A Place in the Middle

"A Beautiful Look into Hawaiian Culture and Living Outside the Gender Binary" -- AfterEllen.com

by Miranda Meyer - AfterEllen - January 30, 2015:

A Place in the Middle is a documentary short about a young Hawai’ian person growing up “in the middle” of the gender binary; about the reclamation and celebration of Hawai’ian culture; the wounds of colonialism; the bonds between students and teachers; about acceptance. It is as much the story of Kumu Hina, a teacher and cultural activist, as it is of Ho’onani Kamai, her 11-year-old student, and much of the emotion that pours through the screen emerges from the profound differences in the experiences of these two “middle people” growing up.

I want to say up front that it can be tempting to try to evaluate the concepts and statements made in the short on the basis of my own understanding of post-colonial life, or of how we usually talk about trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, or agender people in the mainland United States. But I am not Hawai’ian, and so I have chosen to discuss these concepts in the filmmakers’ terms, sometimes skipping terminology that feels more familiar or “appropriate” in the contexts I am used to. This may feel jarring at times (I struggled with wording a lot on this basis), and I hope I’ve managed to stick to their terms without hurting anyone here—if I messed up, I hope we can talk about it. Also, though Ho’onani’s gender identity is certainly not cis-female nor specifically transfeminine, she is consistently referred to by those around her using female pronouns and does not seem to object, so I will do the same here.

The film states its subject right at the start, informing us that “In the Hawaiian language, kāne means ‘male’ and wahine means ‘female.’ But ancient Hawaiians recognized that some people are not simply one or the other.” We then go immediately to Ho’onani, in a backwards cap, playing ukulele and narrating herself in a mixture of Hawai’ian and English words:

Sometimes Kumu says I have more kāne inside than most of the kāne. And some kāne have more wahine than the wahine. Some people don’t accept it, they tease about it, but—I don’t care. At all. Because I’m myself; other people are theirselves.

Already we know a lot about our protagonist! She is certainly aware and conscious of the ways her gender is unusual, and that others sometimes object to this. Her gender is a topic she has thought about.

But what is maybe more remarkable in her, to my eyes, is how self-possessed and articulate she is. This 11-year-old kid has more confidence and security in herself, pouring out of her every word and gesture, than most adults or kids I know, and seeing that in her affect immediately makes the viewer feel safe. We are not going to watch terrible things happen to Ho’onani. It is obvious that she is loved by people who support her. This all happened within the first minute and already I felt like I was in a group hug.

We move quickly to Ho’onani’s school in Honolulu, where it’s immediately obvious that the support you intuit from her brief speech is real. Kumu Hina, her teacher, is passing out leis, declaring that yellow leis are for the boys; all the boys should be in yellow leis. Kumu then checks in with Ho’onani: “You’re happy? You’re in a boy lei.” And indeed she is. She considers the question for a second, looking over a boy in his boy lei next to her, then perks up with all the force of a great idea: “I wanna just wear both!” The girl on her other side (in her white lei) looks up with an expression like Ho’onani has just won the lottery or cracked the code of life. SHE GETS TWO LEIS, GUYS!!!

I can’t hear what she says next, but she turns to Ho’onani—presumably to express her congratulations—and Ho’onani makes all kinds of triumphant “nailed it” gestures. Without questioning it, Kumu brings her a white lei and puts it on her, saying to the room at large, “You get both, cause she’s both.”

Honestly, I would love to describe the entire film in such detail because everything is just so great, but that would be unwieldy and spoilery. But this sequence very much sets the tone: Ho’onani’s gender, her bothness, is supported by her teacher and accepted by her peers. This incident is in no way a big deal to anyone in the room (except perhaps Kumu, but more on her later). Not only is she accommodated by her school in her self-expression, she is actively supported in a way I wish so much every kid could be. She didn’t have to speak up to ask for another lei; she was asked what would make her happy, and given the time to consider it.

The narrative thread of A Place in the Middle is preparations for the end-of-year school hula performance. This story is interspersed with some beautiful animated sequences explaining briefly and clearly some aspects of traditional Hawai’ian culture and it’s suppression by US colonial authority, as well as Kumu’s perspective. (I wish there were gifs out there somewhere of these animations, as their fluid quality of motion is really arresting, but alas we will have to make do with screenshots.

The animation introduces us to māhū, or people in the middle, who prior to the cultural destruction of colonization “embraced both the feminine and the masculine traits that are embodied within each and every one of us.” As will happen frequently in these animated sequences, there are small but significant choices in how to illustrate concepts that make an enormous difference. The māhū icon does not appear already demonstrating their status of “in the middle;” instead, they stand between a male and a female icon who respectively offer them a flower and a spear. That these symbols of gender expression are shared freely reinforces the message that māhū were supported by and integrated in their societies.

We learn about the traditional role of the māhū, who were “valued and respected as caretakers, healers, and teachers of ancient traditions,” as well as the Europeans’ rejection of their existence. (The animation, again making important choices, illustrates this in definite terms of Christian missionaries without the narration having to say so.)

This description of māhū’s place as transmitters of tradition is in some ways the real heart of the whole film, as it underlies Kumu Hina’s life mission and even young Ho’onani’s role in the school performance. Kumu, we learn, grew up in the middle but without the support her student has. She speaks about the gendered bullying she endured and how she found strength and solace in native Hawai’ian culture; how her life’s work is the responsibility of carrying on Hawai’ian identity and imparting it to the next generation. (The movie was her idea, which makes perfect sense.) She refers to her “transition” without going into any detail, though we see “the old me” perform a traditional song. The presentation of this fact of her life as significant but not lurid or needing explanation is deeply refreshing in a world where trans and genderqueer people are so often pushed to provide some kind of play-by-play of how their genders and bodies have changed and interacted over time.

Kumu is not the only one who feels strongly about Hawai’ian heritage, however. We meet Ho’onani’s mother, who wants her to learn Hawai’ian language and culture because she herself never had the chance. We watch the school’s principal implore the students not to take the instruction they get at school for granted, because earlier generations never had it. Everyone cries. Ho’onani cries, Kumu cries, the principal cries. I cry too. The offending teenage boys gather around Kumu Hina and hug her en masse.

Lest my slightly flippant description sound maudlin or in any way eyeroll-y, I promise you this is not how the scene goes down. This little film is absolutely bursting with sincerity. The wounds these older women feel are very real, and their students’ appreciation of that, when faced with it, is real too. Māhū, we were just told, were traditionally healers, and the entire enterprise of this school feels like a collective, cross-generational process of healing.

In a more intimate version of that same dynamic, we watch Kumu Hina let Ho’onani be in the high school boys’ dance, not the girls, and cast her as the leader of the number. We see teacher advise student that others in the future may expect her to “stand in the girls’ line” and that she may have to just roll with it while she’s still young. But “When you get to be my age,” Kumu tells her, “You’re not gonna have to move for anybody else.”

Concepts of gender and sex are treated throughout the film with a degree of easy fluidity I have rarely experienced. Even in spaces dedicated to discussion of cissexism and all its handmaidens, sometimes the laudable and important desire to unpack our assumptions and include everyone with our language leads to a granular hashing out of terms and categories that doesn’t afford the kind of comfort that is demonstrated and modeled here. (This is essential work that should by all means continue! It is just different from what is happening in the movie.) Please note that I don’t believe for a second that the adults involved have not thought long and hard about the subject. What I mean is that they are discussing it with their charges in such a way that it doesn’t feel, at least from this side of the screen, like it’s fraught or exhausting. Nor does it feel flippant or underserved. It feels like a world where gender is discussed calmly and kindly by authority figures and where there is room for everyone’s expression.

In the first rehearsal we see, Kumu informs the guys, “You have a biological wahine standing here in front of you because she has more kū [male energy] than everybody else around here.” (Ho’onani is thrilled with this.) “Even though she lacks the main essential parts of kū. [Ho’onani laughs.] But in her mind, and in her heart, she has kū.” The idea that genitals are “the main essential parts” of any gender is one that is generally very unwelcome with me, but I am in no position to police Kumu Hina’s language and you could not pay me to try; I wrote down these words as one of several examples of how gender is addressed over the course of the film.

Later, as the boys wait to go onstage, Kumu Hina will start to say that Ho’onani isn’t a boy, but—and the boys will say, “He is.” “He is.” “He is.” Those same dancers will still later declare that “she has more balls” than any of them. (TEENAGE BOYS SAID THIS ABOUT AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD GIRL WHO WAS PUT IN A LEADERSHIP POSITION OVER THEM, YOU GUYS! WHAT ALCHEMY IS THIS!!!) Her female classmates will say that she’s in the middle and that it’s not a big deal, including the information that she plays ukulele and sings—these are all just facts about her. Her mother accepts her gender expression but barely comments on it at all, focusing instead on love and family. These various statements do not necessarily match up with one another precisely in the way gender discussions I’m used to often try to pin down—note the pronoun changes at different moments—but that is never an issue. This is what I’m trying to get at with words like fluidity and comfort. Gender here is dynamic and individual, and given the room to be so.

Moreover, it seems that while Kumu and Ho’onani are both in the middle, they are not in the middle in the same way; this is never really an issue. No one tries to sort them into subtypes or distinguish between their assigned-at-birth genders. There is an underlying feeling of space in terms of letting people be that permeates everything that happens here, but that space is never taken for granted. A Place in the Middle makes sure you can’t finish it without understanding that that place has had to be fought for and reclaimed, and that it cannot be found everywhere.

In the end, the performance goes beautifully. Ho’onani, dressed differently from the guys but standing front and center, opens her mouth and chants in a voice of such strength and depth that it’s nothing short of inspiring, and the crowd screams in joyous welcome. Her mother tells her over and over that she is proud. I cry some more.

At one point, Kumu Hina tells the group that she wants everyone to know that “if you are my student, you have a place to be.” “In the middle,” Ho’onani interjects. “In the middle! In the middle,” Kumu agrees. As Ho’onani’s mother said earlier, love means letting people be who they are, embracing them for who they are. A Place in the Middle tells us more than once about the true meaning of aloha: love, harmony. In this story, aloha means standing in the girls’ line or the boys’—or out in front, with two leis; different, but not alone.

Kumu Hina: A Place in the Middle will play at the Berlinale Film Festival, and will be available to educators and communities who would like to show the film. For more information, visit aplaceinthemiddle.org

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