Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Independent Lens: “Kumu Hina” (Qwaves/PBS, 2014/2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles an hour-long PBS documentary I’d recorded a week before, an Independent Lens episode called “Kumu Hina” after its central character, a 49-year-old native Hawai’ian Transgender person who two decades earlier completed gender reassignment from male to female (as a male his first name was “Collin”!) but has continued to teach boys’ hula classes. One point this documentary — made by a Gay couple, Hawai’i residents Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson — makes is that where we mainlanders (haoles, the Hawai’ians call us) think of the hula as primarily a dance, it’s a lot more than that: it’s basically a means of spiritual communication and affirming one’s faith in being Hawai’ian and in Hawai’ian culture generally. The film makes the point that traditional Hawai’ian culture is a lot more accepting not only of Queer sexuality but gender ambiguity than mainland Anglo-American culture — indeed, the show overall reminded me of Two Spirits, the marvelous Independent Lens entry from four years ago about the brutal murder of Fred Martinez, a traditional Diné (Navajo) from Cortez, Colorado who was killed in a manner reminiscent of Matthew Shepard (only he didn’t become the poster boy for hate-crimes legislation the way Shepard did because he was a Native Transgender person whose sexuality and gender identity didn’t fit neatly into categories and wasn’t as merchandisable as a white cisgender Gay man like Shepard), and I’d like to think Kumu Hina was the sort of person Fred Martinez would have grown up to be had he been allowed to live to middle age. Interestingly, the term she uses for herself is mahu, a Hawai’ian word that translates to “Transgender” and seems to be the equivalent of the Navajo nahuatl. (Though Kumu otherwise presents completely as female, she’s never been able to raise her voice to a normal woman’s register, and in a degree of understanding and support almost incomprehensible to us mainlanders (especially given the way certain busybodies look for pedophiles under every rock and it’s inconceivable that most mainland schools, even in relatively “enlightened” urban areas, would allow a MTF Transgender person to teach a boys’ class in anything) she’s been allowed to lead the boys’ hula group — and she’s admitted into it and made the lead performer a female-to-male Transgender person named Ho’onani.

The three central characters in this program are Kumu, Ho’onani and Kumu’s (legally married) husband, a 25-year-old from Tonga named Hema who had never been off the island of Fiji when Kumu met him there. Hema rather ruefully acknowledges that before he met Kumu he never had any use for Queer people, and indeed would punch out his Gay brother when the brother tried to talk to him about his sexuality — and here he finds himself not only accepting but genuinely in love with a mahu. Interestingly, the couple are shown at home living the most banal life imaginable, and even when they get into an argument (something Hamer and Wilson said they wanted to show to make the portrait of Kumu’s life more nuanced) it’s a pretty common one among couples: Hema wants time-out from the relationship to hang out with his Tongan buddies male-to-male, and Kumu responds by going on a “road trip” with an old friend of hers, a fellow MTF Transgender person from the island of K’auai. The domestic life (and strife) between Kumu and Hema is counterpointed with the preparations at the Hawai’ian-culture school where Kumu teaches and where she’s rehearsing her grade-school-age hula troupe for their end-of-year public performance, with some of the boy-born-boys in the class both put out and jealous that their teacher has made Ho’onani the star, and where she’s also pleading with the boys to pay attention to their classwork because the preservation of traditional Hawai’ian language and culture is dependent on them learning it and making it an integral part of themselves and their identities.

Needless to say, Kumu Hina is also a story of cultural imperialism; when Christian missionaries came to Hawai’i they were predictably incensed that this culture not only accepted people with in-between sexual and gender identities but actually celebrated them, and they tried to burn it out of them the way the “Indian School” people on the U.S. mainland did, forbidding the indigenous people to speak Hawai’ian and forcing their kids into schools where they were taught the mores, values and prohibitions of white culture. At the same time it’s ironic in a film that aims to celebrate Hawai’ian culture and traditions, we see at least two sequences of people singing explicitly Christian songs and virtually all the Hawai’ian music we hear is accompanied by guitars and/or ukuleles — not parts of Hawai’i’s native traditions but brought to the islands by Mexicans who came to work there in the early 19th century. It’s also amazing that the kids sing the old Hawai’ian national anthem and salute the Hawai’ian flag — which has the Union Jack in the upper left corner, reminding us that the first whites to “discover” Hawai’i were the British and they would likely have annexed it to the British Empire if we hadn’t grabbed it first. In some ways Kumu Hina is a pretty straightforward (maybe not the greatest word I could have picked there) entry in the growing repertoire of documentaries about Queer-accepting (and particularly Trans-accepting) native traditions that have been steamrollered by whites with their damned sky-god religions and attitude of moral superiority (there’s even a grimly funny bit when Hema comments on life in the U.S. that “all anyone cares about is money”), though Kumu Hina herself is a fascinating character and comes across as an inspiring mixture of personal charm and gritty determination — a postscript says that she ran for a seat on the council that administers the Office of Hawai’ian Affairs, though it doesn’t say (and I haven’t been able to find out online) whether or not she won.