At age 81, Key Peninsula resident William Michael Paul has just written and starred in his first short film, “Kola.” Since its premiere at the Blue Mouse Theatre in Tacoma, the film has been shown in more than 16 festivals including the Gig Harbor Film Festival in October. However, Paul is not resting on his laurels and is working on his second film.
“Kola,” meaning friend in the Lakota language, is about healing and friendship. The story is based on the life of Paul’s grandmother, Unci Mary, who raised him on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. Paul is an enrolled member of the Hunkpapa Sioux and traces his ancestry back many generations.
“My grandmother is what we call an FBI — full-blooded Indian,” he said. She was a shaman woman and deeply spiritual. “She taught me Lakota language pretty good; I speak nothing but Lakota in the movie.” She raised him with all the Lakota traditions — pow-wows, sweats, dancing and language — which he continues to honor.
Some years ago, after retiring from his first career as an engineer, Paul began singing karaoke. One night he was approached by an audience member, asking if he had any interest in community theater. Paul took him up on the offer and his second career took off from there. He began doing stage work and photo shoots. When he landed a role in a movie with Sylvester Stallone, his acting career went to the next level. He can be found on the IMDb website with a filmography of 31 credits.
Paul and his wife Katie have lived on the Key Peninsula for 22 years, originally planning that it would be a move lasting just three years. However, they fell in love with the area and decided not to leave. “What an honor it is to live on the Key Peninsula. I don’t think people realize what they have. All you have to do is cross the Narrows Bridge and it changes. What we have out here is just this perfect little Camelot that no one knows about.”
Following the death of his daughter Julia Anne from cancer 12 years ago, and then his own health challenges with cancer, Paul found a growing desire to honor his grandmother. His wife supported him in this effort. Given his talents and connections, a short film seemed the best way to accomplish that. “I am in my winter season, so that is why I wanted to do this. Some type of legacy. Some people leave books, but I am blessed with movies,” he said.
“My grandmother was 4 foot, 11 inches,” he said. “She had a struggle with white people. They took her to the school, cut off her hair, forbid her language. She was totally abused all the time. She was afraid to go out at night, I had to go with her. She was terrified. I had to escort her wherever we went. I always complimented her and told her how pretty she was. It was a struggle for her and to this day I thank her for getting us off the res and into Catholic boarding school. I did not like it at the time and did not speak for a year. I was so mad I wanted to run away. But I thank her for giving me an education and a spiritual foundation.”
Paul said he grew up with his grandmother until he was 18, and does not have much memory of his parents. His parents both died of acute alcoholism, “a disease that captures natives easily.” Paul said he believes in the truth of historical trauma and how it affects Native Americans, but he also believes people are responsible for themselves and need to “stand up and be proud of who you are.”
“Kola” was filmed on the Key Peninsula, with various locations including Paul’s own kitchen, a local park, with scenes in Gig Harbor. Two hundred actors were auditioned, and Kit Wilson of Gig Harbor came aboard as director. Paul’s wife was the executive producer.
“It takes a year to get a movie together — no matter how hard you try,” he said. Paul uses the word “blessing” often in
conversation, referring to past events and day-to-day life. “I know I should not be here. I have had many near misses. There is a reason I was saved. I just try to do acts of kindness and be nice to people. Some days you do not feel like it. I’m the greatest guy in the world till I get out the door and meet people.” Paul’s message throughout the film is “how fragile we all are and how healing heals hearts. It is all about forgiveness. It all comes down to that, we just cannot go around being cold.
“A lot of the grandkids have embraced the Native way. We embrace the Native way along with Christian beliefs. I have come full circle, grew up in small towns, and now I am back in a small town. I love it.”
“Kola” is being showcased at film festivals around the world but will be available on YouTube early next year.
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