PIC sat down with Marlene Booth, director and producer of Kū Kanaka, to discuss what inspired her to tell Kanalu Young's story, her filmmaking process and much more. See the full transcript below.
PIC: What led you to tell Kanalu’s story?
Marlene Booth: Loaded, but that’s okay. I had made an earlier film with Kanalu Young about Pidgin in Hawai'i, and it was wonderful to work with him. He was really my teacher in many ways; both literally – I sat in on some of his classes - and he was my teacher about Hawai'i. He opened Hawai'i up to me and explained it to me through his eyes, through the eyes of somebody who had grown up Native Hawaiian here. He got very sick while we were working on the film and passed away before the Pidgin film was finished, and I missed him. I missed his presence, I missed his guidance, I missed his wisdom, and I was also at the same time thinking about Hawai'i and what it meant to grow up here, which I didn’t do, and the two ideas kind of came together. I was taking a Hawaiian language class, and I thought, “Boy, these are perhaps stories I could all tell in some way through the lens of his life,” so that’s what led me to do it. I hadn’t exhausted spending time with him, and this was a way to spend time with him even though he was no longer here.
PIC: What was it like starting the process of making Kū Kanaka and having to do all that research for, like, the archival footage?
MB: One of the difficulties in making a film about someone who has passed away is that you can’t access them to do another interview or to ask for another photo. It was tricky to try to figure out where there was their footage of him. I had footage of him from the film about Pidgin, he was in that, and I knew I could use that. There was some archival film; fortunately, ‘Uluʻulu, the archival holding at [University of Hawaiʻi] West O’ahu had opened up, and they had footage that he was in.
His mom had tons of photos that she’d taken, but you know, to put a story together and to find something that helped me tell this story in a direct way was tough. Kanalu’s friend, Jon Osorio, had told me that Kanalu’s chanting at a Hula festival in 1993 had been one of the highlights of his life, so I began looking for that footage, and two years later – after a whole lot of false starts – I found it, so that was a huge “Aha!” moment.
He had given an interview for one of the TV stations about ‘aumākua, and the interview was really about that, but the cameraman, it was, blessedly kept the camera rolling before the interview began and after the interview was over, and he said wonderful things that he might have thought were off-camera that was available to me to use. I was digging, digging, digging to try to find enough to be able to put a story together. I guess the other thing: there was a lot of footage of him really in people’s garages, literally, in video. Video does not hold up well after 20 years, and so I put things in the video player, and it would just look horrible, so there were big disappointments but also big discoveries.
PIC: How long did that take from beginning to end?
MB: Once I was lucky enough to get funding from PIC and could really jump in with both feet, it was probably a year-and-a-half to two years, but before that – but the time of looking for funding and trying to just crystalize my ideas took a while.
PIC: What are your top three things you would like viewers to get out of watching this film?
MB: One of the top three things that I’d like viewers to get would be a sense that life doesn’t end after a traumatic accident. His life certainly shows that. He spent a year in rehabilitation from ages 15 to 16 being a very angry young man who understood that he could make a choice to just say, “This is it, I don’t want to get better. It’s too hard.” And he didn’t. He went in the other direction and re-affirmed his wish to be alive, and that changed everything. That changed everything. What it means to accept life, even though you’re changed. That’s one thing I’d like people to get.
I’d like people to get out of it the importance of culture and language and history, to a sense of self and to a sense of self-esteem. That was finally important to him. He got himself as much better physically as best he could, but then without that piece of the revival of Hawaiian language and culture, which led him to be able to find Hawaiian history archives, his life wouldn’t have been as rich, and I’m sure he would have said that.
Additionally, I guess, you know, just the importance of community; community and family were vitally important to him, and without a strong family – and he knew this, too – he would not have been able to make it. I think those three things: a sort of internal resilience physically; the yeast, the foundation, that culture and language and chant and history gave him, which was just so enriching; and the way that fit into family. I think all of those three I would like people to get from this film.
PIC: What was the process like finding those people to talk with, and how did you engage with them with questions or having them talk about him? What was that like and how did you do it?
MB: Kanalu was a much-loved man, and I knew Jon Osorio, and I knew that they were friends, so Jon was the first person that I went to talk to. I took my little stenographer’s book, and he said, “This is who you must talk to,” and he gave me a long list. He said, “These are people from his childhood. This is his family. These are his friends from the neighborhood. These are high school friends. These are college friends. These are graduate school friends. These are work friends. I had a long list, and I began going through it person-by-person. People wanted to talk about him. In the end, he got very sick and decided that he – I don’t think is a spoiler alert really – that he couldn’t go on longer. That ultimately if the doctors would allow, and they did, that he wanted to pull the plug.
Actually, for many people, my knocking on their doors and asking these questions was a chance to talk about it, so there were a lot of tears in these early meetings of people. But really, everybody all along the way wanted to talk about him, because he left such a strong mark on people. So on the one hand, it was wonderful. It brought him back to life in certain ways. In other ways, I felt so sad that I’d only – he’d been my friend, he’d been a friend who was becoming a dear friend. There was so much I didn’t know about him and wished that I had known, but that fed into wanting to put it in the film.
PIC: Everything in the film is so impactful, you know, someone will take away something from it, what part of the film do you feel is the most impactful? Or, a good message for people.
MB: You know, one of the things that’s so wonderful in one of the pieces of footage that I found, and I do love this piece, where he says, “I no longer have malice in my soul for Americans,” and I’m paraphrasing, “but I want them to understand that just in the same way that they love their country, I love my country, too; and my country’s Hawai'i.”
There is a way he says it; it’s not flippant, it’s not arrogant, it’s not anger-filled, it is just Kanalu. It’s just basic Kanalu, and that’s a wonderful thing, I think, to take away from it. I think about that scene.
PIC: The film is a half an hour. How did you arrive at the half an hour?
MB: It was very difficult to make this film half an hour, because in many ways – because there were all these other chapters that could be explored. But what governed it was there was just not enough footage, and after a while, it becomes other people telling his story.
Had I known when he was alive that I was going to make a film about him, I would have interviewed him about these things, but I didn’t know that then, so I just didn’t have footage of him talking about these things or doing them so it would have meant developing material with a lot of still photographs, and it wouldn’t have had the movement to it. It wouldn’t have had the same sense of being dynamic that a film has that has footage.
PIC: Is there anything that you would like people to know, either about Kanalu or about the film, maybe something that you weren’t able to add in the film or just something extra?
MG: There were many, many things that we couldn’t fit into the film. Among them was one of the things that led to his ability to become a leader in the Hawaiian movement was the fact that he’d been a leader in the disability movement, very shortly after his accident and recovery. It wasn’t called disability. I mean, at that point people talked about it in terms of handicapped or even crippled, they used the word.
He became a leader in, again, what was later called wheelchair sports, and he competed. You know, he had very little use of his hands and arms, but he did what he could do. He played table tennis. I can’t quite remember. That gave him the first sense of coming out. You know, being disabled, I have learned – it’s also a community I’m not a part of – there has to be a coming out, because it’s certainly easy, I guess, especially if you’re visibly disabled, to not re-enter the world, and once he made that decision, there was no turning back.
There are lots of other stories that would have been wonderful to have included in the film...he didn’t miss out on everything, by any means. He missed out on the experience of being an individual whose body was not paralyzed. He was paralyzed, that was a given, but in terms of his spirit and his sense of fun and his sense of humor, and he had all that in huge measure. That would have been nice to have included in the film.