Hawaii Documentary 'Kumu Hina' Profiles Native Hawaiian Mahu Teacher

A conversation with Joe Wilson, director of a new documentary about Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu.

Photo: Courtesy Joe Wilson

For the Hawaii International Film Festival Spring Showcase, HIFF organizers will be wrapping up the event’s closing night with a documentary about kumu hula Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, titled Kumu Hina. Long a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Wong-Kalu has recently been more publicly active as the chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council, a big presence at this year’s legislative session hearings for Senate Bill 1, and is now running for a seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees.

In early 2011 and the school year of 2011-2012, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson filmed Wong-Kalu’s life as it happened at school and how it began to include her new Tongan husband as he moved from Fiji to Hawaii to live with her for the first time. It is equally about Hina’s personal struggles as a mahu, her professional life as an educator of Hawaiian tradition, and her domestic life with her husband, Haemaccelo, or Hema. It is about how all of these lives intersect and affect one another, and how they affect her students at Halau Lokahi—specifically, Hoonani Kamai, a biological girl who identifies as a “rare middle person.” Kamai wants to lead the all-boys hula team in its annual performance, and becomes a prodigy to Kumu Hina, blossoming into a leader with strong ku, or masculine spirit—just one of many layers in the film.

After its premier at HIFF, the film will take a trip around the festival circuit, eventually airing on public television nationally in 2015.

Wilson talked with us over the phone and in emails about his experience working on Kumu Hina with his business and life partner, Dean, and the challenges and rewards experienced being outsiders from Washington D.C. invited into such intimate conditions on such a powerful documentary, and in such personal, unflinching situations. The following interview is edited from our conversation.

Photo: Cindy Iodice

How did Kumu Hina’s story come to you as a story you should tell?

Connie Florez in Honolulu has been a longtime member of the film community and many other aspects of life in Honolulu and she’s been a longtime friend of Hina’s. Back in 2010, Connie introduced Dean to Hina, and Dean was just really captivated with Hina’s presence. At that time, Hina mentioned that she was on her way to Fiji soon to pick up her Tongan husband, Hema, whom she had married not too much earlier.

Dean and I had made a previous film called “Out in the Silence,” a film about the quest for inclusion and acceptance for LGBT folks in the context of rural America. We had just spent two years out on the road, the backroads across the U.S. of small town America, using the film to raise awareness and bring communities together to overcome prejudice and isolation that LGBT folks have experienced.

When Connie introduced Hina, it was like a revelation. Hina is an amazing person, this fully empowered prominent leader in Honolulu and Hawaii who also happens to be mahu, or transgender. Coming from the continental U.S., where this stuff plays out differently sometimes, we were just blown away. It was a positive narrative in Hawaii. We meet this amazing individual who was like, “Hey, I just got married to this amazing Tongan,” and asked if we wanted to go along and document that journey. So Dean went along and thus began that journey.

But the film follows a few stories, and includes more than a few narratives. Was any of that planned, or did these stories present themselves and surprise you as filmmakers watching everything reveal itself as you went along?

There are so many different stories that are a part of this. Hema, who had never left Fiji before coming to Hawaii, was going to be starting a new life here. Married to this amazing Hawaiian woman who happened to be mahu, and we just kept following their lives. Hema and Hina allowed us to do that. So we’re thinking, Okay, we’re filming this really interesting couple. We wanted to get the universal story of love, the ups and downs of relationships. And in following Hina’s teachings at school, another revelation occurred.

Kids who live in this westernized society are rooted in a culture that gives them strength and empowerment. In the context of teaching, [in Hina’s class] there was this group of young high school guys who just weren’t getting it. But into the classroom walks this incredible young girl who has this ku who says she wants to be this leader. In other schools, there wouldn’t have been space for that, where there are so many definitions of what children should be.

That’s what we were trying to get at; the heart of the film. There’s a dominant culture that has its norms, whether we like it or not, and we all carry those dominant culture rules with us and are affected by them. But every once in a while there’s a space where folks are trying to break out of those boxes. Hina and Halau Lokahi is one of those places. Offering less of those parameters, and more opportunities for people to be who they are. In this case, Hawaiian Polynesia, and within that, all the other things that Hawaiian society was known for.

That was the importance of the film. Yes, it’s about Hina. Yes, it’s about breaking out of these gender norms and stereotypes. But how do you hold on to your own culture, and how do you use your culture and foundation in that culture to shape who you are and what you have to offer in the world?

As you were following Hina around, what narratives emerged that surprised you most?

You do start out thinking, “Oh, this is what this film is about, and as you film, your characters—the people who grant you the privilege of accompanying them to take you on very personal and sometimes different, surprising journeys. In this case, it was just an incredible level of vulnerability. That’s not easy to let cameras into your life like that. We were just amazed by their openness. On the one hand, Hawaii is so wonderful, but has these multilayered aspects of inclusiveness of embracing and other levels of humility, not boasting and putting all of your stuff out there, as compared to western society.

Hina took great risks. It’s delicate telling your story and what it means for your family. Stepping out of the normal bounds of social etiquette. She was being careful, saying I know this is not normally how Hawaiians tell stories. She thought it was really important. Because, for the 20 years that she had lived as a mahu wahine—transgender woman—she knew it was challenging for others who didn’t have opportunities that she had. She wanted to share her story, so that it would make it more possible and better for those around her who might not have had such opportunities.

Another thing that surprised us was the incredible openness of the school where Hina teaches. Just how much the administration, kids, and families allowed us to be a part of that. Because, as a filmmaker, you’re always nervous with the camera. It’s such an imbalance of power. We’re the ones capturing everything, and we also have the ability to edit it. We were nervous to do it because here, we aren’t from Hawaii—the crossing of cultural boundaries. What does it mean for outsiders to come in and help tell the stories? We were very nervous about that. They kept opening the space for us to be there. So I think what is the most wonderful aspect of this, and it shouldn’t be a surprise, is that it was such a gift to us that they welcomed us and allowed us to help tell that story. Knowing that what they do is special. And the other aspect is that a lot of people who think they know Hawaii and want to come to visit Hawaii—they never go to the neighborhoods, such as Kalihi and other places where Hina and many other people are living their lives. That’s not what a lot of visitors get to know.

It sounds like you became very close with Hina in the process of making the film, and the film doesn’t flinch in certain points. There’s a particular fight between Hema and Hina that gets very personal, but you kept it in the film. So, as filmmakers and documentarians, how did you negotiate that relationship with Hina and your duty to the film?

You don’t want to share things that has the potential to be seen by people that could be harmful to the characters in the film. But Hina was up front with us all along that she didn’t want us to hold back. And I think that in partnership with the other producer of this film, Pacific Islanders Communications (a funding arm of public television), they help to bring stories to a broader audience. Supporting the idea that, hey this isn’t going to be easy, but if we’re going to tell stories from the Pacific islands, it can’t always present the typical people doing cultural activities, playing hula, ukulele. It’s wonderful, but also not as deep as it could be. Look at what life is just really like. But it was hard in the edit. It was really hard to know what to include and not include.

We’re nervous. How are people going to see it? Will people think that Hina is making bad choices what will that lead people to think about who she is as a person? As we get ready to show this to public audiences we’re nervous about that all. We’re hoping people will see it in totality. It’s like a lot of people’s lives. It’s complex, and you have to see it for what it is. In the end, we think Hina really demonstrates she’s a strong, empowered person. The take-home message is if you’re true to yourself you can get through the really tough times.

Let’s talk about that beautiful animated sequence that opens the film and teaches a little about the history of mahu culture and traditional Hawaiian embrace of that culture.

While Kumu Hina is a verite film, it also includes a brief animated section to help viewers understand Hawaii’s pre-contact embrace of mahu. This beautiful animation, which is a highlight of the film, was done by Jared Greenleaf, a Kauai native who happens to be Mormon, was educated and now teaches at Brigham Young University, and was one of the primary artists behind the animation in the Polynesian Cultural Centerʻs "Ha: The Breath of Life."

Despite institutional Latter-Day Saints views of LGBT people, Jared was eager to contribute to this film because, he said, "it brings to life the Hawaii that he knows and loves."

This sentiment captures the essence of why we made this film and the impact that we hope it is able to have in the world, the simple reality that there is much more acceptance and respect between and among people at the community level than some religious and political leaders would like us to believe, and that Hawaii’s cultural approach to these and other issues could be a model to be emulated around the world.

Out of the film’s stories, which one resonates with you the most?

These are really important times on the issues and themes that the film deals with. Here in Hawaii, and in U.S., as we look at the things that are taking place—political, public debates around the rights of people who have historically been marginalized. LGBT or transgender folks, how immigrants are included and accepted, like Hema’s journey. In the case of Hoonani, what kind of environment kids have in their school to simply be who they are so they can get the education they need to succeed. All these things are resonant right now. And our hope is that this film can play a role in helping to shape public conversation about what a better wold it could be if people just follow the model that exists in Kumu Hina’s Hawaii. That’s the message of the film and what our hope is.

Thursday, April 10, Hawaii Theatre, 6:30 p.m. (doors open), 7 p.m. (showtime), $8-$12. More info, hiff.org.