Elders over 70: Tom Coffman

The award-winning writer and filmmaker explored local history, politics and society, from annexation to recent times.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino

Over the years, Tom Coffman has been a journalist, author, media producer, and documentary filmmaker, but now devotes his days to writing books full-time.

“For the past 10 to 12 years, I’ve done almost nothing but write,” says the 79-year-old. “I love to write.” And this accomplished storyteller is always thinking of new stories to tell.

Many of Coffman’s films and books examined Hawaii’s political and social history, such as the forced annexation, the Korean American voyage, and the state’s early years when the Democratic Party emerged as a dominant force.

His film, “Ganbare,” about Japanese Americans during the early years of World War II, won Best Film by a Hawaiian Filmmaker at the 1995 Hawaii International Film Festival. Three of his books, “Nation Within,” “The Island Edge of America,” and “I Respectfully Dissent” have won awards from the Hawai’i Publishers Association, and he received the state’s Hawai’i Award for Literature. ‘Hawaii. .

John Dominis Holt IV

He chooses subjects based on attachments to people in Hawai’i and through personal relationships, such as his 47-year-old wife, Lois UH Lee, who is Korean American, and his eldest son, Harry, who died and was part Hawaiian. He also drew inspiration from another writer he knew personally, the late John Dominis Holt IV, whom Coffman calls “the great Hawaiian writer of our time.”

“It was John Dominis Holt who impressed on me the importance of observance and creating a story that people can understand by creating logical progressions that move forward in time,” Coffman says of the Hawaiian writer who influenced his film and his book “Nation Within”. and the film “O Hawai’i: From First Colony to Kingdom.”

“John had reconnected people more than anyone to Queen Lili’uokalani and then the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and it burned in my brain the importance of illuminating the next stage of history, which was five years between the overthrow and forced annexation of America.”

Coffman’s latest book, “Inclusion: How Hawai’i Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself, and Changed America,” was published by UH Press last year. “It is a story of the development of society in Hawai’i, the territorial period, and in particular the development of the relationship between the Japanese community and the American government, and the contrast between how Hawai’i evolved through compared to how the West Coast has evolved,” he says.

The 130,000-word book, which Coffman worked on for 10 years, was just chosen this year to represent Hawai’i in the Library of Congress National Book Festival’s “Great Reads from Great Places” list.

“In-depth knowledge and insights”

“I’ve always been amazed by his work because he’s such an amazing storyteller,” says artist and filmmaker Meleanna Meyer, who has known Coffman for nearly 30 years. “He’s the kind of guy who’s been able to masterfully digest and understand other cultures in such a deep way and no one comes close, with his deep knowledge and insights into not only Hawaiian culture in particular , but also on the Japanese. , Filipino and Korean for that matter too.

Coffman started out as a reporter and he worked at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin for six years, where he became a political reporter. It was also when he wrote “Catch a Wave,” published in 1972, a study of early state politics in Hawai’i. Soon after, he left journalism and immersed himself in community media projects with topics ranging from mental health programs to a brochure for the Board of Water Supply.

“One thing led to another, and then I got into video production when it became affordable,” says Coffman. “My opening to video production was the era of digitization. … I could do what was done (previously only) in an extremely expensive studio. The more I perfected my tools, the more I could do everything on a desktop computer.

Books and movies at the same time

From his job, he became a writer, director and producer of numerous documentaries released on PBS, including “O Hawai’i: From First Settlement to Kingdom”, “Nation Within”, “May Earth Live”, “First Battle : The Battle for Equality in War-Time Hawaii”, “Arirang: The Korean American Journey” and “Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power”.

“I was trying to do one a year, but it eventually became impossible,” he says. “’Arirang’, which was released widely across the country, was two hours long and I worked on it probably for at least two years. I also finished a book during this time. … It was the crazy thing I did. I would write books and produce films simultaneously. For example, “Nation Within”, both a film and a book, took a total of 19 months to complete.

“I have never worked so hard in my life, but I was determined to do it before the observance of annexation in 1998, and I did it,” Coffman says.

In 2020, Coffman and Meyer worked together on the film “Mauna Kea: Sacred Mountain, Sacred Conduct,” about the kia’i (protectors) continued efforts to stop the development of telescopes on the mountain.

“We managed to put together an extraordinarily beautiful and compelling little film,” she says. “I just can’t say enough about the guy in terms of his deep understanding, his deep commitment to social justice issues, not just for Hawaiians, but for all communities.”


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