NA KAMALEI: The Men of Hula
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The Making Of

Director Lisette Marie Flanary talks about switching between making films and dancing hula, Robert Cazimero's response to the film and commuting between New York and Honolulu.

What led you to make this film?

The idea for making a film about men who dance hula really came out of my first film, American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii. Every time I screened the film—whether as a rough cut during those long years of post-production or in film festivals around the country—the first question always asked was, “Men dance hula? I thought only women danced the hula!” And while there was a lot of interest in the subject of male hula dancers, I also found that there were a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes out there too. All of these questions really became the seed of the idea to do a film focused on men dancing hula. I had originally thought that I would make a film about hula in Japan after my first film, but everything started to fall into place for making NA KAMALEI: The Men of Hula as the second film in my trilogy of hula films. When I found out that Robert would be taking the halau back to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in 2005 to celebrate their 30th anniversary, I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity for this film.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

People were telling me that after your first film, it becomes easier to raise the money for your second film. This is not true. It is always going to be hard. I think we as independent filmmakers get smarter about how we are going to raise the money for our films, but it’s still a lot of work and takes a lot of time. I did however get very lucky and ITVS had just started a new funding initiative called the Diversity Development Fund, which gave me the funding to start shooting in 2004 and make a trailer to raise the rest of the money for production. One of the biggest challenges was raising enough money in time to follow Robert and the men of the halau to the Merrie Monarch Festival in March and April in 2005. There was a point when I was seriously thinking that we might not be able to shoot them at the competition because of lack of funds, and looking back, it would have been devastating to have not been there! Not to mention the fact that it would have completely changed the film.

One of the other big challenges for me in making this film was the commute from New York City to Honolulu. It definitely is a challenge to live in New York and shoot a film in Hawaii. It worked out though, and really, it just pushed me to make the most of my production trips there. I know a lot of my friends and family think I’m just laying on a beach somewhere when I go to Honolulu, but seriously, I do work there! I really liked the balance of production in Hawaii and editing in New York.

Do you think the film will alter stereotypes about Hawaiian culture or male roles for those who see it? If so, how?

I hope that this film will alter stereotypes since that is a very important goal of my filmmaking. Just the other day I got a request from a film festival to send a screener for “Men of Hula-Hoops” (no joke! They thought that was the title…) and instead of feeling discouraged or annoyed, I thought it was a great opportunity for them to see the film and hopefully get a better understanding of the proud legacy of men in the hula tradition. I also believe that even within the Hawaiian community there are some stigmas that still exist for men who dance hula and this film will also hopefully affect that as well. It’s been really gratifying to have male dancers tell me that they were especially happy to see a story that reflected their experiences and stories on the screen and that the film made them even more proud to be a man dancing the hula. For me, it was also refreshing to see men interacting in very honest, emotional and supportive ways and I believe everyone can relate to the brotherhood of the halau featured in the film.

What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?

There was a lot of great footage that didn’t make the final cut! But I’m happy to say that you can find a lot of it in the special features of the DVD. Thanks to a distribution grant from IFP and a generous donation from an angel donor who saw the film at a festival screening, I was able to spend three weeks editing together some of my favorite footage that didn’t make the final film. Robert has this prolific music career and since the focus of the film was more on his work as a kumu hula, a lot of things about his music were not included in the film. We shot one of the Brothers Cazimero concerts for May Day at the Waikiki Shell and I also had two great interviews with his manager, Jon de Mello, and his brother, Roland Cazimero. Some of my other personal favorites were Robert’s birthday party at Kaimana Beach, a scene at Starbuck’s where the guys would fuel up on caffeine before competition nights at Merrie Monarch and a lot of great moments of the guys just hanging out at Paumalu and Kalaekilohana. Other things that were not included that I would have liked to have shown: additional interviews with other male kumu hulas (like Ed Collier and Kaha’i Topolinski), Robert’s students (Manu Boyd and Michael Casupang and Karl Veto Baker) who graduated as kumu hula under him and now have their own halau, and more on the lua school (Pa Ku’i a Holo) because there is so much interesting information on the Hawaiian martial arts and how they related to hula in ancient times.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

There were many emotional moments for me in making this film. Following the halau to the volcano when they made their offerings of their lei to the goddess Pele I think was the most moving for me. Because it’s a sacred ritual, Robert had initially told me that he did not want me to film that, and as a hula dancer I understood his reservations, but I have to admit I was extremely disappointed as a filmmaker. Eventually after having spent such a long time following the men leading up to competition, Robert really understood what I was trying to do and that my intentions were pono, or good. He had also seen the trailer we cut for the film and had a better understanding of what I was trying to achieve. When he told me that he had decided to allow me to film at the volcano, I was so thrilled. And truly, it was one of the most beautiful days of shooting I’ve ever experienced. Our crew was also very aware that we were not just shooting any old scene, so when the men took off their shoes to show respect on Pele’s land, so too did we! Auwe (Alas), walking barefoot on lava rock hurt, but I was so filled with awe and wonder that I didn’t care. The whole experience was filled with chicken skin moments from beginning to end: from the rain stopping as the men finished their chants and the sun coming out to the ua koko, or low lying rainbow, that appeared right after. It was such an honor to even be there with all of them, let alone capture the experience on film.

Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?

I didn’t really have any major technical issues when I was shooting, but I sure made up for that in the editing room. We shot 24p for the film, and while I loved the way the footage looked, I had no idea that this would give us such a headache in the edit. When my editor and I were looking into post houses to do the on-line for the film, we discovered a major problem with the way all of our media had been digitized. This quickly became a huge nightmare. Basically, we had to re-digitize every clip in the film before we could go into the on-line. And at that point, you are so tired and ready to finish that the last thing you want to hear is that you have to spend a week re-digitizing media. We thought there might be some Final Cut Pro shortcut to get around it, but no such luck.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

The audience response to this film has really just been amazing. Showing the film in festivals has been an absolute blast—I’ve never had so many sold-out screenings or received Audience Awards before. I don’t think anything can top the premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival when we had this amazing screening right on the beach at Waikiki. Before the sun went down and the film started, Robert and his brother Roland played music and the men danced as the beach became packed with people. I’d always dreamed of showing this film there, and the crowd loved it! For me, I was most excited about winning the Hawaii Filmmaker Award at HIFF. It’s also been really cool to see the response to the film on the mainland and internationally too. People who don’t know anything about hula or Hawaiian culture really respond to it too, which means a lot to me because I wanted to make something that could be universally understood. I also recently got the Emerging Director Award at the New York Asian American Film Festival which I felt was not just about this film, but all of my work on hula and Hawaiian culture.

I told Robert from the beginning that I wanted to make a film that they all could be proud of and I feel that they are very proud of this film. Their response was so important to me that I sent Robert every rough cut to get their feedback during the post-production process. When I sent Robert the final version of the film, he wrote me an email that literally moved me to tears. I printed it out and put it up by my desk. Here is an excerpt:

“It is everything and more than I could ever hope for. It is the best, in my humble opinion. Wonderful doesn’t even come close, and do you know why? As much as I’m in this miraculous film, I finally feel it’s about the guys, it’s about my kumu, it’s about who we are. It’s frank, honest, loving, touching, it breathes, it story-tells, it includes rather than excludes, it’s hard work on all parts. Here’s the best part: I see your face in almost every frame. I hear your voice silently saying, ’Please be patient with me. I want to do my best.’ You took time to care, you promised and made that promise good. You’ve brought my kumu’s wish back to life….”

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Public television offers an amazing venue to show your films to a wide audience across the country. Millions of people can see your film, in communities that you may not be able to show your film otherwise. Add up all those people who can fill up a theater at film festival screenings, all those DVDs you might sell, or even all the downloads from a Web site and you still won’t come close to the number of people who can tune in to a broadcast on PBS. For me, it’s really a no-brainer. I make films about hula and Hawaiian culture and want as many people as possible, from all over the country and the world, to see them and hopefully learn something about the culture and the people of Hawaii that they may not have known before.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

While I was making the film, I also had two other really big things happen in my life. The first was that I was invited to join the Papa ‘Uniki Lehua class by Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane in San Francisco, California which was one of the biggest honors of my life. It meant that I was traveling back and forth all the time to San Francisco for hula studies to work towards a formal graduation (‘uniki) as an ‘olapa, or a dancer. This requires a lot of dedication and discipline and it’s a lot of work—especially if you are a student like myself who happened to be doing it from a great distance. It’s like going to grad school, but for hula! The second big (and wonderful) thing was that I got engaged, moved to Brooklyn with my fiancé and was planning a wedding for July 2006. Since we are both independent filmmakers, and we both happened to be finishing films at the same time, life got extremely busy. I can’t believe I seriously thought I could finish the film, get married and then graduate all at the same time! I was traveling every month and just didn’t have a lot of time to plan a wedding. I’m no Wonder Woman, and something had to give, so we decided to postpone our wedding till 2007. This was no easy decision to make (some of my family had already bought plane tickets to New York! Oh, the guilt!!!), but it was a tremendous relief. A year later, after we both finished our films, and I had my ‘uniki we were finally married on a beautiful beach in Hawaii on July 27, 2007.

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