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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2003

Hula beyond the Islands

By Moon Yun Choi
Special to The Advertiser

Top: Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakane. Above: Pele Ka'io dances hula kahiko on a California beach.

Bluestocking Films

If hula dancers practicing on a high school lawn on the Mainland were the stereotype "hip-swaying girls in grass skirts and colorful leis," onlookers might be delighted.

But when it's men dancing traditional hula, chanting in Hawaiian and slapping their chests, the reception is quite different as "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i" shows.

In the hula documentary, viewers see a patrol car parked nearby and a police officer monitoring the men's moves, as if they could be dangerous. The officer stops the men from dancing and asks them to quiet it down. The dancers say "OK," and go back to the hula, only this time chanting like mutes.

What was going through the officer's mind?

Lisette Marie Flanary, who wrote, produced and co-directed "American Aloha," laughed about that scene. "Who knows what the cop thought or what the neighbors even thought, but they definitely didn't know that those guys were doing hula," she said. "(The neighbors) called up (the police): 'There's wild screaming coming from a high school yard.'"

She added: "They did it in a whisper (after they were asked to quiet it down.) That's how endearing these men are. They could've just said, 'OK, we'll just leave.' Nothing was going to stop them from doing hula."

The men were up at 6 a.m., practicing for a competition.

Sustaining Hawaiian culture

Lisette Marie Flanary

Age: 30.

Ethnicity: Japanese, Irish and Cherokee Indian.

Residence: New York City, for more than 12 years.

Academic degrees: Bachelor of Fine Arts in film and television from New York University, Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at New School University.

Fast facts: As a writer, filmmaker and hula dancer in New York City, she has produced numerous independent films in the United States and internationally, including the Student Academy Award-winning short, "Homeland," shot in El Salvador. Her credits also include writing and directing her own short film, "Kill Kimono," which toured in Asian-American film festivals around the country.

Flanary, whose mother is from Hawai'i and whose grandmother was a picture bride from Japan, has never lived in Hawai'i. However, she has come to Hawai'i often since childhood to visit relatives and has traveled to the Islands more often in the last five years to do research for the documentary.

Although "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i" has its funny moments, the documentary has a serious motive: to examine how Hawaiians who have moved to the Mainland sustain Hawaiian culture through hula.

That serious side resonates with Flanary's own love for hula. A New York City resident for 12 years, she began dancing hula in 1999 in earnest through the Hawai'i Cultural Foundation in New York.

She said it's changed her life. "I can't imagine what I would do if someone said, 'No more hula in New York.' I would have to move. That's how strongly I'm attached to hula now."

The 55-minute film, shot in color and with black-and-white footage, made its Hawai'i premiere June 14 at the Maui Film Festival 2003. It will broadcast nationally on PBS on Aug. 5 and rebroadcast locally Aug. 9.

Flanary was on Maui for the premiere. She made the documentary with her filmmaking partner Evann Siebens, a dance filmmaker and ballet dancer.

She and Siebens followed three California-based master hula teachers over five years.

The three kumu hula — Sissy Ka'io, Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu and Patrick Makuakane — display heart, spirit and put hard work into their hula.

So it was sad to hear Ho'omalu say dancers who dance hula on the Mainland are often thought of as second-rate.

This film, however, demonstrates that much talent is on display when its dancers perform, whether taught hula in the land of its origins or far away from Hawai'i.

Na Mele Hula 'Ohana, under the directorship of Ho'omalu, set high standards in hula competitions along the West Coast and in Hawai'i, where the men placed fourth at the Merrie Monarch Festival in 1998. Ho'omalu is now kumu hula of the newly formed Academy of Hawaiian Arts in Oakland, Calif.

He performed at the Hawaiian Bash May 24 in Honolulu and composed songs on the "Lilo & Stitch" soundtrack. Along with students from the Kamehameha Schools, he sings in the "Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride" and "He Mele No Lilo."

Ka'io focuses on hula kahiko, or ancient traditions of hula in Hawai'i. In recent years, her halau has performed at the World Sacred Music Festival in Los Angeles as well as at Merrie Monarch.

"Auntie Sissy keeps to tradition as much as possible and brings up people (Hoku Kaikaina, one of the first immersion language-school teachers, as an example) to teach us Hawai'i 'olelo, 'ohe (bamboo) carving to do prints on our pa'u, oli, lei making and other various cultural workshops," said Jacqueline Amazaki, a dancer in Ka'io's halau who appears in the documentary.

Makuakane is known for his choreography. The San Francisco-based dancer blends traditional and contemporary forms of hula into a style all his own called "hula mua," or "hula for the future." He brought his show "The Natives Are Restless" back to Hawai'i at the Hawai'i Theater in 2000.

Makuakane is a talented, flamboyant dancer with several dance awards. However, watching men in sparkly grass skirts and tight T-shirts swaying their hips to techno music might unsettle some. It feels, in some ways, as if traditional hula is meeting "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994), a musical comedy about drag queens who get a cabaret gig in the Australian outback.

Respect for hula

Flanary sought to present hula in a way that respected the nature of the dance form.

'American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i'

8 p.m. Aug. 5, rebroadcast 8 p.m. Aug. 9

KHET, PBS Hawai'i

To view trailer: www.pbs.org/pov/pov2003/americanaloha

That desire affected the film's editing. "Our editor would just want to take the music and cut what look good to the music. You can't do that with hula," she said. "That would be destroying the 'mele' or the text. Because all of the motions are so tied to the language which is in the song, you can't just rearrange that kind of stuff.

"I wanted to do this as correctly as possible, because it's so important, and especially because the people who allowed us into their homes and into their lives to make this film trust us to do that."

The documentary was the opening-night film at the first annual Pacifika: The New York Hawaiian Film Festival in May. Flanary said they sold out shows. In Maui, it was a little different. Flanary thought, "I'm bringing it back to Hawai'i. Definitely loads of people are going to turn out. But I think we actually had a stronger turnout in NYC."

Still, she says the audience in Hawai'i was receptive.

Bob Offermann, a Maui resident, was impressed by the number of men in Mainland halau. He saw two stories in the film.

"One is the story of Hawaiians in California, and how they try to maintain their ties to Hawai'i, and the other is the story of hula," he said. "Both of them came through very well in the film."

Amazaki added that the experience produced a bond. "After the initial shyness of being filmed, we all became friends," she said.

She also praised the filmmakers' final product. "They did a wonderful job editing many, many hours of film into this piece."