by Trisha Kehaulani Watson:
My husband was Hina’s high school classmate and close friend. I have known Hina, considered her a dear friend, and loved her like family for years. The movie is actually the story of three people: Hina, a strong māhū Hawaiian; her husband Hema; and Ho’onani, one of Hina’s young students at Hālau Lokahi, a charter school in downtown Honolulu. Each undergo their own transition, and we are all witnesses to how their lives are transformed.
The movie Kumu Hina, produced and directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, captures these three critical stories as they unfold. Despite this multifaceted perspective, the core storyline belongs to Hina, a cultural champion in the Hawaiian community who has emerged from her struggled with her identity and become a powerful community leader. Her personal life journey involved far more than a transition from male to female - it is truly a story of becoming a powerful, confident Hawaiian māhū.
The film follows her as she travels to bring her Tongan husband home to Hawai’i from Fiji, where he has been staying as he awaited a visa to enter Hina’s home country. Despite the obvious love between the two, nothing about their relationship is easy. Perhaps it’s fair to say no relationship is easy, but the film illustrates that the challenges between Hina and Hema have little to do with her being māhū, and are more rooted in the cultural differences between the them.
The second story is Hema’s, who often seems overwhelmed by everything happening around him. It’s not difficult to imagine a sweet, genuine romance that takes place before the events of this film, but it’s clear that filming caught some of their more challenging moments. Hema is at times outright cruel and viciously disrespectful; it’s difficult to watch. It’s even more difficult to watch for those of us who know and love Hina.
The final and most poignant story belongs to Ho’onani, a young “tomboy” who confidently asserts her right to be part of the boys’ hālau (hula group), largely through Kumu Hina’s nurturing. This was my favorite storyline. It reflected a sort of closure for Hina, who was once a young student herself, picked on and harassed for her feminine ways in high school, yet grew to become a strong, inspiring teacher, fully capable of helping her own students. One can see that Ho’onani’s life has been significantly improved because of the obstacles that māhū like Hina have overcome, even if Ho’onani doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of these triumphs yet.
There is one stairwell conversation between Kumu Hina and Ho’onani that is sure to make you ugly cry, and it’s my favorite scene of the movie. If that doesn’t get you, the scene of Hinaʻs students singing “Hawai’i Pono’ī” after being reminded that their forefathers could not, will have tears streaming down your face.
I wish the film had been longer, and elaborated more on different aspects of the characters’ lives. Furthermore, I wish it captured more of Hina’s stature in the Hawaiian community. She is a master of practice and language. She is a community leader and champion. She is stunning and glorious. These aspects of her persona should have taken center stage more often.
Hina transformed the role of māhū in Hawai’i. By asserting herself and using the powerful framework of Hawaiian culture, she continues to enforce the strength and importance of people whose identities cannot be defined by Westernized, cookie-cutter standards.
Ultimately, this film tells a story of love, transition and acceptance. In order to support those whom we love, we must be willing to bear witness to their struggles and triumphs, and understand their perspectives. Yet, beyond that, in order to be members of a community we must love and respect the beauty and power of every individual. We are all parts who make up a greater whole. I encourage everybody to watch this film, as it is a window into compassion and acceptance. It proves that those of us who may think we know the challenges faced by the māhū community still know very little. And we all have the power to change that.
As part of the 25th annual Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival, Kumu Hina will be screened on June 15 at 6:30 pm in the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Museum of Art.