‘Lose The Victim Mentality’

Edgy Lee’s film ‘The Hawaiians’ — which airs Tuesday evening — opens with a chickenskin moment and paints a picture of renewed hope for Hawaii’s indigenous people and their culture

Bill Mossman
Friday - March 11, 2005
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Wilma Holi, Kealii Reichel, Dr. Isabella Abbott and Puakea Nogelmeier walk
hand-in-hand with producer Edgy Lee: ‘Just like back in kindergarten!’ Kealii says

Viewers tuning in to catch the hourlong broadcast premiere of Edgy Lee’s latest film, The Hawaiians: Reflecting Spirit, can expect to be whisked away at times by its salient, often poignant scenes.

For some, that moment may come through the revelation that Hawaii once owned the highest literacy rate of any nation in the world. For others, it may be when two owls — chiefly nocturnal birds — take flight in broad daylight and encircle an elderly Hawaiian woman, a sign by her aumakua that it is OK for the woman to share her tale. And yet for others, it may come at the sight of this same woman moments later, as she tearfully discusses the importance of salt making, a family tradition.

Intellectual insight. Spiritual symbolism. Emotional honesty. Lee’s film reflects all of these and more.

“That’s the purpose of the film,” says the noted filmmaker, “to look at all aspects of culture, arts and traditional things of the Hawaiian people and how they affect us.

“I’m anxious to get this film out to the public,” she adds. “That’s whom this film was meant for. And not just for audiences here, but people all across the Mainland — even in Japan. We have a 30-minute version, cut in the Japanese language, that we’re planning on releasing.

“Hopefully, we can entertain people everywhere while we’re educating them.”

In Reflecting Spirit, Lee touches on the origins, historical struggles and social conditions of the Hawaiian people, all the while carefully sidestepping the political minefield of controversial statements. Hollywood images that have trivialized the Islands’ culture, as well as the stereotype of native Hawaiians as unfortunate victims, are quickly dispelled. More importantly, Lee paints a picture of renewed hope among the locals through a cultural revival. Or as celestial navigator Nainoa Thompson says in the film, “Our culture wasn’t lost; it wasn’t dead. It was sleeping.”

According to traditional saltmaker Wilma Holi, whose role in the film is, as described above, quite moving: “I’m sure the film is going to create some really strong reactions in the community.”

It already has. A rough-cut version of Reflecting Spirit was initially shown to Hawaii’s media last Sept. 23, then at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the very next day. Both audiences left their respective screenings emotional, yet appreciative of what they had just witnessed.

Since then, Lee has gone back and made a few alterations to the film, namely with the portion that deals with America’s annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

“One of the things we changed was the terminology from ‘kanaka maoli’ to ‘Hawaii maoli,’” explains Lee, a fifth-generation Hawaiian. “That request came from many, many Hawaiian people, who believe the word ‘kanaka’ refers more to sovereignty-related issues.”

But other than a few minor tweaks, the ambitious and visually captivating film has remained largely intact.

“It’s a difficult subject to cover in an hour — and no documentary is perfect,” notes musician and kumu hula Keali‘i Reichel, one of the local faces recruited by Lee to appear in the film. “But I think Edgy does a pretty good job at shedding light on portions of our culture today.”

Yet Lee’s most remarkable feat might have been in simply keeping the project alive, especially when at certain junctures it could have easily flatlined. Almost from the get-go — after the Office of Hawaiian Affairs asked Lee to take her already years-old concept and produce “the definitive film on Hawaiian culture” — there were huge obstacles to overcome. First, there were the logistical demands of fashioning such a documentary in four months, which is less than half the time normally allotted for a film of this magnitude. Second, there was the issue of funding, or the lack thereof. Third, there was the seemingly impossible task of bringing venerable Hawaiian cultural leaders together to share their expertise.

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