Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place. Kathryn Xian and Brent Anbe. Honolulu: Zang Pictures, 2001. 67 minutes.
Kumu Hina. Directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson. Haleiwa, HI: Qwaves, 2014. 75 minutes.
The two films reviewed here focus on the Native Hawaiian gender identity known as māhū, a word broadly translated in the present day to describe LGBTQI-identified people. These films define māhū within a traditional Hawaiian worldview, distinguishing māhū from the umbrella of letters that otherwise lumps gender nonconforming identities together. Released just over a decade apart the films are snapshots of a shifting landscape with respect to American social and political acceptance of nonconforming gender expressions. At the same time, they are a call for those in Hawaii to use the power of indigenous cultural practices and knowledge production to re-member colonization’s dis-membering legacies. As such, lessons embodied through hula, chant, and the Hawaiian expression of aloha—glossed as brotherly love—are pathways toward ending homophobia’s violent marginalization of māhū and other LGBTQI folks.
“Remember when Kanaka Maoli could walk down the street hand in hand? Women would walk together hand in hand, or arms around their shoulders, and men could do the same. And nobody said anything. But everybody would say, ‘Ho [sic] those Kanaka Maoli, they so expressive, it’s so beautiful, they can touch each other.’ Remember that?”1 Kuʻumeaaloha Gomes, previously of the University of Hawaiiʻs LGBTI Commission, now the director of Kuʻuana Native Hawaiian Student Develpment Services at UH Mānoa offers this vignette. Gomes continues, “And now look at what’s happening. We can barely touch each other. Where did the change come from, so that today we’re not as accepting of people as we once were?” It is Gomes’s line of questioning in the film and her implicit evocation of a lost practice of aloha that summarizes Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place (2001). The change, viewers learn, is an effect of a socioeconomic model based in communal responsibility for growing the community’s wealth, shifting to a Christian capitalist economy that privileges the nuclear family and the individual. The invitation to “remember a sense of place” is a decolonizing call sounded out by directors Kathryn Xian and Brent Anbe, as well as the parade of Native and non-Native experts (activists, historians, cultural practitioners, academics, and self-identified māhū) to assert an alternative archive of indigenous knowledge largely erased from dominant gender discourses. The māhū the film primarily focuses its gaze on are drag queens, those whose spectacles of feminine performance put them at risk because of the visible (and invisible) ways in which their nonconforming bodies are thought to be dangerous.
There is a lot going on in this film; sometimes it feels as if there’s too much. In the 67-minute run time, it veers from defining māhū via Hawaii’s precolonial past—in which audiences get to know a māhū hula group led by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (who steps into the titular role of Kumu Hina)—to “modern times” where viewers meet the featured drag performers, learning how each understands their role as māhū while also following their uneasy pathways to self-acceptance. The film then moves into distinctly political territory as it follows the ultimately unsuccessful 1998 efforts to stop a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.2 In context with the previous sections of the film, the same-sex marriage fight puts in provocative relief Gomes’s earlier statement.
Like Ke Kulana, Kumu Hina is a film about understanding and finding acceptance while being māhū. It follows Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Kanaka Maoli male-to-female māhū over the course of a year as she instructs elementary students in Native cultural traditions, and, in particular, as she mentors Hoʻonani Komai, a sixth grader who, like Wong-Kalu, identifies as being “in the middle” of the gender spectrum. It is this negotiation of being in the middle, of expressing both male and female gender characteristics, that propels the film forward. In fact, Komai becomes the film’s secondary subject, as directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson follow both Wong-Kalu and Komai out of school and into their home lives. For Komai this entails navigating the challenges of sixth grade (homework, school dances, being a daughter, and taking a lead role in the high school boys hula performance) in a female body that feels decidedly male. For Wong-Kalu it involves a wide range of professional and personal obligations, such as preparing students for the school’s end-of-year hula performance; acting in her capacity as chair of the Oʻahu Burial Council, a watchdog organization working to keep Native Hawaiian burial sites from being disturbed as a result of development; and adjusting to married life with her Tongan husband, a man who has immigrated from Fiji, and whose internalized homophobia threatens to derail the new couple’s future.
Whereas Ke Kulana works to broadly decolonize the cultural definition of māhū through a multiplicity of voices, Kumu Hina presents a more intimate narrative that defines the expression of māhū in a very straightforward manner: embracing both male and female in one body, being “in the middle.” In many ways the task set up by Ke Kulana is more challenging, not just because of the film’s unwieldy scope, but because drag and the activities that can form around drag are already marginalized and pathologized by a heteropatriarchal culture. As a result, one of the film’s major interventions is to dismantle homophobic stereotypes or misunderstandings through the personal struggles of its māhū-identified cast. Kumu Hina’s Wong-Kalu and Komai, meanwhile, are presented as parallel protagonists; its focus on the mentor/mentee relationship between these two foregrounds one of the primary ways in which cultural knowledge is passed: from one generation to the next.
Both films obviously lend themselves to discussions about the cultural production of gender and alternative gender expressions, and, in particular, about understandings of Native American–derived two-spirit embodiments and Samoa’s faʻafafine, for example. Within indigenous studies these films stand out for tackling sexuality and its relationship to colonial power within Native communities, a topic that is only beginning to be more widely addressed in those communities. Two texts that would pair well with these films by introducing students to the histories surrounding such silences are Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s “Fa’afafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafuana” and Chris Finley’s “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing ‘Sexy Back’ and Out of Native Studies’ Closet.”3 The former includes a series of prosaic notes from “a wandering memory” linking McMullin’s trajectory from little boy to self-recognition as fa’afafine in Samoa. McMullin remembers the dissolution of self in the face of Christian homophobia and plots a way forward through Samoa’s greatest warrior, Nafuana. Finley, meanwhile, asserts a sex-positive, queer-friendly discussion of sexuality in response to colonial legacies of sexual violence that will provide a useful theoretical foundation for students. The difficulties both McMullin and Finley address regarding Native discussions of sexuality are reflected in each of these films, with respect to the changes Gomes observes and the various processes of acceptance the māhū drag queens of Ke Kulana experience, as well as the challenges Wong-Kalu and Komai face in Kumu Hina.
1 Kanaka Maoli, meaning “indigenous person,” is one of several terms chosen by Native Hawaiians to refer to themselves.
2 The 1998 constitutional amendment is noteworthy not just for the tremendous rancor and homophobia it uncovered in Hawaii in the months leading up to the election, but also because it was the first constitutional amendment in the United States to target same-sex couples (http://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/baehr-v-miike).
3 Dan Taulapapa McMullin, “Fa’afafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafuana” (81-94) and Chris Finley, “Decolonizing the Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke): Bringing ‹Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet” (31-42) both in Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, ed. Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011).