A Q&A with Lisette Marie Flanary director of ‘Tokyo Hula’

Lisette Marie Flanary is the director of the film “Tokyo Hula,” the third film in a trilogy about hula. “Tokyo Hula” is a part of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival which runs from March 4 through March 14. Lisette took some time to talk about her film and the difficult conversation about where cultural appreciation ends and cultural appropriation starts. Currently, Lisette is an Associate Professor at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa in their Academy for Creative Media and runs the production company Lehua Films.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

“Tokyo Hula” is a part of a trilogy. How long has it been since you started working on the first film?

Oh, are you ready for this? I started the first film in 1998 and finished that one in 2003. “Tokyo Hula” was completed in 2019. So about 20 years.

How did you get into hula and what made you want to explore the topic through film?

I knew that I needed to find stories that I really felt passionate about. In the research and development phase of starting a production company, I decided to start picking up hula.

I was living in New York and found a very large Hawaiian community and really sort of fell back in love with it. It helped me feel very grounded and connected back to Hawaii. And from that, I was sort of interested in how communities who move away from Hawaii use hula as a way to connect back to home. That first project, “American Aloha” was the first feature doc that I did for POV [the PBS showcase of independent non-fiction films].

Can you talk about “American Aloha” and the second film “Nā Kamalei: The Men of Hula”?

As someone who dances hula, I would get annoyed by all the stereotypes and questions that I would get about dancing hula. My friends would be like “Oh, where’s
your hoop? Don’t you need a hoop to dance?” And I was like, “What? I can’t believe people still have these really weird ideas of what hula is, and what Hawaii is.

I was really interested in using film as a way to kind of combat stereotypes of hula in Hawaiian culture. That educational kind of component of trying to kind of peek behind the curtain of what hula is as an art form and as a cultural expression was really important. And exploring what is Hawaiian culture beyond this sort of stereotype of what people see in old Hollywood movies. That really sort of was the inspiration for the first film.

After making the first film and doing Q&As, I was just amazed at the questions that I was getting from people. One of the number one questions that I got was, “I’d never seen men dance.” And I was like, wow, it’s so crazy that this is another sort of stigma, that men don’t dance hula, and it’s only for women. Again, sort of from mainstream media, there’s this kind of strange conception that it’s only girls, or it’s only hula girls.  And I was like, I really should do a film about men’s dance.

What do you hope viewers take away from “Tokyo Hula”?

I hope the film is a catalyst for dialogue — whether it’s here in Hawaii or elsewhere — of where do we draw the line between appreciating culture and appropriating it?

I was talking to someone recently who saw the film, and they were like, oh, it made me think of yoga. And it made me think of all these other dances that have moved onto a global stage. We don’t usually think about where this art form actually comes from. Are we perpetuating it safely and truthfully to its origin?

Do you think your film provides an answer to the question of when does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation?

You know, I don’t think that I was very interested in giving people the answers. I think that it was much more of posing those questions and having people think a little more deeply about how they feel about their own participation in any of that. It made me think a lot even about myself. Outside of hula, I also like yoga and I started thinking “Oh my god, how do I feel about this yoga studio that I go to?” It’s really interesting and strange.

When I first started making the film, I was very, very curious, personally, like, “why do Japanese people love to dance [hula] so much?” I mean, I know why I love to dance hula and it makes sense for most of the people who I know out here [in Hawai’i]. But why are so many Japanese people dancing? I really thought that our hula masters, these people who are just legends in the whole world would have the answers because they’ve been back and forth to Japan for years. And every person I asked was, like, “I have no idea. When you find out, let me know.” It was really interesting because I was like, what am I doing?  Of course, they’re not gonna have the answer because there is no one answer. I think a lot of the reasons why the Japanese love hula are probably very similar to why I love to dance hula, it gives them a sense of community.

Why is it important to empower those from marginalized and underrepresented communities to tell their stories?

Having diverse voices and representation brings a lot of understanding and respect. What’s so amazing about film or documentary is that one film can be seen on public television by 3 or 4 million people.

Taking a film about hula and showing it in Europe, for instance — it’s enlightening to hear the responses from people who say, “I had no idea. This really changed the way that I think about Hawaii or it changed the way I think about the hula dance and now I understand that it really is an art form and cultural expression and there’s this whole history to Hawaii that I had no clue about.”