once upon an island


An animated Hawaiian songbird narrates a quirky tale as the first animal to successfully sue humans, preventing their extinction in 1979. Today, climate change, fire and invasive species threaten to wipe out the last flock of Palila birds on Maunakea.


A PARADISE LOST is the quirky tale of a cute yellow finch in Palila v. Hawaii successfully sued humans to prevent their extinction in 1979, but 40 years later are barely surviving due to climate change and government inaction. We tell this unusual story from the bird’s point of view, a taxidermied Palila that stood at the plaintiff’s table as a representative of its species. Human litigants Sierra Club and Hawaii Audubon named Palila as lead plaintiff for publicity and brought a stuffed Palila bird to court, using the newly recreated Endangered Species Act.  Drought, predators, diseases, and habitat destruction from feral sheep and goats were harming 2,500 Palila birds that live only on Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain for indigenous Hawaiians. As the first animal named in a federal lawsuit, the story is narrated in the past tense by an animated Palila bird who acts as a Hawaiian elder. Humans who worked with Palila throughout the decades tell their part, centered on present day efforts by indigenous Hawaiian conservationist Kala Asing. Using a blend of animation, archival, interviews and vérité, we bring to life the plight of endangered Hawaiian birds, as well their interconnected stories of life, death, rebirth and recovery in the Bird Extinction Capital of the World.

The film is told in 4 Acts, themed by the 4 Seasons. Spring is birth and creation; starting with Mother Nature’s perspective, the evolution of Hawaiian birds in the world’s most remote archipelago and the establishment of humans to the Hawaiian Islands and the birds’ eventual endangerment with textured, bold handmade animation. Palila, as the film’s narrator of the lawsuit, tells their day in court as a playful, fable-like children’s story voiced by an indigenous Hawaiian actor. Other inanimate characters from Nature–a tree, a volcano, a forest spirit–intertwine alternative ways of seeing Palila and their island home. Summer is growth and expansion; shining light on the complexities of conservation, bringing humans’ perspective of the Palila v. Hawaii case. Through interviews with the daughter of the environmental activist who started the case, Palila’s lawyers, bird scientists, and Hawaiian conservationists, they share their various sides of the story. Palila’s 3rd attorney reveals that the case is still ongoing, Palila v. Hawaii could go to court for a 7th time. Fall is maturation and harvest; climate change is causing droughts and fires, erstwhile Palila populations decline to 600 birds. Conservationists plant trees and raise Palila in captivity to mitigate their losses. Kala Asing is the current steward of Maunakea and Palila conservation, recovering Palila habitat with the Mauna Kea Forest Restoration Project. As a Native Hawaiian with ancestral ties to Maunakea, Kala uses his cultural knowledge and science background to manage natural resources and human/nature conflicts, particularly with the anti-Palila, pro-sheep hunting community. His story arc culminates in the release of young Palila back to the wild and planting mamane seedlines. Winter is death and decay; a chill in hopeful progress. Palila remembers what has already been lost and will never be again–long-gone landscapes, their 36 extinct kin, and finally their own lost paradise… in 1893 they were killed and turned into a museum specimen. The film ends at the beginning, in the museum where the bird now lives. Palila populations rebounded from the mamane forests planted 50 years earlier in the film, and a young Hawaiian girl learns Palila’s story to honor the past and plan for a brighter future.