Performing Aloha in Queer Times

0 Posted by - April 7, 2015 - Features, Performance, Reviews, Screen

In 2001, filmmakers Kathryn Xian and Brent Anbe broke new ground with their documentary Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place. The film, which documents the lives, struggles, and aspirations of several queer and trans Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians), also made an important and, at the time, novel effort to explore how the ongoing exercise of settler-colonial rule in Hawai’i shapes gender and sexual identities. An evocative and important project, Kulana He Mahu was released to much critical acclaim, and has since screened at festivals and community events throughout Hawai’i and around the globe.

But while Xian and Anbe certainly open the question of how settler colonialism systematically devalues and represses such non-binary Indigenous identifications as Māhū (a ‘middle’ person, possessing both masculine and feminine energies), critics like Stephanie Nohelani Teves have recently suggested that the film often shies away from a substantive political engagement with the histories and presents of colonialism. While always acknowledging its beauty and historical import, Teves suggests that Kulana He Mahu tends to split the (liberal) struggle for LGBTQI civil rights that flourished in 1990s Hawai’i off from the Kanaka Maoli sovereignty movement that grew substantially in the same moment. As a result, though it trades heavily in the language of Hawaiian sovereignty and, in particular, aloha, Teves argues that Kulana He Mahu tends toward a depoliticization of that concept, deploying it as something of a synonym for acceptance, diversity, pleasantness, and kindness, rather than as an affirmation of the very particular relationship that Kanaka Maoli have to their lands, their kinship networks, their spiritual, cultural, and political orders, and their ways of living in differently gendered bodies.

Nearly fifteen years on from the release of Kulana He Mahu, the political scene has changed dramatically. In November of 2013, former Governor of Hawai’i Neil Abercrombie signed into law Senate Bill 1, legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the islands. The culmination of some two decades of pitched political struggle over the civil rights of LGBTQI people in Hawai’i, SB1 is of course part and parcel of the immense expansion and (still scattered) success of marriage equality campaigns in many parts of the US since the early 2000s. Alongside and in response to the ascendance of this liberal LGBTQI politic, we have also seen the growth of more radical queer, queer-of-colour, and trans-focused political projects that challenge the dominance of equality as an organizing frame for gender and sex activism, while simultaneously broaching questions of state and police violence, incarceration, poverty, white supremacy, (settler) colonialism, imperialism, and sex workers’ rights. Finally, recent years have also seen a dramatic resurgence of Indigenous and anti-colonial resistance movements in many corners of the globe, including Idle No More in Canada, and in Hawai’i, the resounding refusal on the part of Kanaka Maoli to accept the terms of a proposed ‘government-to-government’ recognition agreement with the American state.

tumblr_inline_n7039fsL6C1roal4cIt is in this charged context that Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson offer their new documentary on gender, sexuality, and Indigeneity in Hawai’i, Kumu Hina. A touching and affecting story of intimacy, hope, identity, alliance, and performance, Kumu Hina in many ways picks up where Kulana He Mahu left off. Set in and around Honolulu on the island of O’ahu, (though occasionally passing through Kauai and Fiji), Hamer and Wilson organize their film around two intersecting storylines. On the one hand is the film’s central figure and narrator, Kanaka Maoli teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (Hina), a renowned māhū hula and mele (song and chant) performer who also sits as Chair of the O’ahu Island Burial Council – a civic body that ensures development projects do not proceed without proper archaeological assessment and cultural oversight. On the other is Ho’onani Kamai, a young pupil of Hina’s who unabashedly identifies as a middle person. Spirited, disarmingly honest, and at maybe twelve years old a virtuoso of hula, ukulele, and hip hop dance, Ho’onani thinks and speaks well beyond their years, living, in their own words, according to a principle of “mai hilahila,” or no shame. Ho’onani’s story overlaps with Hina’s in the walls of Hālau Lōkahi, a public charter school dedicated to the study of native Hawaiian culture, language, and history; subjects, the film tells us in title cards, “long prohibited in Hawai’i’s Americanized education system.”

At Hālau Lōkahi, Hina teaches hula and mele to Kanaka Maoli students of all ages, including Ho’onani, who not only insists on performing alongside male-identified students, but in fact leads and instructs a group of high school-aged boys in anticipation of the year-end recital. Though spare and austere – bounded by large, industrial garage doors and swaddled in an institutional, fluorescent beigeness – Hālau Lōkahi is filled with passionate strivings, deeply-felt frustrations, and poignant moments of intimacy and connection. Hina, for her part, struggles to draw out of her older male students the passion for hula that so clearly animates her own practice. Ho’onani, though often nonchalant and even flippant about the stakes of gender identification, nonetheless evinces a rare commitment to both self-determination and personal forthrightness: “I don’t give a crap what others think.”

It is a testament to the uncommon energy of these remarkable characters that Kumu Hina even while favouring a decidedly quotidian visual palette comprised of cramped basement suites, unadorned classrooms, and administrative offices – bristles with strain, desire, indeterminacy, melancholy, and hopefulness.

Small glimpses into Hina’s personal life, woven into the film’s main narrative, bolster this sensibility. As the film unfolds, for instance, we meet her partner, a Fijian man of twenty five named Hema Kalu. Though clearly caring, Hina and Hema’s relationship is doubly strained by physical and social distance. Indeed, until Hema travels to O’ahu midway through the film, the two are stuck negotiating a love stretched across a vast expanse of open ocean. And once reunited, the strain of sorting out domestic, financial, and social obligations becomes almost too much for the pair to withstand, with Hina at one point wondering aloud (in voiceover) if it’s all worth it, if the fear of never having a partner at all is enough to justify staying with a partner one might no longer love. Tellingly and surprisingly, it is here, in the navigation of courtship, intimacy, and care across multiple borders, that the stubborn imprints of heteronormativity and patriarchal power rear their heads, pointing to the durability of gendered hierarchies even in those spaces where they are routinely transgressed.

And yet, if Hamer and Wilson manage capture something of the complexity of living a queer and specifically Kanaka Maoli life amid the pressures of heterosexual coupling, gender normativity, and settler-colonial rule, they also (not unlike Xian and Anbe) frequently frustrate their own film’s political potential. The language of colonialism, for instance, is conspicuously absent through much of Kumu Hina. And while this absence might simply be a function of what issues the characters chose to address in their conversations with the filmmakers, there are several moments of slippage and contradiction that lead me to believe this is only part of the story.

The film begins, for instance, not with a conventional establishing shot, but rather with a short animated sequence rendered in a kind of faux-‘traditional’ Hawaiian aesthetic. Coupled with voiceover narration provided by Hina, the passage unfolds the story of how māhū occupied a special place in pre-contact Hawaiian society. We learn that they were revered as caregivers, understood to be in touch with the multiple energies, forces, practices, and spirits that comprise a Kanaka Maoli cosmology, most of all aloha. With the arrival of Christian missionaries, however, this special station was repressed, shamed, and very nearly erased. In flight from the new “religious stricture” that spread out across Kanaka Maoli lands, aloha, hula, and māhū alike were forced underground, where they endured in secret. As Hina’s voiceover rolls, an animated preacher is seen emphatically waving a bible at a māhū figure posed in silhouette, sheltering a child in their grasp. In the foreground, rough-hewn white crosses shoot up like weeds.

This sequence, though beautifully rendered, seems to imagine both the colonization of Hawai’i and the subsequent discipline of non-heteronormative Hawaiian bodies as having been singly-determined by the spread of Christianity through the islands. It is critical to remember, though, that colonialism in Hawai’i was far more than just a religious project born of fervent preachers and missionaries. It was also, and remains, an overtly imperial, military, and white-supremacist project, tethered to capitalist resource extraction agendas. And so as cruciforms erupt menacingly into the frame, one is left wondering: what of the bayonets that in the late 1800s forced King Kalākaua to defang and all but dissolve the Hawaiian monarchy? What of the American Howitzers that, in 1896, coerced Kalākaua’s sister and successor, Queen Lili’ukolani, into ceding control of the islands to the United States while imprisoned in Iolani Palace? What of the ways in which militarized and imperial statecraft both produce and emerge from gendered hierarchies of power? To paraphrase Indigenous activist and academic Andrea Smith, what of the deep structural relationship between conquest in all its aspects (military, territorial, religious, cultural) and sexual violence?

What’s more, in articulating this sorely selective historical narrative (which, conveniently, elides US militarism and imperialism) through an animated visual language totally absent from the rest of the film, Hamer and Wilson seem to suggest that the violent seizure and settlement of Hawai’i belongs to a historical moment outside the ‘contemporary’ visual space in which the rest of the film unfolds. Colonial violence, then, is simultaneously erased from the historical record and displaced from the very visual, representational, and imaginative codes of documentary. The result is that colonialism – already reduced to an evangelical moral crusade – emerges not as a structure that continues to actively shape life for Kanaka Maoli in general and māhū in particular, but as a singular historical event that, despite its lingering effects in the present, is nonetheless finished, resigned to some conflictual time in the distant past.

Occasionally, however, this framing device shudders, as if unable to contain the sense that something is missing, that there remains something more to be said. This ‘something more’ is difficult to discern, yet manages to break into the frame on one rather dramatic occasion. Having grown frustrated with the lacklustre performance of her high school students, Hina appeals to the principal of Hālau Lōkahi, Laara Allbrett. In response, Allbrett calls an emotionally-charged assembly where she strains, seemingly on the edge of tears, to communicate to her students the gravity of Hina’s work, and of hula in general: “Hina is trying to hold on to what’s left of Hawaiian culture,” Allbrett inveighs. “If you say aloha to anybody, where is it coming from?” Murmurs of “the heart” emerge from the gathered students. “Supposed to be,” Allbrett replies. “Or don’t say the word! When you sing Hawai’i Pono’i [Hawaiian national anthem], what flag do you have on your chest? Hae Hawai’i [Hawaiian flag]! We didn’t get to sing that stuff in our schools. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag that took over Hawai’i, do you get it?”

Here, the cultural and historical violence of settler colonialism is finally disclosed; articulated through an explicit re-politicization of aloha, through the realignment of that concept with the living embodiment – through hula, mele, and collective education – of Kanaka Maoli sovereignty and continuance. This jarring moment resonates with others that subtly challenge the film’s tendency toward political forgetting, such as when Hina, narrating the story of her transition, claims that despite having been harassed in high school for being “too girly,” she “found refuge in being Hawaiian, being Kanaka Maoli…My purpose in this life is to pass on the true meaning of aloha – love, honor, and respect. It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.” And it is here, where the endurance of queer life in the face of heteronormativity crosses over the endurance of Indigeneity in the face of settler-colonial violence and erasure, that a palpable sense of hope begins to crack open.

Later, in the lead-up to the school’s year-end recital, Hina is once again lecturing her male high school students, trying to coax from them a spirit of “kū,” or male energy. “In your guts, in your heart, down here, you gotta have kū.” As Hina speaks of the heart, though, she points to her stomach, signalling almost imperceptibly and perhaps unwittingly how the practice of hula – the embodied performance of Kanaka Maoli cosmologies and sovereignties in fact makes available a queer bodily mutability, a suppleness and rearrangeability of form. Through hula, Hina’s motions subtly suggest, different kinds of embodiment become not simply possible, but also livable, sensible, pleasurable. With organs decoupled from energies, energies redistributed through movement, and movement freed from both a binary gender regime and the violent erasures of settler colonialism, the performance of Kanaka Maoli sovereignty, the performance of Indigenous continuance, and the performance of māhū identity converge in one dense moment of queer and decolonial possibility.

These are the moments – unexpected, profoundly moving, and decidedly at odds with the film’s troublesome rhetorical framework – that elevate Kumu Hina from a sentimental love story to a compelling intervention into the contemporary politics of gender, decolonization, and documentary cinema alike. And while these moments demand a viewing practice that runs at an angle to the film’s preferred reading, they are nonetheless precisely what make a different world seem possible. Not only possible, but already here, lived and embodied in the present tense.

Kumu Hina screens as part of the TIFF Kids International Film Festival April 7, 13, 17, and 18

Tyler Morgenstern is a writer and graduate student who currently lives and works in Montréal, Mohawk territory. He blogs here, tweets here, and his writing can be found here.

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