When I began the journey of making my first documentary, OUT OF STATE, I connected with a visual that struck me at the core: the juxtaposition of traditional Hawaiian clothing set amidst barbed wire and desert sand.
As the daughter of an indigenous Hawaiian activist, I had spent much of my youth attending protests and rallies in support of Hawaiian causes. Now, standing with a camera crew in a prison recreation yard in Arizona, thousands of miles away from home, the visual before me of native Hawaiian men practicing their culture behind bars felt like an uncanny metaphor for the post-colonial state of native Hawaiians—fighting with pride to maintain our indigenous identity despite the structural and systemic forces working against us. I knew we had to make a film to shed light on this unique and important microcosm, but I also recognized the careful balance of creating an engaging story while still addressing the vital issues that concerned me.
Out of State began as an exploration documenting the cultural practices of native Hawaiian inmates shipped roughly 3,000 miles away from our tropical home to a private prison in the desert of Arizona. In this setting, a vibrant community of peer-taught cultural practitioners was growing. However, their cultural work, in many ways, remained invisible to the broader public. Few of us hear about positive work done behind bars, let alone when it’s thousands of miles away.
As an activist, I also felt there was more to this conversation than simply highlighting culture in the prison setting. Statistics around sentencing and recidivism rates for native Hawaiians in the criminal justice system—like other communities of color—have remained dire for some time. It felt important to step outside of these numbers and provide an opportunity for people to understand firsthand how difficult starting over post-incarceration can be. To be able to do this, our team shifted creative and logistical gears. It would mean eventually following a few of the men as they reintegrated back home in Hawai`i as formerly incarcerated individuals.
As we began to film outside of the prison setting, it was challenging to adjust our process, as the style of shooting was now much more verite. We as filmmakers had what so many in the documentary world covet: access. However, this access also meant the responsibility of balancing the needs of telling a compelling story while also ensuring that this story felt emotionally true to the experience of our subjects. Striking this balance effectively would mean many months of editing, and a dedicated team to make it all possible.
I’ve been told that part of making a documentary is knowing that things change, and the goal is to be responsive to this. I felt strongly about pivoting throughout the filmmaking process in order to focus and tell the strongest and most urgent version of the film.
After four years of working on Out of State, the activist in me feels as eager as I did on day one to share the lesser known story of our community. And, as the film premieres at the LA Film Festival this month (June), I am invested in bringing the film to audiences both abroad and at home to begin conversations about how we can do better.