogue)