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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 26, 2008

The 'Princess paradox

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Q’orianka Kilcher, 18, stars in the upcoming Princess Ka'iulani film, slated for a 2009 release. Kilcher says she was at first repulsed by the original film title, “Barbarian Princess.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A banquet scene is part of the movie about Princess Ka'iulani filmed at 'Iolani Palace. Island Film Group, a Hawai'i-based studio, is co-producing it.

Courtesy Island Film Group

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When it comes to making movies, the line between success and failure may be only a few words long.

A catchy phrase can become synonymous with a box-office hit. The dark alternative? It can just as easily remind people of a flop.

But more than a fear of empty theaters is riding on what to call the new film about the life of Princess Ka'iulani. The producers, who angered some Hawaiians in March when they revealed a tentative title of "Barbarian Princess," have struggled for weeks to find a name for the film that is both culturally sensitive and more enticing than the project's current one: "Princess Ka'iulani."

"The benefit of maybe not offending someone, we believe, would be grossly outweighed by the harm of fewer people seeing the movie," said producer Ric Galindez, of Island Film Group, the Hawai'i-based studio that's co-producing the film with London-based Matador Pictures. "We think it is really important to have a name that sparks curiosity."

The $9 million film is the first big production for Island Film Group, which hopes to bring Hawai'i stories to the big screen. Q'orianka Kilcher, who mesmerized audiences as Pocahontas in the 2005 film "The New World," has the starring role as Kai'ulani.

The movie focuses on Ka'iulani's short, tragic life as well as the lowest point in modern Hawaiian history — the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy. Ka'iulani died in 1899 at the age of 23. As heir to the throne, she tried unsuccessfully to restore Hawaiian self-rule. She is not a major figure in Hawaiian history, but beloved nonetheless.

Critics of the movie's initial title — which was also the name of the screenplay written by its director, Marc Forby — judged the movie without all the facts, Galindez said.

"I guess standing on its own, if we were to call the Hawaiian people barbarians that would be insulting," he said. "But there is much more to it than the title. Obviously there is the film and there is the story and, unfortunately, from our perspective, it was taken out of context. We just need to call it something else. I don't know what the right answer is. It is certainly not our intent to be offensive."


Filmmakers briefly called the movie "The Last Princess." They dumped it because it felt too much like a Disney title, Galindez said.

"It's not a Disney movie," he said. "It is a very serious movie. It is a love story. It is historical and it is cultural."

At this point, no title is off the table, and none is definite, because a distributor could buy the rights and change whatever name they give it.

"They are open to suggestion, I think," said Puakea Nogelmeier, a University of Hawai'i-Manoa associate professor of Hawaiian language and a consultant for the movie. "They are looking for something that really fits. There is a world market that one wants to be aware of, but there is also a local sensitivity, and I think they are trying to bridge that."

The film's director, Forby, doesn't like "Princess Kaiulani" as a title, because it will be difficult for some people to pronounce, Nogelmeier said.

"He said, 'I can't bear the thought of hearing it slaughtered by radio announcers,' " Nogel-meier said. "People won't know how to handle the name."


No matter what it's called, the 18-year-old Kilcher will be the soul of the film. As the face of Ka'iulani, the half-Peruvian actress hopes the film's producers will craft a title that intrigues people.

"I think that is a really, really important thing," she said.

When Kilcher first read the script, she was so shocked at the original title that she wasn't going to read the part, until her mother convinced her to give it a chance.

"I understood more clearly as to why they said 'Barbarian Princess' after I read the script," Kilcher said. "But at first it repulsed me."

The original title comes from derogatory media references to the princess during early travels to the United States. Although reporters and cartoonists portrayed her as a savage, however, Ka'iulani impressed them at every stop with her beauty, grace and intelligence.

Those are qualities that need to be remembered, Kilcher said.

"Ka'iulani's story is an inspiring story of a courageous, highly educated, compassionate young woman who was dedicated to her people," she said. "To me, she is not a part of Hawai'i's history but a part of Hawai'i itself."

And that's precisely the point, critics of the title "Barbarian Princess" have said.

"It is almost impossible to negotiate around the fact that we consider her a part of our family and we are troubled by a history of racist connotations of native people," said Jon Osorio, a UH professor at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. "We hold this thing really sensitively."


Osorio, who spoke with director Forby prior to the start of production, said none of this should have surprised the filmmakers.

"They should have been, from the very beginning, alerted to the notion that 'Barbarian' was going to set off all kinds of alarms for people who have been depicted and pronounced savage, cannibals and insignificant," Osorio said. "It may help them sell tickets, but it certainly won't make it easier to show their faces around here."

The producers, who expect their film will be in theaters a year from now, have to decide soon what to call their finished product. Galindez wants a title that evokes a thoughtful reaction, but he's a realist.

"No matter what, someone is not going to be happy," he said. "I don't know if we are going to come up with a title that everyone will love. Everyone from the consumer to the distributors, to everyone in Hawai'i. That is not possible."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.