This December, as part of a month-long focus on Pacific Islander stories, Cinema Asian American on Xfinity On Demand presents Lisette Marie Flanary’s heart-warming documentary “One Voice.” Offering in partnership with Pacific Islanders in Communications, “One Voice” is available to view for free to all Comcast digital subscribers.
Every year in Hawai’i nearly 2000 high school students compete in the Kamehameha School’s Song Contest where young song leaders direct their classmates in singing Hawaiian songs in eight-part harmony, a capella. Started in 1921, the annual Song Contest is a unique cultural celebration that has become a major event in Hawai’i, broadcast live on TV to all the islands, played on the radio and streamed on the internet. As the competition celebrates the resurgence of the Hawaiian language in 2008, One Voice documents the story of the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest through the eyes of the student song leaders. Through the stories and the lives of these young high school students, the documentary shares a story of the Hawaiian culture as it has survived, flourished and grown through the universal power of music and song.
Flanary, a Hawaii- based filmmaker discussed the making of the film, the third in an trilogy of films she has made about Hawai’ian culture.
Your previous films have explored different facets of Hawaiian culture: “American Aloha” chronicled the flourishing of Hawaiian music, dance and language on the American mainland, while “Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula” is a portrait the only all-male hula school in Hawaii. What drew you to song, and the experiences of young people in “One Voice”? What is the significance of the sung Hawaiian language, as opposed to the spoken?
LMF: The real heart of “One Voice” is the story of the young students who with their own individual voices make a unique portrait of contemporary Hawai’i. I think audiences will enjoy discovering the importance of the revitalization of the Hawaiian language and culture through their eyes. Someone told me that they felt like this was a political film about the Hawaiian language disguised as “Glee”. As a filmmaker, I was really interested in telling a story that celebrated Hawaiian culture as it has survived and flourished through the artistic expression of music and song. While on the exterior it’s a film about the Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, it’s so much more than just a film about Hawaiian music!
Like hula, each of the songs in the film tells a story. This Song Contest was also unique in that it featured music by contemporary Hawaiian composers who were able to work with the students in preparation for the contest. Understanding the kaona, or deeper meaning, of the songs was an important goal for each of the song directors. These students really understood their mele, or songs, and were able to bring so much emotion to the class performances because of their hard work. Hearing the Hawaiian language being spoken is beautiful in itself, but when its sung, I think the feeling and emotion behind the words is expressed in ways that anyone around the world can understand. That is what is so amazing and universal about music.
Tell us a bit more about the Kamehameha Schools, which occupy a very specific place within Hawaiian history, culture and education. What makes it a useful lens through which to look at Hawaii?
LMF: Kamehameha Schools is a statewide educational system for Native Hawaiian children of pure or part native ancestry that was founded in 1887 by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a direct descendant of Kamehameha the Great. During the lifetime of Princess Pauahi, she witnessed the rapid decline of the Hawaiian population and believed that education would be the key to the survival of her people. Today, her endowment supports an educational system that serves thousands of Hawaiian students.
The Kamehameha Schools has such a rich history and legacy in Hawaiʻi that it was a perfect lens through which to explore this story about the Hawaiian language and culture. In 1888, the use of the Hawaiian language was prohibited at Kamehameha Schools and later in 1896, the Hawaiian language was banned from all of Hawaiʻi’s public schools. This “English-only” legislation had drastic effect on the Hawaiian language. It’s hard to imagine that people used to be scolded or punished for speaking Hawaiian at school. The road to revitalization of the Hawaiian language has been a long and hard one, but this film certainly celebrates how far the Hawaiian renaissance has come. Today, there is a tremendous resurgence of the Hawaiian language, and people are able to now connect to their Hawaiian identity, culture and homeland through this deeper experience of speaking their native language.
Through the experiences of several student song leaders, who are coaches and conductors to their fellow classmates, we see something very special; a deep and very personal dive into their own roots and family histories. It becomes clear that the singing contest is much more than an annual competition; what is its wider significance for Hawaii?
LMF: I think Song Contest is about pride – just a celebration of being proud to be Hawaiian. There is also a real sense of Hawaiian values – especially ‘ohana, or family – that I believe is reflected in the film. Whether on trips to Moloka’i or at home with their families, spending time outside of school with the students was certainly a highlight. “One Voice” embodies the aloha spirit and it really isn’t a film about who wins or loses the competition, but how meaningful this showcase of Hawaiian culture and pride is to the entire community.
You teach filmmaking in Hawaii –what are new trends and ideas that are coming from the islands? How would you describe the state of Hawaiian filmmaking? We see many television shows being produced there, from “Lost” to “Hawaii 5-0” – are these productions contributing to the local filmmaking community?
LMF: I think the future for Hawaiian filmmaking is very bright – and is also starting to get really exciting. And I’m not just saying this because I think the students we have at the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i are amazing (which they are!). But there are so many talented filmmakers here – and I’m excited to see more narrative films being made by Native Hawaiian filmmakers and Pacific Islanders. There has been a long tradition of documentary storytelling from Hawai’i, but more recently, these great narrative films have emerged signaling what I think is a new wave of Hawaiian storytelling on the screen. Ty Sanga’s “Stones”, a beautiful short film set in ancient Hawai’i and adapted from a legend, was the first Hawaiian-language film to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. A graduate of ACM at UH, ʻĀina Paikai is making his mark with some great short films that highlight the Hawaiian language and was also selected to be a part of the prestigious Sundance Native Film Lab in 2013. My friend Keo Woolford, who is a multi-talented artist, directed a narrative feature entitled “The Haumāna” which is not only screening in festivals around the country to sold out crowds but also opened in theaters here in Hawaiʻi and last week in New York City. While the Hawaiian community is incredibly supportive and truly hungry to see more films like these that reflect a distinct Hawaiian perspective on screen, I also think that these films speak to audiences beyond the islands and are gaining national and international recognition, which help to create opportunities for the next generation of storytellers.
Even shows like “Hawaiʻi Five-O” contribute to the vibrancy of the local filmmaking community here. Recently, they did an episode that recreated the Honoʻuliʻuli Japanese internment camp from WWII. I thought it was interesting that they kind of broke away from formula to give a sort of history lesson on national TV to highlight a relatively untold facet of the Japanese experience here in Hawaiʻi. They also offer tremendous learning opportunities and hand-on training to ACM students through an internship program every semester. For the spring of 2014, the show accepted seventeen Acadamy for Creative Media students who will work on the show as production assistants and that on-set professional experience is invaluable.
What are you working on next?
LMF: I am currently directing a documentary film entitled “Toyko Hula” about the explosive popularity of the hula dance in Japan. Today, it’s estimated that there are over 400,000-600,000 people dancing in Japan – that’s more than in Hawaiʻi! After a couple of years of research and development for this project, I have started production, but am still fundraising for the film’s completion. Funding always dictates the timeline of these films. Certainly, juggling teaching at the University of Hawaiʻi and making another documentary has also been challenging. But I did have a great production trip to Japan this summer and am getting ready to begin an edit in early 2014.