Hawaii on the Rocks

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Pre-Production


Hawaii on the Rocks is an animated documentary film that follows the crystal meth epidemic that began sweeping the islands in the 1980s, and continues to this day. It's the story of the federal drug war gone wrong, a Native Hawaiian community battling addiction, and a brutal murder in the director's family that shook the entire state.


Most people vacationing in Hawaii have no idea that one of the worst crystal meth epidemics in the nation lies just beyond the rim of their piña colada. The story of how Hawaii became ground zero for crystal meth addiction in the U.S. is a tangled tale that begins in the early 1980s, when ice began to quietly flood the islands like a creeping, unstoppable tide. On one level, it's a story of the federal war on drugs gone wrong, as a crackdown on marijuana created a vacuum that was filled by a smokeable form of crystal methamphetamine, known in the islands by its Filipino name, "batu."

But Hawaii's meth epidemic also has deeper roots, the seeds of which were sown decades ago during a period of colonization that created vast divisions between a wealthy elite, a comfortable middle class, and a neglected lower class, which includes many Native Hawaiians. Crystal meth is now bringing these separate worlds into violent collision. When director Carrie Ching was a child during the 1980s, her own family became caught up in the epidemic when their sunny suburban street became a dark corridor ruled by drug dealers and trafficked by unfamiliar cars late into the night. Their own social blinders were torn off forcefully in 1994, when her elderly great-aunt was beaten to death by three ice addicts who mistook her home for an icehouse nearby.

Her great-aunt's murder—which came to be known in the local media as "the babysitter killing"—was one of the first in a series of brutal ice-related violent crimes in the state that shook residents and lawmakers into action. A punitive crackdown on ice possession and dealing ensued, followed by a push for increased drug treatment programs. But even drug treatment providers are saying that more treatment is not what's needed. They say it's time for a new approach that looks at the roots of Hawaii's ice addiction, and what allowed it to swell unchecked for thirty years. Is the state ready to face what lies beneath the surface? In some ways we're all implicated in the islands' ice problem—from local officials to the oblivious tourist.


In Hawaii on the Rocks, the story of Hawaii's ice epidemic will be told through an animated documentary that is also part memoir—similar in style to Waltz with Bashir. In director Carrie Ching's initial experiments with illustrated documentaries—including the Emmy award-winning "In Jennifer's Room"—access was often an obstacle that led to her use of illustration for visuals. In the case of this film, much of the story happens in the past, and several of the characters are deceased, so illustration will create the visual landscape for a story that couldn't otherwise be told in video.

Illustration and animation can be a wonderful way to tell stories that are very dark and, in some ways, intimidating for viewers. Many of Ching's previous short films were about disturbing topics, but they were stories that needed to be told: sexual abuse among disabled adults, sex trafficking of young girls from Eastern Europe, organ trafficking in the Balkans, child prostitution in Thailand. In all of these cases the use of illustration and animation allowed viewers to have a bit of "emotional distance" from the subject matter that allowed them to become more engaged in the story. When created with illustration and animation, and a told through an intimate character-driven narrative, a documentary feels more like a storybook than a news story. Viewers are captivated by the storytelling style. And once they care about the characters in the story, they inevitably care about the larger topic, as well. Ching believes this storytelling technique will have a similar effect in the case of Hawaii on the Rocks.


Carrie Ching - Director/Producer/Writer

  Carrie Ching is an award-winning multimedia journalist and filmmaker born and raised in Kailua, Hawaii, and now based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her most recent project was a series of illustrated documentary shorts that she wrote, directed, produced, and edited for VICE News called Correspondent Confidential. For six years she was the Senior Producer of Multimedia at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where she wrote, directed, produced, and edited several short films, animated videos and illustrated documentaries that were lauded by media watchdogs and critics for their innovative approach to journalism storytelling. Her work has been recognized by several awards, including a national Emmy for New Approaches to News & Documentary, a duPont, a Gracie, and awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for Feature Storytelling, Explanatory Journalism, and Journalism Innovation. Her specialty is narrative journalism and exploring ways to use multimedia tools—including video, audio, photography, animation, and interactive graphics—to push the boundaries of storytelling on the Web and other digital platforms. She was recently selected as a 2015 National MediaMaker Fellow by the Bay Area Video Coalition to work on her animated documentary film, Hawaii on the Rocks. She has also worked as a magazine editor, newspaper reporter, and video journalist. She completed a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley in 2005.


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IFP Fiscal Sponsorship Program 2019
National MediaMaker Fellowship Project 2015


UPDATE - August 11, 2015

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