Keeping the Past Alive

Hollywood heavyweight and Island returnee Chris Lee hopes to preserve and protect

January, 2004

When Chris Lee returned to the Islands in 2002 after a 27-year stint, he found a plethora of compelling stories in an unexpected place. “I noticed that every other week it seemed like I was reading the obituary of one of the state’s cultural treasures. I started to think that we need to make sure these stories are preserved,” recalls Lee, who is the chairman of the Academy of Creative Media (ACM) at the University of Hawaii and a former top executive at Tristar Pictures and Columbia Pictures.

The Iolani graduate began to research the disparate cultural repositories that lay scattered around the state and found plenty. The UH Center for Biographical Research and the Hawaii State Archives probably represent two of the largest, but others abound. The Hawaiian Studies program at UH Hilo had compiled hundreds of hours of archival interviews with kupuna. Punahou School was in the midst of building an audio archive holding the life stories of many of its graduates. Prominent local filmmakers Edgy Lee and Eddie Kamae, among others, had reams of unseen footage shot during the production of their documentaries on Hawaiian themes, such as slack key guitar and the legacy of the paniolos. “It’s amazing what’s out there right now,” says Lee.

As part of ACM, Lee hopes to create a digital repository for all this footage that will cooperate with existing efforts and serve as an umbrella organization for preserving Hawaii’s storied past. Using modern data-storage technology and high-powered databases, he wants to make “The Kupuna Project” accessible to all via the Internet. At the same time, Lee envisions ACM students can contribute to this urgent historical capture process by making films and record footage as part of their academic work.

The mission, Lee believes, is a natural for the ACM. He envisions his academy as a distributed initiative to catalyze all manner of lucrative, local, creative media, from major motion pictures to video-game titles to educational software and animated curriculums. “We have a ton of local talent all around us, some really bright people,” says Lee.

Building a real digital storage facility will likely cost millions of dollars, which Lee currently does not have. However, he is taking the first steps toward his goal with a $250,000 grant from the U.S. General Services Administration to underwrite research and production of a documentary commemorating Hawaii statehood. Lee will use the grant to buy the digital cameras and production equipment that will form the technological underpinnings of ACM.

Lee says, “What could be better than recording our own stories so we can tell them ourselves?”

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