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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 25, 2010

'Pidgin' would have made him proud

By Lee Cataluna


"Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai'i"

PBS Hawaii tonight, 8:30 and 11

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Beloved University of Hawai'i professor Kanalu Young never got to see the film he inspired.

Young and filmmaker Marlene Booth became friends while serving together on a panel for Pacific Islanders in Communications. They talked about working on a film together. At first, Booth thought the documentary would be about Hawaiian language Young was a founding faculty member of the UH School of Hawaiian Studies. But when she brought him her proposal, he had a different idea.

"He said, 'I think we should do a film about pidgin. Without pidgin, I don't know who I would be.' And I thought, 'Oh, man, that's pretty strong.' "

Booth, who was raised in Iowa and lived most of her adult life in Boston, relied on Young as her guide on the topic. "He opened doors that wouldn't have been opened to me," she said.

The partnership worked both ways. "Since I'm an outsider, I was able to pose questions to him that he wanted to answer and wanted to talk about."

The result of their work together is "Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai'i," which won the audience award at the Hawaii International Film Festival, was broadcast nationally on PBS and will be rebroadcast tonight on PBS Hawaii.

Like pidgin itself, the film has different levels. On the surface, there are elements for those who have never heard of Hawai'i's unique dialect, such as graphics that show common expressions like "da kine." But there are also moments of depth that might teach lifelong pidgin speakers a thing or two.

One particularly stunning scene was shot in a Punahou classroom. The students' discussion of pidgin is raw and unguarded, from the girl who says she speaks pidgin only around public school kids, to another student who says pidgin is a unique part of Hawai'i culture and should be preserved.

Another powerful segment revisits a 1987 lawsuit by an employee of the National Weather Service who said he was passed over for a promotion because his sample weather broadcast sounded too local.

The piece opens with legendary paddling coach Nappy Napoleon giving instructions to his crew. There's pidgin, and then there's Nappy Napoleon pidgin, and that's a great way to start the discussion.

Booth captures both the humor of the language and the sociological implications. She reaches back with some old-time expressions you rarely hear anymore, like "pio the light" ("turn off the light") and shows pidgin in modern times, in text messages and Facebook.

Kanalu Young died in 2008 as the film was being edited.

"He would have loved taking this film to audiences. He wanted to have this conversation," Booth said.