a film by Joe Wilson & Dean Hamer, in association with ITVS and Pacific Islanders in Communications:
KUMU HINA brings the powerful perspective of Pacific Island culture and values to bear on one of the most important and hotly contested issues of the 21st century: dignity, respect and human rights for transgender and gender nonconforming people, especially youth, around the world.
Although there have been several high profile films about transgender people over the years, they have tended to focus on the prejudice, discrimination, and hostility that trans people face, rather than on their abilities and accomplishments. From Paris Is Burning to The Brandon Teena Story, from Two Spirits to Southern Comfort, viewers have been introduced again and again to the ways in which people with differing gender identities and expressions have been marginalized, excluded, bullied, beaten, raped, and killed.
Now imagine a film where instead of transgender people being marginalized because of who they are, they are actually visible, included and honored. A world where youth who are searching for their own creative forms of gender expression are embraced and encouraged to be themselves rather than to hide in fear or pretend they are just like everyone else.
Welcome to KUMU HINA’s Hawai’i.
Like many ancient societies, pre-contact Hawaiians regarded those who displayed both male and female characteristics as gifted and special. They called these people mahu and valued and respected them as caretakers of family and guardians of culture. The arrival of missionaries, however, and imposition of European and Christian values in Hawai’i drove such practices deeply underground. Yet despite two centuries of colonization and repression, and efforts to abolish all traces of Hawaiian acceptance of mahu, the ancient tradition lives on.
In KUMU HINA, the tradition is embodied by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, an extraordinary Native Hawaiian who is both a proud and confident mahu, or transgender woman, and an honored and respected kumu, or teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader. Over the course of a pivotal year at the inner city charter school where she teaches, Kumu Hina inspires a boyish young girl to find her voice and claim her place as leader of the boys hula troupe, as she herself embarks on a moving quest for love and a fulfilling romantic relationship. The setting is contemporary Honolulu, where the encompassing, welcoming traditional values of the Pacific Islands collide head-on with the modern, westernized dominant culture.
While it is important for film and media to inform audiences about the persistent and structural bias and challenges that transgender people face, it is equally essential to offer positive portrayals of transgender people as a cultural norm. As a highly visible and respected member of both the Native Polynesian and mainstream American worlds that comprise modern Hawai’i, Hina is an ideal role model. In the past month, for example, she has been on network television both as the Chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council – a Governor-appointed position on an important State body – and as the traditional Hawaiian chanter for the opening ceremony for the NFL Pro Bowl – possibly the most masculine and hetero-normative event imaginable. Her visibility in such spaces is a powerful real-life example that transgender people can succeed and make valuable contributions in their community and society.
The need for stories such as Hina’s mentorship of her boyish young student is especially evident in schools. A recent survey found that 78% of students who were out as trans while in K-12 school had been harassed on the basis of their gender identity, 35% suffered physical abuse, and 15% had to leave school to escape. At the same time, there is a striking paucity of resources available to teachers and counselors, many of whom are unsure and anxious about even discussing the topic, much less offering guidance to a preadolescent child who is questioning their gender. While there has recently been a much-needed focus on school bullying and anti-LGBT harassment through projects such as the It Gets Better and Bully projects, teacher preparation and professional development on gender inclusion is virtually nonexistent.
The urgent need for such a focus was brought to national attention by a letter - that quickly went viral – written by an 11-year-old transgender girl named Sadie after President Obama’s recent inaugural address. While Sadie was inspired by the President’s inclusion of gay people in his speech, she wondered why he didn’t directly address trans people too. She wrote: Transgender kids like me are not allowed to go to most schools because the teachers think we are different from everyone else. Kids are told not to be friends with transgender kids, which makes us very lonely and sad. It would be a better world if everyone knew that transgender people have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.
Sadie’s words are an urgent reminder of the distance yet to travel in the struggle for dignity and respect for gender nonconforming people. And they lead one to wonder what the world would be like if all young people had a place as safe and welcoming to learn and grow as Kumu Hina’s Hawai’i. We believe that the KUMU HINA documentary will be a powerful tool to raise awareness about these issues and to promote dialogue, action and civic engagement on the global struggle for gender non-conforming people’s rights, all through the lens of a culture with a fundamentally more positive, inclusive and community-oriented philosophy of life.
We came to know Hina through our longstanding work in Hawai’i and trusted relationships with Hawaiian human rights activists. As filmmakers with a strong interest in social justice and equality, we immediately saw the potential for a film about her life to give voice to transgender and indigenous communities that have been too long ignored, misrepresented, and divided. We are fortunate that Hina shared our vision, and has given us complete and unparalleled access to film all aspects of her life and work. Her school, Halau Lokahi, has also been a staunch supporter of the project, and is delighted for the opportunity to present their Hawaiian culture-based approach to education to new audiences.
OUT IN THE SILENCE, our previous Sundance-supported PBS documentary about the largely invisible lives of LGBT people in rural America, demonstrated the ability that compelling films have to bring marginalized voices into the public square, help create much-needed community dialogue, and promote grassroots participation for social change. Combining public television broadcast with a robust engagement campaign, supported by a visionary public media funder, OUT IN THE SILENCE became a powerful example of a high impact social-issue documentary film. Its success was highlighted as a case study in two recent reports: Designing for Impact by the Center for Social Media at American University and The Good Pitch Review by the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation.
With similar support and visibility, our hope is that the stories in KUMU HINA will inspire viewers to think past the popular stereotypes of gender non-conforming, indigenous and other minority group members to view them as people to be valued and cherished rather than merely tolerated or accepted.