Kimi Howl Lee is a writer and director from New York City, and is a graduate of Stanford University’s Film and Media Studies program. Kimi began her career as a Story Editor curating short-form content for Snapchat Inc., before transitioning full time to filmmaking. Kimi’s feature script, MOUTH, won the grand prize for Best Narrative Feature in the 2015 BlueCat Screenwriting Competition, subsequently landing on the TrackingBoard’s 2015 “Hit-List” of best unproduced scripts. She also wrote and directed SUGAR, a short proof of concept, which had a successful festival run and was a finalist for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Kimi was most recently staffed on the Amazon Studios + Blossom Films drama series THE EXPATRIATES, based off the NYTimes best-selling novel. She is currently a story editor on Netflix’s LOCKE AND KEY, executive produced by Carlton Cuse and based off of the popular graphic novel. Kimi was a participant in Film Independent’s 2019 Episodic Lab, and Women In Film’s Multi-hyphenate mentorship program. She is currently repped by UTA and Kaplan Perrone.
In Hawaiʻian, Kamaʻāina means “Child of the Land” and refers to any resident born on the islands––regardless of their racial background. As a teenager, during one of my summers gallivanting around Oahu, I developed a relationship with a local boy whom I soon realized was living out of his car. Having been romantically involved with someone my age––who was ostensibly homeless––remains one of the most profound, thought-provoking experiences of my life. It made me re-examine my privileged, my culpability, and my potential to enact change. Ever since that summer, I’ve been fixated on exploring the hidden poverty in paradise. As a storyteller, I am most intrigued by the intricacies of human nature, examining the fallibility and fortitude that is indelible to mankind. My work utilizes trauma narratives––explicitly those related to sexuality––in an attempt to examine the liminal period between innocence and understanding.
Although Kamaʻāina is set in paradise, the short will grant viewers a privileged glimpse into a largely neglected corner of the island––Wai’anae––the predominantly native, opioid riddled neighborhood known as the “west side”. Wai’anae runs along Farrington Highway, and is comprised of fast-food chains and auto-part shops––a section of Oahu you don’t see displayed in travel magazines. According to federal statistics, Hawaiʻi has the highest homeless rate per capita in the nation, as well as the highest rate of homeless youth. Although Native Hawaiʻian’s make up only 10% of the population, nearly 42% suffer from homelessness. Priced out of Hawai‘i’s skyrocketing housing market, and failed by systemic negligence, many native people have turned to one another for support, and have built beautiful makeshift communities.
Pu‘uhonua O Wai‘anae is one example. The overwhelmingly Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community has created a safe, stable, thriving encampment. They live beneath a grove of kiawe trees, near the Wai‘anae Boat Harbor. They are not perfect. But they live aloha.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to tour the Pu’uhonua o Wai’anae, and was able to interview the de fato governess of the encampment: Twinkle Borge. As a self-identifying queer woman who was the victim of homophobic abuse, Aunty Twinkle strives to provide a safe-haven for LGBTQIA identifying youth. In addition to presiding over 260 displaced families living in the abandoned boat harbor, Twinkle has also single-handedly raised over fifty minors, including many LGBTQIA teens who have turned to her for shelter.
During our discussion, Twinkle admitted that many of the abused youth who show up at the Pu’uhonua o Wai’anae are escaping violent, drug-addled homes with no other viable living alternative. To further complicate matters, homeless minors who have been kicked out, known as “throw-away youth”, are unable to be placed in government shelters without parental consent. As a result, many teens are forced to fend for themselves––with 13% having admitted to engaging in “survival sex” for food, money, shelter or safety.
My intention with Kamaʻāina was to shed light on the staggering homeless crisis that plagues Hawaiʻi’s youth, without fetishizing their poverty. The cast was comprised of primarily homeless, first-time actors––including our sixteen-year-old lead, Malia Kamalani––whom I met at the local Starbucks. I am tremendously grateful that Twinkle granted me permission to shoot in the Pu’uhonua o Wai’anae, and that Malia was so generous in sharing and re-enacting her experience. My hope is that this film will vindicate the unsheltered souls living off the land.