Paying Attention: The Importance
of Being "Mahu"
By Pauline Guillermo-Aguilar
Last May I sat in a small coffee shop in Makiki, central
Honolulu, talking with Connie Flores and Kathryn Xian, producer
and director, respectively, of the documentary "Ke Kulana
He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place." They spoke with
a quiet intensity, every word charged with purpose, eager
to talk about the "Mahu" (transgendered people)
of Hawaii and how their story changed their lives. Back then
the film was in its final stages of production, but already
one could sense the groundswell that was building behind the
project. In October, 2001, the film opened to critical acclaim
and sold-out screenings in Hawaii and Seattle. Since its release,
the film festival circuit has come calling, eager to include
the film in their scheduling.
Such is the power behind the film that when Xian and Flores
sought funding to bring an educational panel of cast members
from Hawaii to San Francisco to discuss the history and culture
of the film, several local groups and individuals united their
efforts to coordinate the event. The Asian & Pacific Islander
Wellness Center, Asian
Pacific Islander American Health Forum, United
Territories of Polynesia In Alliance (UTOPIA), Asian and
Pacific Islander Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Women's
Network (APLBTN) and local API LGBT community leaders Trinity
Ordona and Miki Kupu are working with Frameline
to host the screening, panel and reception on June 23, 2002
at the Herbst Theater.
Recently, I conducted an e-interview with Kathryn Xian and
Brent Anbe, co-directors of the film.
Pauline Guillermo-Aguilar: Where
did the idea for "Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense
of Place," come from?
Kathryn Xian: Originally, the
film started out as a short film project on present day Mahu
[transgendered people of Hawaii] and Drag Queens in Honolulu.
However, as we began to gather personal narratives and research
we encountered a vast history that we couldn't pass up. Hawaii
sporadically produces films critical to colonization and but
never has a film been produced about the acceptance of Mahu.
The Same-Sex Marriage Campaign adversely affected this community
and the solidarity of the Kanaka Maoli [indigenous Hawaiians]
by pitting families against each other by using homophobic
tactics--lies and hatred. So we felt that since organizations
(mostly funded by right-wing groups from the mainland) were
going to separate the accepted Mahu from their own culture
and heritage, we were going to try to show the world how they
inherently belong. In addition, we attempt to give the audience
an overview of the historical methodology which colonization
has employed to break the cultural, historical and social
PGA: What was your philosophy
behind the project?
Xian: I was born and raised
here. Living in Hawaii teaches you to respect your connection
to the land (Aina) and to other people, no matter what race
they are. This is one of the values that the indigenous Hawaiians
have had for thousands of years. I find it odd when people
are curious as to why a couple of Asian Americans would do
a project about another ethnicity. We love Hawaii and we respect
its people. A lot of tourists come here and fall in love with
the beauty of the land but pay less attention to Hawaii's
history and especially its people. Indigenous histories have
a lot to teach people today. Hawaiians are connected to this
land. It's in their cosmology. They were born from the Aina.
So, it's a bit saddening to me how millions of people can
visit this beautiful place each year and not see the beauty
of its people. The land is the people; the people are the
land. Paying such homage to one without the other is in very
PGA: Film critics and festival
audiences everywhere have been moved by the poignant message
and simple honesty of the film. Is this what you hoped to
Xian: We want the audience to
make the connections between past and present and the effects
of colonization based upon skewed religious beliefs, racism
and greed. We approach it from the Gay & Lesbian standpoint,
yes, but the underlying message is much more universal. Basically,
it is respecting one another--"aloha." We don't
force these connections, so therein lies the challenge. Most
people are very accustomed to think in separate sections,
very linearly. I think the evolution of thinking urges us
to think more non-linearly, to find how each separate thread
of history is woven into one large fabric; and to discover
how we are all connected and how our experiences are relevant
to others despite nationality, race, distance, or time. Some
find the film a bit too broad for their tastes and that's
okay. Most people, especially the Kanaka Maoli in Hawaii,
understand it completely.
Anbe: We wanted to help educate
the larger community with varying perspectives on issues they
may be unaware of, unfamiliar of, or proud of. Throughout
my years [living in] Hawaii I had not seen documented projects
regarding the history of Mahu or views by self-identified
Mahu. My only knowledge lay in [first-person] narratives,
which I found deeply and emotionally moving. This project
has a foundation based on a deep commitment and love for the
greater cause. Everyone involved donated their time because
they believed in the message of the film. I think it's difficult
to capture such heart and emotion when one is not there because
they want to or is not sincere. This can be seen and felt
while watching the film--nothing looks or feels staged or
PGA: What impact has the film made?
Xian: The film has made a big
impact here in the last several months since its release.
We are continuing that by holding panel discussions along
with screenings at universities and other venues. Right now
the film is touring the continent. It's brought people closer
together and made them realize the humanness in one another.
It's also made the [GLBT community] unafraid to be proud of
the fact that there is a history of a people who celebrated
Anbe: "Ke Kulana He Mahu"
has made an impact on those who are open to receiving the
messages of the film. It has been able to impact viewers because
of it's relative context of what it feels like to have a sense
of place. The SF G&L Festival is important because of
it's openness to diverse, cultural, and unique programming.
Their passionate dedication has provided homes for films such
as "Ke Kulana He Mahu." The accompanying panel of
scholars, authors and Mahu performers brings an intimate and
personal relationship between the film and audience.
"Ke Kulana He Mahu: Remembering a Sense of Place"
is a critically acclaimed film that documents colonization,
sexuality, and homophobia in Hawaii. It will be screened at
6:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 23, 2002, at the Herbst Theater
as part of the San Francisco. International Lesbian &
Gay Film Festival. Panel members may include: Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa,
Director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies; Val Kanuha, Associate
Professor of Social Work-UH; Ku'umeaaloha Gomes, UH Commission
on the Status of LGBTI; Hinaleimoana Wong, Hawaiian Language
and Culture Instructor; Sami Akuna aka Cocoa Chandelier; Producer
Connie Flores; Filmmakers Kathryn Xian and Brent Anbe.
The article first appeared in the May, 24, 2002 issue of Asian
Pauline Guillermo-Aguilar is an independent consultant on
Internet Accessibility and Assistive Technology and frequently
writes and lectures on the subject. She serves on the Board
of several Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender
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