There’s a certain sadness to writing about “Kumu Hina”, the Frameline Jury Award Winner For Achievement in Documentary. It is certainly not the result of missed expectations but of a potentially missed audience: I worry this film might not be as widely seen as it should be, and it really should be seen.
It follows the eponymous protagonist – Hina Wong-Kalu – charting her life teaching school children traditional songs and dance in Hawaii. This may sound relatively quotidian on the face of things, but in execution it is anything but. Filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson have achieved that rare thing in LGBT documentary making: a subtle but inspiring tale.
I say this because unlike some so-called “inspiring” or “powerful” LGBT documentaries, “Kumu Hina” has the courage to offer a portrait of a life as it really is. In Hina they have an activist who is brave and self-assured, but who can also be weak and insecure. Nothing of Hina is hidden or obscured. She is an inspiring trans woman, a woman you want teaching your own children with her calm authority and perceptive compassion, but she is also a woman who lets herself be taken advantage of, who deserves more than she sometimes gets and whose life is a fragile balancing act between seeking happiness and resisting exploitation. It is this willingness to explore the often contradictory nature of human beings that gives “Kumu Hina” its power.
And here’s where I have to check myself – and indeed where so much of “Kumu Hina”‘s singularity lies: in the above paragraph I referred to Hina as a trans woman. That, in a way, was an act of deep cultural disrespect, linguistic colonialism, even. The ubiquitous phrase in our mainland lexicon for Hina’s gender identity is to refer to her as a trans gender woman; she certainly uses female pronouns. And yet this is not a term she herself adopts. Kina is mahu, the Hawai’ian term for a person who straddles the male – female binary. We might also refer to it as “gender queer” but even then it doesn’t feel right imposing a locution on a woman who so articulately speaks for herself. This is a film which could, if given the chance, push people both within and without the LGBT community to question not only their assumptions but also their language.
And yet, in a decision completely incomprehensible to this reviewer, the film was snubbed by Outfest this year. Of course I can’t be sure, but I wonder if it has something to do with the very difficulty that makes “Kumu Hina” so powerful: the refusal, for example, to paper the cracks in Hina’s relationship with her husband. This is a moment in the film of brutal but necessary realism. If festival curators think this will turn audiences off, they are are making a big mistake.
As we watch Hina in her community, revered for precisely who she is, teaching young men, women and mahu, it is impossible not to feel that the world needs more teachers like her, and that this film can’t get a bigger audience than it deserves.
Watch the trailer for “Kumu Hina” here: