The independent film Mermaids’ Lament, the story of two women who find strength in each other despite their personal struggles, is chock-full of UH Hilo talent from cast to crew.
A locally produced independent film infused with the many talents of faculty and alumni from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, is nominated for Best Feature at the Dances with Films film festival. The film will premier at the historic TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California, on June 25.
Mermaids’ Lament—a creative psychological drama that explores the resiliency of women—is directed by Geoffrey B. Hajim, known as “GB,” a professional filmmaker who lives in Pāpa‘ikou on Hawai‘i Island. Over his 25-year career, Hajim has completed over 150 projects from television spots to the first feature film in the Hawaiian language. He has taught film at Hawai‘i Community College and worked with drama students who have gone on to study at UH Hilo.
The film is the story of two women who find strength in each other despite their personal struggles. Oee, played by UH Hilo alumna Dayva Summer Escobar is a traumatized woman who has lost her voice and may or may not be a mermaid. Her therapist, Dr. Nell Jamison, played by UH Hilo Associate Professor of Drama Justina Mattos, battles with anxiety herself and attempts to help Oee overcome her delusions and connect with reality. As they bond over their experiences, they learn to embrace the power of imagination to navigate the chaos of the world.
“One of the joys of working on this film is that I was able to perform opposite one of my former acting students, Dayva Escobar, who just graduated from UH Hilo,” says Mattos about her student who graduated from UH Hilo in 2021 with bachelor of arts degrees in both communication and in gender and women studies, with a minor in performing arts. “As a teacher, it is very rewarding to see your students excel and thrive beyond the classroom. I was so proud to see the focus and professionalism that she brought to the set. Beyond that, Dayva is a very kind and socially conscious human being, and I feel that her performance in this film really brings out those traits in the character of Oee.”
Director Hajim has known Escobar since she was in high school, where she played the lead role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid. The new movie Mermaids’ Lament has been described as a realistic take on The Little Mermaid that brings light to current issues relating to the environment, mental health, and assault. Hajim began the new project in 2021 with just the title Mermaids’ Lament. He started by working on the script with Escobar, whom he had seen play Ariel, and one of his former film students Liz Saras who graduated from Hawai‘i Community College in 2020.
“We began workshopping the script from our struggles with depression, anxiety, and suicide,” says Hajim.
Mattos says she really appreciates that the director worked on the script with some of the cast and crew before filming started. “This gave us all a greater sense of ownership or investment in the project, as we were able to contribute to who the characters were and what happened to them in the story,” she says.
Mattos notes the director also worked closely with his former Hawai‘i Community College students: Saras and director of photography Roselio Hernandez. “They not only helped shape the storyline, but both took on leadership roles during the production as well,” she says.
The script was completed in May of 2021 and filming began the next month.
An intense storyline
While the visual impact of the film is breathtakingly beautiful, the storyline is intense, covering serious social and environmental issues.
“In terms of genre, I think the film is similar to Thelma and Louise, in that it is a ‘buddy-pic’ for women,” says Mattos. “Thematically, the film deals with a few things: One, women finding ways to survive in a male-dominated world; two, the careless destruction of our natural resources; and three, mental illness, how it is defined and how it is treated.”
Nell tries to persuade the young woman, Oee, that she is not a mermaid. She explains that Oee has two legs, not a tail—and as far as Nell knows, mermaids do not exist. She’s got her scientific theories to back her up. But as she gets to know Oee better, she starts to question her theories and the sanity of the world.
“While Nell thinks she is helping Oee by taking her in and helping her learn how to cope in our world, in many ways, Oee is helping Nell,” says Mattos. “Nell is successful, by our modern definitions. She has a good career, money, a beautiful house and expensive car, but she is intensely lonely, struggles with anxiety, and is still trying to deal with the deaths of her parents. She copes by over-medicating herself and keeping her daily life tightly controlled. Oee throws all of that into chaos, and Nell realizes that she can’t control everything.”
During filming, the cast and crew were literally at sea, and the work was sometimes physically arduous.
“Some of the locales were very hot, so sunburn, dehydration, and heatstroke were things we had to conscientiously prevent,” explains Mattos. “We were out in the ocean for hours at a time. Bruises, ant bites, and blisters were a regular part of our lives. Sometimes conditions could be scary, but we always had a safety plan in place, and there was nothing that GB asked us to do that he wasn’t right out there doing with us.”
In addition to keeping everyone safe, director Hajim expertly guided the actors through the storyline issues of depression, anxiety, and trauma.
Explaining the film, he says, “It’s about two women: One who suffered an incredible trauma that left her mute and she may or may not be a mermaid. The other, a therapist who has crippling anxiety, is trying to help the first woman overcome her delusions of being a mermaid and fit better in the world. They end up helping each other out and finding a middle ground because the world is crazy and we need a little mermaid inside each of us to cope.”
UH Hilo Associate Professor of Communication Catherine Becker, whose research extends beyond traditional lines of inquiry to make connections that didn’t exist previously, was consulted during the writing of the screenplay. Her methods often combine creative approaches with alternative ways of knowing, and she is now putting that perspective toward writing a novel based on the story.
“When I heard that the premise of the film Mermaids’ Lament was about the relationship between a young woman, who may or may not be a mermaid, a psychiatrist, and the ocean, I knew I could contribute by expanding it into a book,” Becker says.
“The book will include information I’ve learned about climate change and its impact on the ocean from teaching a course called Sustainability, Communication, and Culture, combined with theories and methods for navigating trauma, which both protagonists suffer from, with the ways archetypes and myths can be drawn upon to change the narrative about who we are with one another and nature.”
In this regard, she says, Mermaids’ Lament has the potential to expand into a movement that fosters more connection and care for the ocean, while encouraging new modalities of healing and ways of relating to the natural world.
The book is due out in November 2023 by Radiance Network, Inc.
Cast and crew
Most of the cast and crew are from Hawai‘i Island.
UH Hilo people involved include:
- Justina Mattos, Associate Professor of Drama, plays Nell, the psychiatrist.
- Catherine Becker, Associate Professor of Communication, was a screenplay consultant and is now doing a novel adaption. She also plays a mermaid in the film.
- Dayva Summer Escobar plays Oee, the mermaid. She is an alumna of UH Hilo with bachelor degrees in communication and in gender and women studies, with a minor in performing arts (2021).
- Erika Roth, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies with a minor in marine science (2021) plays a mermaid.
- Juanita Revell is the film’s line producer. She has bachelor’s degrees in psychology and communication (2016) from UH Hilo. She transferred from Hawai‘i Community College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts (2014).
Other people with Hawai‘i Community College connections include:
- GB Hajim, director and screenwriter of the film, taught “Images in Motion Art” at Hawai‘i CC in 2018.
- Roselio Hernandez, director of photography, also helped shape the storyline of the film and provided leadership during production. He received his associate’s degree in digital media arts from Hawai‘i Community College (2016).
- Liz Saras, helped with screenwriting, earned an associate degree in creative media (2020).
- Jala Quin, plays a mermaid, holds an associate’s degree in science-architectural engineering and CAD technologies (2012).
A labor of love
Mattos says this was a “micro-budget film, which meant we had to work around peoples’ other commitments. So scheduling was sometimes a challenge.”
“We worked with a skeleton crew, each person performing multiple jobs on the production,” adds Mattos. “This meant that people had a lot to deal with and had to stay very focused. But the beauty of this was that the crew functioned like a well-oiled machine and we were small enough, as a production, to be able to maneuver fairly quickly to be at the right place at the right time to capture our needed shots in terms of light, location, weather, and so forth.”
Mattos says seeing local talent combined with the professional art director, sound person, and world-class photographers was one of her greatest joys on the set. “Warren Fintz does beautiful time-lapse photography, and he perfected a particular shot for this film that has never been done anywhere before.” she says. “You’ll have to watch the movie to see what it is.”
There were also crew dedicated to overseeing the underwater work, keeping tabs on safety while guiding actors into the proper position for shots, and providing extra support and assistance wherever it was needed.
“I think the bloopers provided some of my favorite memories from the film,” says Mattos. “There was a scene where Dayva and I were supposed to be sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool having a make-believe tea party. The problem was, I am very buoyant, so no matter what, I kept floating to the surface. We did wear weight belts for some scenes, but couldn’t for this one.”
Despite the challenges, Mattos says her favorite scenes are all the mermaid scenes. “Those shots are so beautiful.”
“Overall, this film has been magical and has provided many once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” says Mattos. “We learned free-diving breathing techniques from a world champion, had a chance encounter with the Kona nightingales (wild donkeys), discovered some new beaches, got to swim as mermaids, and experienced some beautiful scenery and sunsets. But most of all, the friendships we made are the best gifts.”
Mattos notes that in film-making there’s always pressure to get big-name talent signed on to guarantee interest at the box-office.
“I’m grateful that, for this indie project, GB took a chance on a couple of unknown actresses for his leads, and managed to assemble such a wonderful crew of people,” says Mattos.
Dances with Films
The Dances With Films film festival takes place June 22 through July 2, 2023. Mermaids’ Lament premieres June 25 at the historic Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, California. Get tickets and learn more about the festival online.
A Mermaids’ Lament website is now under construction to soon include information about upcoming film screenings (including a Hilo showing at the Palace Theater scheduled for Nov. 17), the book release, as well as resources for navigating trauma and saving the ocean.
Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.