“Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula” follows the legendary teacher Robert Cazimero and the only all-male hula school in Hawaii as they celebrate their 30th anniversary and prepare to compete at the world’s largest hula Festival. How did you meet Robert and decide to make a film about him? You are also a hula dancer yourself, correct?
I actually met Robert Cazimero when he came to New York City for Pacifika: The New York Hawaiian Film Festival where my first film, “American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai’i” was premiering. Of course, Robert is legendary not only as a master hula teacher (kumu hula) in Hawai’i, but also for his music as a part of the Brothers Cazimero. He had been invited to perform at the Opening Night party for my film screening and I have to admit, I was a little nervous to meet him. But he was absolutely amazing – so charming, funny and easy to talk to. I remember being captivated by listening to him sing that night – and also incredibly nervous when he called me up to dance a hula at the party! In fact, I was so nerve-racked to be dancing in front of him that I completely spaced out the choreography to a hula that I know by heart and he had to leave the piano and dance it along with me.
The idea to make a film about men dancing hula really came from showing my first film in festivals around the country and constantly hearing the same questions in Q&A’s from people who were shocked to see men dancing hula in the film. And naturally, because Robert has the only all-male hula school in Hawai’i, I thought he would be a fantastic person to feature in the film. One of the dancers of Halau Na Kamalei, his hula school, was also living and working in New York and had become a good friend of mine through the hula community here. We started talking about approaching Robert in 2004 about allowing me to document their school’s journey to the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in 2005 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their halau. The Merrie Monarch is like the Super Bowl of hula competitions in Hawai’i – and usually, Robert only enters once every ten years, so I knew that I really wanted to be able to capture this special journey. At first, he said no – being very humble and not imagining that his life and story were something that he wanted to share in a film. But after a few discussions, and getting to know each other a little bit better, he agreed to be in the film and looking back now, I think we all agree that it just felt like the stars were lining up for this project to take place when it did.
And last but not least, yes, I am a hula dancer and believe that dancing hula has enabled me to offer a different perspective from behind the lens as a director of documentaries about the dance. It’s pretty safe to say that I have hula on the brain 24/7!
A central part of your documentary practice is to make films that “celebrate a renaissance of traditional Hawaiian culture in the modern world.” Why is making films about Hawaiian culture important to you?
My mother is from Hawai’i, but I was born and raised on the mainland and spent a lot of time when I was growing up visiting our family in Hawai’i. Living on the mainland or continental United States, I was constantly surprised by the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about hula and Hawaiian culture. I grew so weary of being asked where my hula hoop was when I said I was going to hula class! Beyond that, there is such a romanticized idea of Hawai’i itself – whether from old Hollywood movies or American kitsch – that has a firm grasp in the consciousness of people around the world. One of the main reasons I believe it’s important to share these contemporary stories is to show that hula is a living art form that continues to grow and change while still remaining true to the traditions of past generations. Being able to share the history, culture, values, and language of Hawai’i are all interwoven throughout these films about the hula dance.
Along the same lines, many of your documentaries are about performance, whether dance or in your more recent film “One Voice”, singing. What draws you to performance aspects of culture? In making your films, have you found particular ways or styles of documenting movement and performance? Several of your films are also structured around competitions and the lead-up to them – why have you returned to this to help shape your stories?
I think that big performances and competition are inherently dramatic and can be strong structural elements in any documentary or film. Following a classic three-act structure leading up to a competition lends itself to a natural climax and conclusion. But ultimately, the real core and heart of my film work has always been the characters. If you aren’t emotionally invested in the people whom are portrayed in a film, you don’t really care who wins or loses. But if I can make people care about their stories, it really won’t matter if they walk out with a trophy or not. It’s about the personal journey and transformation that takes place in the preparation leading up to the competition and how going through this journey changes them. Whether its hula or Hawaiian music in my films, we learn about culture in organic ways through the stories of the characters’ lives. In essence, the real story is what happens off-stage, not on it. With “One Voice”, I had someone comment that they felt I had made a political film disguised as a Hawaiian “Glee” – which I thought was a really cool way to describe it! While I have developed certain techniques for capturing dance on camera or highlighting the beauty of Hawaiian music in my films, I believe the messages of pride and revitalization of the Hawaiian culture permeate every scene. These competitions and performances are also something that I don’t think mainstream audiences have ever seen before – even though they are huge events in Hawai’i. I thought it would be a great way to showcase these amazing events – which are institutions in Hawai’i – for a wide general audience.
What are you working on now?
I recently finished research and development for the final film in a trilogy of documentaries on the hula dance entitled “Tokyo Hula”. The film focuses on the explosive popularity of the hula dance in Japan. Today, it’s estimated there are more than 600,000 people dancing hula in Japan – which means there are more people dancing hula there than on the Hawaiian Islands where the native dance was born! I’ve been working for a long time on the idea for the film and raised some start-up funds to travel to Japan in 2009 and 2010 to shoot a fund-raising trailer to help me raise production funds. This will be the final chapter in my body of work that focuses on the hula dance – but I will continue to make films about Hawaiian culture in the future. Actually, I’m getting ready for a very big move from New York City to Honolulu at the end of the summer. After 20 years of calling NYC my island home, I’ll be leaving for the islands because I recently accepted a position as a professor of Indigenous/Native Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. I guess this means I’ll have a much shorter commute to make my films!