Frameline award-winning Kumu Hina (“Teacher Hina”) is a new documentary by directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. Hamer and Wilson previously worked together on Out in the Silence, a film about LGBTQ individuals in rural America, and the discrimination and bigotry they often face.
It was during an Out in the Silence screening in Hawaii that Hamer and Wilson came up with the idea for Kumu Hina, which chronicles a year in the life of Hina Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian māhū. Māhū is the Hawaiian term for those who embrace both masculine and feminine traits, similar to our term transgender. Hina transitioned from Collin to Hina, but still speaks of being “in the middle” regarding gender presentation.
After spending two years helping rural Americans learn acceptance of LGBTQ individuals with Out in the Silence, Wilson said Hina’s story seemed like an opportunity to provide a different perspective. Hina’s life was “so positive and fun and full of possibility,” Wilson explained.
“Most people think of transgender people in a negative context in our culture,” Wilson continued. “They’re the freaks of our society in a way. In Hawaii, a trans person is not seen as an object. Hina is seen as a teacher who just got married.”
The documentary follows Hina’s works as a teacher and council member, helping to preserve Hawaiian culture and traditions. It also explores her marriage to the Polynesian Hema, who struggles with how his Tonga friends and family view his māhū wife.
Hina teaches traditional hula and chant to students at Hālau Lōkahi, a public charter school dedicated to native Hawaiian culture, language, and history. Much of Hawaiian culture and traditions were lost in Hawaii’s colonial era, and the work of Hālau Lōkahi attempts to bridge that gap for the current generation.
Wilson said experiencing Hawaiian culture and its treatment of those like Hina was a revelation. “She was this empowered and highly regarded person in the community,” Wilson said. “The way she was teaching in her school is the way you would hope schools everywhere were. Everyone had a place.”
The documentary also follows Ho’onani, one of Hina’s students. Though Ho’onani is a girl, she always wants to dance and chant with the boys, and Hina allows it. Wilson said Ho’onani’s story shows that “the things we say girls can and can’t do don’t always have to be that way. [Ho’onani] has as much boy spirit as some of the high school boys.”
It is hopeful to see the boys in Ho’onani’s class be supportive of her. Wilson noted that Ho’onani “is not just accepted here – she’s viewed as a leader and admired.” Perhaps the differently-gendered youth of Ho’onani’s generation will not have to struggle with the teasing and bullying Hina experienced in her childhood, at least in a Hawaiian cultural environment.
“There’s a whole new wave coming of what’s possible,” Wilson said. “This girl shows that.”
Hina’s passion for Hawaiian history and culture shines through in the documentary. She is chair of the O’ahu Island Burial Council. Through this work, Hina helps to oversee construction projects which will disturb Hawaiian burial sites, ensuring the bodies are treated in a culturally respectful way.
The documentary deals well with themes of colonialism, racism, and cultural appropriation. Through Hina, we see how much of Hawaiian culture has been lost through the influence of the missionaries who colonized Hawaii, and the struggle to regain it.
Wilson said the chance to chronicle Hawaiian culture was one of the most exciting aspects of the film. “Most people in the US – us included – what we know of Hawaii is what’s on a TV program or the tourist brochure version: beautiful beaches, the land of aloha.”
“That’s all true,” Wilson said. “But the underlying context from the native Hawaiians, here long before the Europeans, is more complex than that. It’s a beautiful glimpse of a Hawaii people don’t see, even if they were coming here to visit.”
Hina’s cross-cultural marriage to Hema is also a source of stress, as māhū are not viewed with as much acceptance in Fiji as they are in Hawaii. The documentary follows Hina and Hema as they are reunited one year after their marriage, once Hema’s visa is approved and he can come to Hawaii. Hina wants understanding and acceptance from Hema, but he’s caught up in traditional gender roles in some unfortunate ways.
Hema is also supporting his Tonga family, and struggles with the American focus on wealth. Reflecting on his previous life, Hema recalls, “I was poor but I was free.” In this way, Kumu Hina is a subtle critique of America’s history of colonialism and the effect it has on racial minorities to this day.
The documentary doesn’t provide any easy answers, either, which I appreciate. Will Hema and Hina grow together, or are the obstacles they face too difficult to overcome? Hina doesn’t want to shame her husband, but feels stifled by having to present as feminine. Both Hina and Ho’onani talk about being in the “middle,” defying the masculine/feminine binary. Will Hema be able to love a wife who retains a masculine voice and mannerisms?
Hina takes Hema to visit some of her friends in the country, which Wilson sees as a turning point in their relationship. “Hema grew up in a conservative Christian environment,” Wilson said. “Hina takes him to another part of Hawaii most people would never see. An off-the-beaten-path community where māhū and family is what it is.”
“This is what life could and should be like – and WAS like,” Wilson said. “It’s a revelation for Hema…. He realizes, I can be just who I am and that’s cool, too.”
Wilson said it’s important for potential viewers to stay open-minded about the film. “People might say, ‘Oh, it’s a documentary.’ ‘Oh, it’s about Hawaii, and I know everything I need to know about Hawaii.’ It’s not a typical documentary. It’s fun and entertaining stories more than anything.”
“People like to put stories and films – and people – in boxes,” Wilson said. “The film is about a lot of different things. It’s about a māhū woman. It’s about a culture that has been very little-known and which has a lot to offer.”
Ultimately, Kumu Hina is a thought-provoking exploration of aloha. Hina says the true meaning of aloha is unconditional understanding, respect, and love. She strives to live by these principles and share them with her students. I’d say she succeeeds. Both Hina and Ho’onani’s mother talk about the importance of loving people for who they are, and set an important example of how we can bring that kind of love into reality.
“You can see Hawaii from a whole new perspective by going to this film,” Wilson said. “It opens up a whole new world of possibilities for what our schools, churches, and communities could look like – more inclusive for everybody.”
Wilson also said Austin audiences in particular might be interested to know that the soundtrack for the film is by Makana, a Hawaiian slack-key guitar player. “People who know music know him,” Wilson said. “You will hear some of his great music. He was a good supporter of the film.”
Kumu Hina made its Austin Premiere at aGLIFF on Fri. Sept. 12 at 12:45 pm at the Alamo Drafthouse S Lamar.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/10/2014.