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"A Candle Lights the Heart" Director Talks Lanterns & Inner Peace


The film A Candle Lights The Heart  documents The Floating Candle Ceremony — a yearly event that takes place in Honolulu, Hawaii, every Memorial Day where thousands of people come together on a beach to float candle-lit lanterns as an homage to loved ones who have passed away. While the ritual originates in Buddhist tradition, the event is for people of all beliefs. 

Against the backdrop of this highly emotional event, A Candle Lights the Heart follows five families whose stories tell of their experience with loss, grief and, finally, redemption, which leads them to peace, partially by participating in this memorable and compassionate event.

Directed and produced by first-timer Shinji Kondo, this full-length documentary feature based on the Lantern Floating Ceremony held from 2012-2014 not only tells of the event but also shows how families who are coping with tragedy attend and find a community with whom they help share their loss.

Once the film was completed, it entered the festival circuit and then landed VOD distribution through Gravitas Ventures to begin early next year.

After a theatrical debut in Los Angeles, the inspirational documentary, A Candle Lights The Heart, is having its East Coast theatrical premiere in Manhattan in the Helen Mills Theater (137-139 West 26th Street, NY NY) on December 13th, 2016. Admission is free and open to the public. A Q&A with director Kondo will follow.

It will also screen at the Magno Screening Room (729 7th Avenue 2nd Fl.) on December 15th at 8 pm as well. Admission to the event is also free and open to the public.

Born In 1969, in the Tokyo, Japan, suburb of Kodaira, Kondo is the second son of Akira and Tsuruko Kondo. His father has been a civil service worker for Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government and his mother was part-time worker. From primary to middle he attended the local public school and graduated from Kokubunji High School. He then attended the acclaimed Sophia University graduating in 1992 with his area of focus, studying and practicing Buddhism

After graduating he began working at Koa Fire & Marine Insurance Company and continued his Buddhist training/studies. In 2001, he married a Japanese woman, Tomomi, who was raised in Hawai'i so they moved there 15 years ago with their daughter and son.

He had become involved with Shinnyo-en through his mother who become a member in the early '80s; she had turned to the practice because his father had suffered from a drinking habit and that influenced his whole family.

a candle Screen Shot 2016-12-11 at 2.41.55 PMIn the process of filmmaking, he first had to learn how to edit, so it took him two years. As a longtime follower of Shinnyo-en who became a Reverend, he took his passion for the movement to such lengths as to create this film.

Q: Why did this appeal to you?

SK: When I went to Shinnyo-en for the first time, I was 12 years old. Somehow I felt my heart become warmer and felt more comfortable by visiting the temple.

Q: How did it affect your personal, professional and creative development?

SK: In Buddhism, they teach that even after people have passed away there is still a connection between us. That is one of the most basic concept of Buddhism. When I see lots of people gathering at the shore of Ala Moana who are not Buddhists, I’ve found out that everyone can share in this concept. 

Q: What was the first time you attended the ceremony? 

SK: In 2001. That was the year I got married and then moved to Hawai'i.

Q: How has it affected you personally emotionally?

SK: Every year I feel the spirit of my grandmother who I was very close to, and even after the ceremony, I feel her presence daily.

Q: How many times have you attended the event?

SK: Every year since that first time in 2001. This year will be my 15th time.

Q: Do discuss the ceremony with people?

SK: Because I work at the temple in Hawai'i, we get many phone calls and emails asking questions about the ceremony throughout the year. I talked about it often — especially with those who is suffering by losing someone.

Q: What did you think of it spiritually/philosophically?

SK: I believe that spirituality is at core of the event. If people float lanterns without the chanting, prayers and ritual, people will not feel spiritual comfort that is possible.

Q: How did you first get the idea to document this ceremony; when did you first think it could be a feature film?

SK: We interviewed Greg Weger in 2007 for our TV commercial series which promoted this ceremony to the local community. His story was very moving and touching. That made me realize that this event affected many non-Buddhists, so if we could find more stories, it could become a documentary feature film.   

Because we broadcast the event live since 2006 on KGMB (a local Honolulu TV station), the cameras are mainly for TV broadcast. In 2011, KGMB became equipped with full HD, so we had to use all HD cameras. Next year 2012 I recorded all single cameras which gave me lots of event footage. Then I added the five stories to form the film.

Q: How did you find the people in the film?

SK: Greg Weger was working for the event as a security monitor provider. He emailed that wanted to share his experience at the beach after the event.

One of our producers found out that Anita Weger had lost her son to cancer and was struggling. The producer felt this event had helped Anita spiritually.

Hideko is a one of my old friends. She is also a member of Shinnyo-en in Japan and I knew her for 25 years. When I moved to Hawai'i, I didn’t know Hideko had moved to Hawai'i in 1999. Because she’s a Buddhist, she often comes to the temple and we started talking. One day she shared that she runs in marathons for her friend who had died in the Tsunami. Then I became interested in interviewing her.

Kathy Steinhoff is a friend of our producer. When she lost her son by a skateboarding accident, it became big local news. The producer encouraged Kathy to go to lantern-floating ceremony for her comfort.

shinji-kondoAlica was not our main focus. Actually Bob is a friend of one of our camera crew and he was worrying about his kids who were internalizing their sadness. He was looking for some kind of ceremony or program to help them let go of their pain. 

We interviewed Bob and it was okay. But we found out that his daughter Alisha had changed so much after she participated the ceremony. So we then switched the focus to her and followed her graduation and college orientation.

Q: What was your criteria for inclusion that decided it for you?

SK: How strong was the connection between their loved ones.

Q: How did you settle on this number of stories?

SK: I almost lost Hideko’s story because her husband does not like Shinnyo-en. After Hideko explained the concept to him, he agreed to have her share her story.

Q: How hard/easy was it to persuade people to be in this film — it touches on very sensitive aspects of people’s lives…

SK: I wanted to show the event as soon as it was possible to have them in the film. So I added production manager Alan Hochfelsen to show what happens the morning of the beach event and the process of setting up to make them everyone feel they were participating as well. 

Q: Were there other options you considered to documenting the ceremony other than the way that you did it?

SK: I considered hiring a professional director to make this film but I found out about the high cost. So I considered I should do this myself because the main focus of this film is spirituality and that’s an element I am sure can be addressed by me.

Q: Why did you decide on this  length?

SK: It was much longer, like 120mins. After first screen test I cut 30 mins out of it so as not to make audience bored.  

Q: What was the production process since you were doing so much of it yourself — directing/producing/editing?

SK: First I hired an editor. But I wanted to try every option I had at hand to make it a good film. Because I have tons of footage from various shoots of the ceremony and the interviews, I wanted to edit it with love and care — not just do it as a job so I did both editing and directing. I hired out the writing to Robert Pennybacker from PBS Hawai'i.

I learned that documentary filmmaking is very difficult. Many times when you got good story, the shots aren’t good. If your shots are good, then the stories aren’t. I had five more stories that I couldn’t use for the film. There are some areas you can control but it really depends on your luck to make a good film.

Q: What about the ceremony helps people develop hope/closure; how do you feel people cope with death?

SK: We can’t avoid death, but we don’t realize it until it happen to us. But people have to cope with the sadness of it, because life goes on. 

Q: How did the Lantern Floating ceremony affects them/you as you made the film?

SK: I found many positive energy like “hope” they got from the ceremony.

Q: What did you add/subtract in the process of production? 

SK: We added music, b-roll shots, and some ceremony shots from ceremonies from other years.

Q: How many hours did you shoot?

SK: I hired multiple camera crews. They shot at least 100 hours I think. 

Q: How long did it take to edit and how long were the editing sessions? 

SK: It took two years to edit and two months for color collections and graphics. Because I learned new skill (editing and directing), it was very exciting. I was able to know many film industry people who I did not have chance to meet, because I am clergy. I enjoyed whole process very much.

Q: What did you feel about the music/sound design?

SK: I wanted to have Hawai'ian music for this film. I contacted many professionals who had participated the event before; they were really open to help me. 

Q: What is the future for this film?

SK: After getting it distributed in USA, I have talked to Shinnyo-en Japan to see if they are interested in distributing it in Japan as a good promotion for the movement. And I will sell the DVD to our members. We have sold 30,000 DVDs of the 2011 ceremony. It was really just a film of the live event, very simple content, but our members love this “lantern floating.”   

Q: Do you hope to make other films?

SK: If the idea is spiritual enough, I would love to make another one.

Q: Do you plan to develop further materials related to this film like a photo book and more?

SK: No. We made a beautiful picturebook last year for our members in Japan. 

Q: Are you planning to develop an educational guide for the film and the ceremony?

SK: We can do that — I will have to think about it further.

Q: What is your personal philosophy?

Every day is a blessing.

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