Often called “the Second Hawai’i,” California is home to the largest number of Hawaiians living outside of the islands and the hula has traveled with them across the Pacific Ocean. For many communities far from home, the hula dance remains a mental, physical and spiritual way for people — no matter where they live — to connect to Hawaiian culture. A’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho’okahi is a Hawaiian proverb that expresses that not all knowledge is taught in one school. Over the course of five years of making this film, we met many kumu hula (master hula teachers) who shared their stories of teaching Hawaiian traditions and culture through the hula dance in California. They opened up their schools, homes, and personal lives to us as we began our journey of documenting the Hawaiian community living on the mainland.
Why would you ever leave paradise? This is a common question posed to many people who have left Hawai’i and the answers echo similar reasons. Searching for better opportunities, large numbers of Hawaiians have left the islands in pursuit of education, jobs, affordable housing or simply a better life. Perhaps to the seven million tourists who travel to Hawai’i for a tropical vacation every year, the islands seem a paradise. For those that call Hawai’i home, it is difficult to reconcile the love they have for their homeland with the economic reality of a cost of living that continues to escalate, rendering the ‘American dream’ out of reach.
Our three kumu hula portrayed in the film say so much about the past, present, and future of Hawai’i. Yet, the three different master teachers all have one thing in common: a dedication to perpetuating Hawaiian culture outside of the islands and into the future. This film is a strong testament to the growing sense of empowerment felt by the large and vibrant Hawaiian community living on the mainland. In addition to the three featured kumu hula and their halau (schools), there are hundreds of other teachers and thousands of students throughout the United States and even internationally who are continuing the renaissance of Hawaiian culture that began in the islands in the 1970s. For the last 30 years, a cultural revival has taken root and blossomed far beyond its origins. The hula dance is a living tradition that continues to evolve today.
When Evann and I began a production company together in 1998, we created a unique team that combined our strengths and passions into this film. As a professional dancer, Evann’s expertise in making films about dance truly captured the beauty of the hula on camera. Being born and raised on the mainland, I also felt this special bond with the community and as a result, I started dancing hula in New York City. Evann and I had a responsibility, both as filmmakers and dancers, to maintain the integrity of the dance and culture, but we were also challenged with battling the popular stereotypes of ‘grass skirts’ that have been ingrained in the American consciousness through the media and movies.
At screenings where we have presented the film, we are inevitably asked why we chose to make a film that features kumu hula on the mainland rather than in Hawai’i. While there have been many films about hula in Hawai’i, this is the first film to explore the Hawaiian community living away from the islands and how the hula dance acts as a catalyst to bring people together in celebration of their heritage. We hope that this film will be meaningful to both islanders on and off the islands and also create a dialogue about the Hawaiian Diaspora.
Often times, the mainland community feels that they are judged by the islanders back home as ‘not as authentic.’ We believe that culture isn’t where you are, but who you are. Cultural identity and authenticity are issues of debate facing many cultures today and we hope that a deeper understanding of the challenges of perpetuating one’s culture away from one’s homeland will resonate for all who watch this film.
Me ke aloha pumehana,
—Lisette Marie Flanary and Evann Siebens, Directors