Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Lisette Marie Flanary: As a hula dancer, it's frustrating to constantly be confronted with the popular stereotypes that have long been perpetuated in American culture. If you say the word 'Hawai'i' to people, it immediately conjures images of a tropical paradise. If you say 'hula,' people think of beautiful girls with flower lei in coconut bras and grass skirts. I cannot tell you how many times I have told someone that I dance hula and they start flapping their hands and gyrating their hips all over the place. One of the main reasons I was motivated to make this film was to bash the stereotypes, to show a wide audience that the hula dance is something so much more than they thought it was. While I have always wanted to do a film about Hawai'i, I knew that I wanted it to reflect the depth and beauty of Hawaiian culture instead of the romanticized ideal that we often see portrayed in films. Through the verité style of documentary, the Hawaiian community on the mainland could tell their own stories in their own words.

Evann Siebens: As a dance filmmaker, I am inspired by the challenges of bringing the beauty and kineticism of movement to the screen. Dance often speaks on a much deeper level than words or images can, and satisfies something in people that they are unable to articulate or describe — as a result, they dance. For this project, documentary seemed by far the best way to tell the story, because it wasn't just a film about dance — it was a film about a community, about individuals living, struggling and yet celebrating their lives through the art of hula.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Flanary: Being born and raised on the mainland, I felt a common bond with the Hawaiian community here and the stories that they shared with us. While I have always felt a strong connection to Hawaiian culture because of the time I spent there while growing up, I also felt that I was an outsider — even though my mother is from Hawai'i. Through making this film, I began to dance hula in New York City and realized that you don't need to be in Hawai'i to dance the hula. Culture isn't where you are, but who you are. The hula opened a door to my own cultural identity and allowed me to reconnect with my heritage in a way that I had never explored before.

POV: What inspired you to make American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i?

Flanary: All of the kumu hula and hula halau that we met while making this film really inspired me to keep going. This project took five years to complete and was my first documentary project so there was a big learning curve in our journey to completion. Finding funding for the project was a huge challenge and I've got a filing cabinet full of grant rejections to prove it. But I just kept going back, with better proposals and better sample tapes. And every year for five years, we managed to get a grant to keep going but I was always worried about how we would get enough funding to finish for a public television broadcast. I had chosen 'olelo no'eau or Hawaiian poetical sayings and proverbs that I thought best represented each kumu which are in their introductions in the film. For myself, I chose "Pau pele, pau mano" which translates as "If I fail, may I be devoured by fire or eaten by a shark." I had it engraved on one of my bracelets to remind me that no matter what challenges we faced, there was no giving up. And if I ever needed to be reminded about my inspiration in making this film, I would just pick up the phone and call Sissy, Mark or Patrick because to me they are all really inspirational. It also helped that I had hula class twice a week to lift my spirits and all of my hula sistahs really rallied behind me in support.

Siebens: As a professional dancer and filmmaker who had no ties to Hawai'i, my initial interest was in the beauty of the dance. Impressed by the lyrical movement coupled with the rigor and structure of a unified group, I wanted to visually capture the poetic grace of the hula. I was also intrigued by the concept of telling stories through dance by "talking with one's hands." Yet the main attraction for me was the concept of dance as the catalyst for a community. This was the first time I had come across a group of people — men and women, young and old, from many different cultural backgrounds — who were all brought together through dance. The openness of the Hawaiian community allowed me not only to feel embraced, but to experience dance as a metaphor for culture in a way that I didn't in my community while growing up. This film is the result of a lot of hard work, dedication, eating, dancing, playing music and just "talking story." It's for people who are Hawaiian-at-heart wherever they live.

POV: What were your goals in making "American Aloha"? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Flanary: One of my goals in making this film was to show the challenges of trying to maintain one's culture even though you may live far from home. The film is a strong testament to the growing sense of empowerment felt by the large and vibrant Hawaiian community living on the mainland that has often been judged by the islander community as "not as authentic." I hope this film will spark more of a dialogue about the Hawaiian diaspora and a deeper understanding of Hawaiian culture as it lives and evolves away from the islands. Cultural authenticity is a debate facing many cultures today. And this film will hopefully inspire a sense of pride for numerous communities who are trying to perpetuate their traditions far from home.

Siebens: My main goal was to give the mainland Hawaiian community a voice, for their stories to be heard and told. There have been documentaries made about hula, and many about the kumu hula in Hawai'i. But very little has been made about the growing community of Hawaiians that live away from the islands. Although the kumu hula featured in the film are very respected by many in their community, often Hawaiians living on the mainland are looked down upon by islanders who view them as "not as good" or "not as authentic." Hopefully this film will help the mainland Hawaiian community to gain the respect and acknowledgement that they deserve.
In a broader context, I hope that this film will help to educate a public ignorant about hula and the Hawaiian community. With the many stereotypes and misconceptions that abound concerning the hula dance, this documentary should help them to gain some knowledge and respect.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making American Aloha?

Flanary: That there were so many Hawaiians living on the mainland! When we began making this film, I went on the internet to start my research and went to a website that listed all of the hula halau around the globe. I had no idea there were so many Hawaiians living all across the United States and in places that I wouldn't have imagined. Hula is everywhere! People are dancing the hula in over thirty four states and six other countries. That is absolutely incredible.

Siebens: The most surprising thing about making this film was that it took five years to make...

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Flanary: I am currently developing a documentary on Robert Cazimero and his role in the cultural renaissance in Hawai'i of the 1970's. Robert is not only a legendary Hawaiian singer and entertainer, but also the kumu hula of Hawai'i's premier all male hula troupe, Halau Na Kamalei. A lot of people are often surprised that men even dance the hula and he definitely played an important role in the revival of men dancing after decades of decline. His kumu hula was Auntie Maiki Aiu Lake who was my hula teacher's kumu so I see this project as a tribute to her legacy as well. Another dream of mine is to shoot two other documentaries — about hula in Japan and also in Mexico — that would complete my idea of a trilogy of hula beyond Hawai'i.

Siebens: I am currently working on several different projects. I am completing a commissioned documentary on the Limón Dance Company and the choreographer José Limón. As the director and cinematographer of the project it has been challenging to try and bring the immediacy of the now deceased Mexican choreographer's work to the screen, and to show the work and dedication of a world renowned modern dance company. This film will hopefully be shown on MetroArts/Thirteen in the fall of 2003. I have also recently completed a website commissioned by entitled PORTAL, and also presented a new media installation entitled imageWord.not_a_pipe= for the Frankfurt Ballet in Germany. I hope to continue to shoot and direct dance films and to work in a myriad of forms: documentary, narrative, experimental, abstract work and new media.