Directors Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson have previously worked together on documentaries dealing with gender and sexuality. Now, they’re taking on animation with Oscar-nominated animator Daniel Sousa to tell a tale of Hawaiian culture and acceptance. Here in a conversation with Awards Daily, they talk about the experience with animation and their close collaboration. Plus, they expound on what the story means to them from Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu hearing about it since she was little to the rest of the team learning about it years ago. They also talk about how long it took the film to get to screen and how they are still promoting it. Finally, they reveal what went into creating the distinct style of animation and what they will say if they win the Oscar.
Awards Daily: This is all your first time working in animation. What made you want to work in that medium and what was the experience like for you?
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson: Although this is our first completely animated film, we’ve actually included animated segments in several of our previous films, including a popular children’s piece, so we knew it was an effective way to illuminate complex ideas in an accessible way. Kapaemahu is a moolelo – a Hawaiian word for stories that encompass both history and legend, fact and fiction – a form that is especially suitable for the imaginative latitude afforded by animation.
The tricky part was figuring out the aesthetic that matched our vision for the content. As soon as we saw Daniel Sousa’s Feral, a gorgeously textured story about a boy who does not fit in, and some of his recent work telling indigenous stories from Native Americans, we knew we had found our animator. Fortunately, he returned our call and was interested in the project from the get-go.
AD: So some background for our readers: Dean and Joe you worked with Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu as the subject of your documentary Kumu Hina and in A Place in the Middle which she also was the writer. Now she has been involved with your last two movies as a director as well. How did you all come together to become co-directors?
HWK, DH, JW: The collaboration began shortly after Dean and Joe first met Hina back in 2011. Dean and Joe, a married couple, were in Honolulu for a community engagement screening with their documentary Out in the Silence – a story about the quest for dignity and respect for LGBT people in conservative small town America – and were introduced to Hina by a filmmaking friend.
Hina shared stories of Hawaiian culture’s traditional embrace of gender diversity, and captured Dean and Joe’s imagination by inviting them to document a year-in-her life as she, a Native Hawaiian teacher and cultural leader who also happens to be mahu – one who embodies the duality of masculine and feminine spirit – was embarking on a new adventure, getting married to a Tongan man.
That film, Kumu Hina, was broadcast on PBS Independent Lens and became an important vehicle for community engagement and educational work that opened up extraordinary opportunities to travel together to share Pacific-centered perspectives on gender diversity across the U.S. and around the world. Through the film and impact campaign, it also became clear that Hina was a great storyteller, and she joined Dean and Joe behind the lens to work on additional stories on similar themes in Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti.
All the while, the story of Kapaemahu, which Hina had shared with Dean and Joe early in the making of Kumu Hina, was percolating in their imaginations. But it took years of research to uncover the most authentic version of the story and to put all the pieces together to make it in a way that treated the sacred moolelo with the respect and reverence it deserves.
AB: This story has been something you have known since you were a child. Can you say when you first heard it and what it meant to you at the time?
HWK: I’ve known about the stones of Kapaemahu since I was a young boy named Colin playing on the beach in Waikiki. But this was at a time when the term mahu, and anyone who lived outside the Western gender binary, was treated with ridicule and disdain. The litany of ugly comments and mistreatment I suffered through the years made me tremble in fear and feel less-than. It wasn’t until college that I felt comfortable enough to transition into Hinaleimoana, and began to immerse myself in Hawaiian culture and language. Then I realized how the stones of Kapaemahu relate to me personally, and at the same time embody a beautiful part of our Hawaiian culture that most people know nothing about.
Such stories are rarely told, and when they are, it’s usually by outsiders who impose their view of the world, their language and culture, to synthesize and process the narrative through their own experience. I wanted to tell the story from my perspective as a native mahu wahine (transgender woman) and to tell it in the language that my ancestors might have used to pass it down to the next generation.
AD: I read that the animation was based on Polynesian art style. What was the experience working in that style? And was that your own decision or did you all decide on that?
DH: It was an amazing opportunity to create this very lush and beautiful world based on traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian art patterns, and to try to step inside the skin of people from a different time period. I found inspiration for the animation’s rough textures in Hawaiian tapa cloth and even the stones themselves. Hina, Joe, Dean and I had lots of back-and-forth, and they also provided a wealth of photographic references, including video of Hina’s movements and gestures. We tried to create these characters that were very statuesque and infuse every part of the film’s landscape with that stone texture and richness as well.
The biggest challenge was the joint effort of trying to create a story that connects with the audience on a human level. The original story, in a way, is pretty straightforward. And we’re trying to flesh out these characters so that we can relate to them and sympathize with them.
The epiphany came when we decided that a young Hawaiian child would appear early in the film, greeting the four visitors when they first arrive on the shores of Waikiki. That child then reappears in different scenes across the ages, giving viewers a character to relate to as the stones are lost, found, and finally resurrected as a monument to Kapaemahu on the beach. The film ends with the four mahu in the child’s gaze, and the question of their legacy, and a more inclusive future, resting on his generations’ shoulders.
AD: You have been through the Oscar race before, is there any difference this time around and are you giving advice to your potential co-nominees?
HWK, DH, JW: Last time around, the process wasn’t nearly as intense and involved as it is now and I was really just fortunate to be nominated. With this film, we have a really strong creative team and everyone is very committed to doing everything we can to take advantage of this opportunity to shine light on the meaning of the story and to ensure that we lift up the voices and histories of those who have been misrepresented and excluded for far too long.
AD: I read that Kapaemahu is also going to be a documentary for PBS? How involved with that are you all and what can we expect about that?
HWK, DH, JW: Hina, Dean, and Joe are collaborating on a series of projects to bring Kapaemahu to the widest possible audience, including a museum exhibition, digital experience and a children’s book, as well as the documentary (supported by Pacific Islanders in Communications). We want everyone who visits Hawaii to know the story told in our animated film, and to understand how and why this cultural legacy of healing and gender fluidity was suppressed and what its reclamation can teach us about inclusion, health and well-being.
AD: Do you know what you will say if you win the Oscar?
HWK, DH, JW: Mahalo nui loa! After that we would simply be grateful for Hawai’i, its culture and traditions to finally be seen, heard, and recognized through a Hawaiian perspective, and for indigenous peoples, and those across the gender spectrum, to finally be able to see themselves as heroes embraced and celebrated in history.
AD: This film touches on both lost culture and the acceptance of gender diversity. Do you feel there is a major connection to those two issues?
HWK, DH, JW: These issues are inseparable. Acceptance of gender diversity was simply one element of the broader tapestry of Hawaiian culture that was so deeply undermined by the arrival of foreigners, and ultimately, the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the late 1880s. Gradually, sometimes forcefully, American culture and ways became dominant, and so much was lost: language, traditions, philosophies, histories, connections to land and Hawaiian ways of being in the world.
While significant gains have been made over the past fifty years in the recovery of Hawaiian language and cultural practices, the embrace of traditional understandings of gender and sexual diversity has been slow in the islands because it is so deeply enmeshed in the ongoing fraught American debate over acceptance, inclusion, and equality for LGBTQ people.
Lifting up this aspect of the moolelo of Kapaemahu is part of helping to move progress in that process forward.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
HWK, DH, JW: Many of us who grew up in marginalized communities rarely or never get to see ourselves reflected in society. We’re erased from history and are told, day after day, that we don’t belong. The symbolism of this animated story is larger-than-life. That’s because our histories have been invisible for so long; it needs to be seen large so that it has an impact, and so young people or families with young people who fit somewhere in this invisibilized gender spectrum can see themselves out there and see their future possibilities, because there is a culture that has a place for them.
Our belief is that stories, told truthfully and well, have the power to capture people’s imaginations and open hearts and minds in magical ways. Our hope is that Kapaemahu has that kind of positive effect, on people younger and older alike, no matter who they are or the place they call home.