Hot Docs

Standing Above the Clouds Review: Fighting latent colonialism in Hawaii

Hot Docs 2024

4 mins read

Standing Above the Clouds
(USA, 2024)
Dir. Jalena Keane-Lee
Programme: International Competition (World premiere)


There’s a life force coursing through Standing Above the Clouds that is intensely infectious. The film is a profound statement on how the human spirit can’t be broken as long as individuals band together. Although focused on a specific region in Hawaii, the film still manages to conjure an entire history of first nations peoples’ struggles against destructive colonialist forces. The film’s impact can be felt across time and space and is a deeply inspiring message for all viewers.

Standing Above the Clouds represents a communal act of resistance to forces that are threatening to destroy a cultural way of life. It follows three families as they lead a struggle to prevent the building of yet another giant telescope on Mauna Kea, a sacred mount at the centre of both their lands and spiritual beliefs. The primary focus is on the women, a reflection of the culture: as the film illustrates, they are the beating heart of the community.

The experience of the film is as layered as the moments it brings together. Besides interviews with various family and community members, there are candid personal moments mixed in with the footage of the protests against the telescope and significant news accounts. It also weaves in archival footage of past injustices, historical events in which successive governments displaced them, taking their lands and their homes in an effort to destroy them as a people. The effect is to provide an all-encompassing experience while drawing the viewer to this struggle. Many viewers will probably recognize such efforts across the globe along with the racist impetus that has driven such acts. The struggle in Hawaii is absolutely  genuine, and the viewer is part of it.

During the course of the interviews, the outlook of the women fighting the telescope’s construction becomes clear. They talk of how this latest project serves as an awakening for them and the community at large. It’s a strangely positive, yet deeply logical, outlook. The film is careful to build up the history of how colonialism practically destroyed native Hawaiians, but it is also careful to build up a sense of a revival in their collective might.

There’s a direct and candid nature to the shots of the protests as the camera is placed right in the middle of the action. The viewer is surrounded by the continual, unbreakable vigour of the chanting. More importantly, the viewer is front and centre for their rhythmic movements as a group – like a dance but really more of an act of summoning power from some unnamed but all-consuming force. The women move in unison and their influence is as unbreakable as that power.

The most compelling aspect of Standing Above the Clouds is the candour of the women, who speak to the personal effects of colonialism. They reflect on how it represents a feeling of being robbed, of being denied an essential part of their identity. As the film progresses, we watch individuals coming together not just to protest but to learn cultural chants, dances, practices, and beliefs. It becomes evident that we are watching each go through a healing process as much as we are watching a community transform. They are not simply regaining their strength, but each is building a stronger, more resilient, sense of self.

Standing Above the Clouds screened at Hot Docs 2024.

Barbara is co-host/co-producer of Frameline who joined during its CKLN days. As a freelance writer and film critic for the past 30 years, she has contributed to numerous dailies and magazines including The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Film Encyclopedia, Box Office Magazine as well as to several books. A veteran of the Canadian film industry, Barbara has worked in many key areas including distribution and programming, and has also served on various festival juries

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