Heart of the Sea: Kapolioka'ehukai

Hawaiian surf legend and community activist Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn died of breast cancer at age 47.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens, True Stories
Premiere Date
May 6, 2003
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 Independent Lens-Audience Award
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 SFFilm Festival-Audience Award, Best Documentary
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 Ashland Independent Film Festival-Best Documentary
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 Newport Beach International Film Festival-Audience Award
  • Award laurels-r Created with Sketch.
    2003 Tambay Film & Video Festival-Documentary Feature Honorable Mention
  • Producer/Director

    Charlotte Lagarde

    Charlotte Lagarde's documentary Heart of the Sea: Kapolioka'ehukai (2002) about Hawaiian legend Rell Sunn was broadcast internationally. In the US, it won PBS Independent Lens Audience Award 2003, the Audience Award at both the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival, and Best Documentary Award at the Ashland Show more Independent Film Festival. Lagarde's productions Voting in America (2004), Every Child Should Have a Chance (2001), Tribal Sovereignty: Unplugged (1998), and Juvenile Justice: Unplugged (1997), are distributed in public schools throughout the United States, and the latter was screened at the White House for public policy makers. Lagarde's documentaries Swell (1996), about four generations of female surfers in Santa Cruz, California (Gold Apple from the National Educational Media Network) and Zeuf (1994), a documentary about a woman surfer's struggle with breast cancer (Directors' Choice award at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival) were broadcast on PBS stations and the Sundance Channel, and are currently in distribution on home video. Lagarde is the executive producer of 2005’s Reporter Zero, directed by Carrie Lozano (The Weather Underground). Lagarde holds an MA in documentary filmmaking from Stanford University, and a BA in Political Science. She founded Swell Cinema in 1996 and teaches media studies in high school. Show less


    Lisa Denker

    Lisa Denker started working in film immediately after leaving the Art Center School of Design’s film program. She has had a varied career in film, from art directing the Grammy Award-winning rock video for Melissa Etheridge’s “Ain’t It Heavy,” to the independent films Gas, Food, Lodging and Citizen Ruth. Lisa went on to union work on big budget films such as Batman Returns. Show more A decade later, Lisa wanted to get back to hands-on filmmaking. Through a series of collaborations with Charlotte Lagarde on Swell and Every Child Should Have a Chance, she made her directorial debut with Heart of the Sea. Show less

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    The Film

    Heart of the Sea is a portrait of Rell “Kapolioka’ehukai” Sunn, who died in January 1998 of breast cancer at the age of 47. Known worldwide as a pioneer of women’s professional surfing, at home in Hawaii, Rell achieved the stature of an icon — not only for her physical power, grace, and luminous beauty, but for her leadership in a community that loved her as much as she loved it.

    Rell Sunn grew up on the beach in Oahu near Makaha point. Her grandmother gave her the middle name Kapolioka’ehukai, which means “heart of the sea.” Rell was Hawaii’s number one female amateur surfer for five years. In 1975, she co-founded the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA), and four years later collaborated on Women’s Pro Surfing (WPS). In 1982 Sunn was ranked number one in the world on longboard.

    Rell lived her entire life in Makaha, a beach town troubled by crime, drug abuse, and high teen pregnancy and school dropout rates. Rell was a community organizer and activist for at-risk youth, and for the preservation of the natural beauty and cultural traditions of her native Hawaii.

    At the peak of her career, at the age of 32, Rell was diagnosed with breast cancer. With no family history of the disease, Rell discovered that Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women have the highest incidence of breast cancer of all women in the United States. When she realized that detection and prevention programs were seriously underfunded, Rell became a community educator and activist for breast cancer awareness and for the protection of the environment from the toxins she believed had caused her disease. Rell was also a board member of the Surfrider Foundation, an organization devoted to preserving the ocean environment, and served as Hawaii’s surfing ambassador for more than 30 years. She died at age 47.