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The Film | The Filmmaker

"How shall we account for this nation having spread itself to so many detached islands so widely disjoined from each other in every quarter of the Pacific Ocean?" -- Captain James Cook (1728-1779)

Centuries before European explorers ventured beyond their shorelines, the ancestors of today's Polynesians had sailed to every habitable island in the far corners of the Pacific. This ancient Polynesian sea voyaging tradition comes to life again in "Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey."

A Pacific Islander
A New Zealand Maori sounds a challenge "haka."
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The one-hour program sweeps viewers into a seafaring adventure with a community of Pacific Islanders as they build traditional sailing canoes, learn how to follow the stars across the ocean and embark on a 2,000-mile voyage in the wake of their ancestors. As with many indigenous peoples, the cultural identity of Polynesians has become obscured by western belief systems, history and economics. Filmmaker Gail Evenari focuses on the revival of one area of this deeply rooted culture -- wayfinding -- the art of navigating a canoe across long distances using only natural signs: the sun, the moon, the stars and the ocean swells.

Through on-board interviews, training sessions, archival images and breathtaking sailing footage, "Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey" reveals how the legacy of wayfinding connects modern Polynesians to their past and helps them face the challenges of the future. The islanders embark on a wayfinding journey using oral traditions, archaeological discoveries and experimental voyages. Along the way, these techniques help them resolve controversial issues in their history and reclaim their cultural heritage as skilled oceanic explorers.

SpaceNainoa Thompson
Nainoa Thompson.

The origins of the Polynesians have fascinated explorers and historians for hundreds of years. "Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey" addresses the issue from a Polynesian point of view and challenges some commonly accepted theories, including Thor Heyerdahl's claim that the first Polynesians drifted from South America.

To the Pacific Islanders, wayfinding has more significance than the act of sailing from one island to another. Nainoa Thompson is the first Hawaiian in hundreds of years to learn the ancient skills and spiritual dimension of celestial navigation. Since he began studying with Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug about 20 years ago, Thompson has become a master in his own right. He has navigated more than 50,000 miles to most of the major island groups of Polynesia.

By teaching wayfinding to other Pacific Islanders, Thompson has begun the process of recovering the spirit and practice of ancestral seafaring traditions. "Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey" concludes as student navigators sail six canoes from the Marquesas Islands to Hawaii. The culmination of years of canoe building, training crews and navigators, and organizing logistics and safety precautions, the 2,000-mile voyage is a stunning success.

The Filmmaker

Gail Evenari
Gail Evenari, director and producer of "Wayfinders."

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Gail Evenari has been working in the field of education since 1974. After teaching for several years, Evenari began writing curriculum - first for her own students and later for textbook publishers. Evenari was Project Director of the Museums Affiliated with Public Schools (MAPS) program, which achieved national recognition for a successful collaboration between schools and museums and for the development of creative and innovative educational materials.

Hired by Chevron Corporation as an educational researcher, she subsequently wrote and co-produced "Hawai'i: Continuing Traditions" and "Alaska: The Yup'ik Eskimos." These films won several awards, including a Blue Ribbon, American Film Festival; CINE Golden Eagle and Award for Creative Excellence, American Industrial Film Festival. The printed educational materials have also won awards for content and design. The films have been shown on the Instructional Television Network and on public television stations since 1986. These programs promote understanding of Native American peoples. Viewers learn about the environmental, geographical, cultural and historical forces that influence human development by observing the lifestyle and values of people from different backgrounds.

After working on "Hawai'i: Continuing Traditions," Evenari was invited to sail from Tonga to Samoa as a crew member on the 1986 Voyage of Rediscovery. This adventure inspired her to pursue further projects related to Polynesian culture, especially when the projects involve sailing and maritime history.

"In the Wake of Our Ancestors" marked Evenari's debut as both producer and director. This award-winning documentary is about the challenges of maintaining ancient traditions and preserving the natural environment. These issues are of paramount importance in today's world -- particularly to the native Hawaiians who tell their story in the film. The problems they encounter while trying to build a traditional canoe out of local materials bring home the significance of protecting natural resources.

"Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey," was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional funding from Pacific Islanders in Communications through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The film traces the extraordinary maritime accomplishments of ancient Polynesian seafarers as well as the efforts of today's Pacific Islanders, who are building and sailing double-hulled voyaging canoes as part of their quest to rediscover their oceanic heritage.

  • To learn more about Gail Evenari, go to the interview (text or Real Audio) at the Indie Scene, PBS' Web site dedicated to independent film.