in ,

Hot Docs: Standing Above the Clouds Shows the Life of Hawaiian Activists

Breaktide Productions and Multitude Films

Humans have a long history of aggression when it comes to real estate. Governments and militaries have forcibly taken land that has religious or spiritual importance to native peoples for as long as we have recorded our history. More and more, we’ve seen people around the world protesting to hold onto parts of nature that have significance in their cultures. Hawaii is all too familiar with this issue, and Standing Above the Clouds beautifully captures residents’ angry, urgent fight.

In 2010, it’s proposed that the Thirty Meter Telescope be built on Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain on the island of Hawaii. Standing Above the Clouds follows the mothers and daughters of three native Hawaiian families who are actively fighting to protect Mauna Kea against this massive development. There are already thirteen other telescopes atop Mauna Kea, and the Thirty Meter Telescope would be the largest on the mountain, as well as one of the largest moving structures on Earth. It would be a whopping eighteen stories tall and impact local residents’ access to water and other natural resources. Standing Above the Clouds is an intimate documentary told by people on the front lines of the fight to protect their land.

A group of women activists stand with their backs to the camera
Breaktide Productions and Multitude Films

Issues of land development in Hawaii date back to the 1970s, a mere eleven years after it became a state. As the thirteen telescopes were built on the summit of Mauna Kea, there were documented instances of hazardous substances leaking from the construction equipment. These leakages put the lives of those who rely on the water from the mountain in jeopardy. Drinkable water should be a human right for everyone, but as we’ve seen in cities like Flint, Michigan, potable water isn’t always a concern of those in power.

What is so striking about Standing Above the Clouds is that it shows a Hawaii most viewers aren’t familiar with. Thoughts of Hawaii usually include beautiful beaches, surfers, stunning hotels, waterfalls, and amazing natural wonders. Standing Above the Clouds offers the plain and simple of life on the Big Island for this group of people. Make no mistake, though, Standing Above the Clouds is gorgeous and lush, just not in the manufactured way we’ve been taught to think about the Aloha State.

Even though the documentary is about Mauna Kea and the natural lands of Hawaii, Standing Above the Clouds is a deeply human portrait of what it means to dedicate one’s life to activism. Director Jalena Keane-Lee began documenting this story years ago and created a short-film version that provided the skeleton for this feature-length version. The film’s subjects have answered the call to ensure that Mauna Kea will exist for generations to come. It’s not easy to spend months camping in tents in high altitudes. Their entire lives are put on hold to stand up for a cause they aren’t sure they can win. They’re subjected to arrests and violence while putting their personal lives on the back burner. Health issues are ignored because the fight is too big to worry about the “small” things.

A group of women in yellow attire face the camera
Breaktide Productions and Multitude Films

This perspective shows the immense price that is paid when fighting for a cause. One woman breaks down in tears as she talks about how traumatic it was to see 38 kūpuna (elders) and their caregivers arrested. She wasn’t able to grieve that moment because she and the rest of the protesters had to make sure they didn’t lose any ground. There is deep trauma within these people, not just from this current protest, but from the decades of battles they’ve already endured.

“It’s not about fighting something, it’s about loving something.” This quote is from a speech to the activists at the camp below the summit of Mauna Kea. The sentiment is the central thesis of Standing Above the Clouds. These people are giving up their lives to fight for something larger than themselves, and what fuels them is not fury or anger, but a deep, profound love for Mauna Kea and what it means to their culture. The mountain is their ancestor, and they believe they’re related to this natural force. It is moving to see generations of people band together for love, and Standing Above the Clouds shows the often traumatic experience of preserving one’s heritage.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Promotional art for Winter Island. Adventus Films. Terrifying skull blended in with a wooded island on a lake, so it seems like the bones are blended with the trees.

Chris Taylor and Tony Doupé Talk Winter Island

Adult Mufasa stands on Pride Rock

In Defense of Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa: The Lion King