60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: "Rock Bottom Riser" digs into the cultural and physical roots of modern Hawaii


A still from the documentary Rock Bottom Riser showing an overhead shot of flowing lava

Hawaiian lava flows in the impressionistic profile of the island in Rock Bottom Riser. Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

How fascinating to watch two movies back-to-back for the AAFF, both of them focused on different island chains. While Archipelago is about the myriad islands of the St. Lawrence River and often reflects a playful, calm mood, Rock Bottom Riser by Fern Silva is much more fractured and fraught with danger.

Through a collection of film segments, Silva explores some of the clashing cultural beliefs of modern Hawaii: spiritual, traditional, scientific. With little context or introduction, we see the people and places of Hawaii and are left with our own impressions.

To underscore the physical and prehistoric source of the islands, the film begins with startling shots of lava flow reminiscent of Katia and Maurice Krafft. It’s a mesmerizing, beautiful scene that underscores to the viewer that they are never on stable ground while traversing the issues here. The unsettling drum machine and synth reinforce that feeling.

Navigation is one of the common threads running through many of the segments in the film. We are introduced to modern trans-Pacific voyagers and are invited to think about what it would mean to travel to another planet. That leads to images of telescopes aimed at the heavens looking for life, as well as the spiritual and cultural resistance to building the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea. Organizers liken the telescope to scientific colonization, another theme that runs through the movie. 

In one scene, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is shown on a hotel TV as he prepares to film his movie The King, about King Kamehameha. He’s a Hollywood fixture, but also Samoan with ties to Hawaii. This kind of cultural navigation plays out several times in the movie.

What is colonization? What is Hawaiian?

Ultimately, like the last scene of the movie, Hawaiians must balance all of these influences, riding the crest of a wave to avoid falling.

Christopher Becker is a library technician at AADL.

"Rock Bottom Riser" will screen in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 24 at 7 pm at the Michigan Theater, or online starting March 22. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).