POV: Can you talk about the challenge of integrating historical context into a film about current-day issues? Take us through your process in striking the right balance in American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai’i.
Evann Siebens, Patrick Makuakane, and Lisette Marie Flanary at Pacifika, the New York Hawaiian Film Festival
Lisette Marie Flanary: Incorporating history was the biggest challenge we faced as filmmakers in making this documentary. While we were telling a very modern-day story in a contemporary setting like California, the three kumu hula‘s sections needed the grounding of historical information about the hula and Hawai’i in order for there to be a context in which their stories would resonate. We were also faced with another dilemma: how do we present information to two audiences? One we considered to be a mainstream American audience who may not know very much about the hula, and the other, the Hawaiian community, both on and off the islands, that has a very strong foundation in the history of hula in Hawai’i. We knew we had to strike a balance and a delicate one at that. Although we decided early on that we wanted to avoid the device of using a narrator to convey important information, we went through many drafts and different cuts using various attempts at interweaving history into the show. In every edit session, we came up with a new approach and would screen it for different audiences and inevitably find ourselves back at the drawing board. The crucial set-up of our film involved creating an opening sequence that did all of these things:
- Introduce the hula dance: How do we give enough basic information about the hula for a general audience? For instance, what is a kumu hula? What is a hula halau? Should we define hula kahiko and hula ‘auana right up at the top of the show? How much information did people need to have in order for them to really feel that they had enough of a foundation to watch the rest of the film?
- Introduce our three main characters and California: We had to include our three main kumu hula — Sissy Kaio, Mark Ho’omalu, and Patrick Makuakane — in the opening sequence and also set up the location of California. The three act structure of our film also needed to be established in the opening.
- Migration: Since our film is really about Hawaiians who are continuing traditions and the culture away from Hawai’i, it was necessary to also address the question of why they left the islands and how large the community in California has grown.
- History: This was the toughest element of all. Not only did we want to include historical information about Hawai’i, but also about the hula. The history of hula in Hawai’i could be an entire film in itself! Figuring out what key points were the most important and relevant to the stories shared in our film was a difficult process that involved a lot of research and writing. In retrospect, I think I spent more time in the archives at the Bishop Museum — looking at photographs and archival footage, reading books, writing and rewriting (and then rewriting again) title cards, and drafting paper edits — than physically on set while we were shooting.
At first, we tried to create an opening that started with hula, our kumu hula and the Hawaiian community in California and then went into a historical treatment with text over photographs I had researched at the Bishop Museum. Basically, it was really hard to go from the contemporary story to a historical and informational section and then back to the contemporary again. It felt a lot like starting, stopping and then starting again. While the audiences we screened the first cut for wanted all of the important historical information, they did not like the way it was presented and many people found it boring. Our historical section seemed forced, not too far from dogmatic in terms of tone and pace. In other words, it was just too much.
I should also point out that when we were assembling our first cuts, we had shot over a hundred hours of footage and also had about five other kumu hula in California in the film. Each and every one of them was different and interesting but our structure and storyline were all over the place! Instead of following one character for any period of time, we were bouncing around from topic to topic and trying to interweave too many voices into a coherent whole. An interesting survey of hula and of many different teachers and schools in California, but seriously lacking a tight structure with a beginning, middle and end. The documentary at that point had a running time of an hour and forty-five minutes and I think our historical opening was close to ten minutes long!
Next, it was back to the drawing board and another paper edit. I would sit down and write out everything I thought was important historical information and then take out my notecards and try to narrow it down. I went through packs and packs of notecards, sometimes rewriting the same sentence or two in twenty different ways. Whenever it came time to work on history, Evann and our editor would leave me alone with my computer, piles of paper and books, and the notecards tacked up on a big board in front of me. I would take my dog out for walks with a notecard and pen in hand, mumbling to myself in the streets of New York about the missionaries and the outlaw of hula. Not an easy time…
We ended up taking our big historical section in the beginning and cutting it into three parts. In the hopes of picking up the pace of our opening sequence, we tried to put a historical section at the beginning of each kumu hula‘s act. The result was that it slowed down the momentum and flow of our kumu‘s stories, not once but three times. At that point we realized we had too much history and that it needed to be more interwoven within the film. We also decided to scrap the still photographs with text because it seemed so static compared to the color and vibrancy of our footage. For me, it was kind of heartbreaking to think of all the time and energy I had put into researching the photos and then find them on the cutting room floor.
Once we had decided to use archival moving footage with the text on screen, things seemed to move and flow much smoother. We decided to try a historical section at the very top of the show and then go to our opening sequence at the Ho’olaulea in California. While I liked the idea of setting up all of the historical information right at the top of the show and then being able to move on to our contemporary footage, it didn’t work either. It ended up feeling like we had two opening sequences!
Again, we went back to the drawing board and decided to try using narration with stock footage of Hawai’i. We had been working with Dr. Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman as a research consultant and advisor since 1998 and decided she would be perfect to help us solve our issues with combining history, migration and introducing the hula dance in our opening sequence. At this point, I felt that we had done everything to avoid using a narrator (which we had been so against!) and hadn’t been successful, so why not give it a try?
So we flew Amy out for a weekend and had a big talk-story about the film and what we were trying to accomplish. She had seen all ten of our different rough cuts over the years and had a good idea of the challenges we were facing. We spent a day recording the voiceover and then went back into the editing room to cut a new opening sequence. At last, I thought, we’ve nailed it!
While I was feeling confident that we had finally struck a balance and resolved our dilemma of incorporating history and context into the opening sequence, nobody else seemed to think so! We sent out the new cut and got some feedback (that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, but needed to). I remember Evann and I going into the offices at POV to have a discussion about the cut. They put in our new opening sequence and let us watch it. Then they put in an older version and played it. In comparing the two, the older one was better. We had used old Hollywood footage to show where the stereotypes of hula come from and contrasted it with people dancing hula at the Ho’olaulea in California. It wasn’t perfect, but it did have energy. Our opening with narration felt more like a standard documentary, with more of an educational tone that didn’t fit with the rest of the film. It was like being at the optometrist’s office. Which is clearer, number one or number two?
Once I got over my depression at having to start over again, I sat down and thought about all of our previous attempts and all of the feedback we had gotten. Our opening could address the stereotypes of hula from old Hollywood movie footage and we could let our kumu hula bash the stereotype. Then we could show our opening with the setting of California, with text over the screen about migration and some definitions of basic hula terminology, intercut with people dancing to He Hawai’i Au (I’m Proud to Be Hawaiian). All three of our kumu hula would be introduced with key bites that helped set up our film. And history? We chose to stick with the text on screen over moving archival footage from the Bishop Museum, but to keep it short and sweet before each act. Each card would give important background about the history of hula and all of the struggles it has survived through time. Each card also would contain a definition (kumu hula, mele, kahiko and ‘auana). In using three historical pauses before each act along with the ‘olelo no’eau (or Hawaiian proverb) over the beautiful archival images, we had finally found our balance.