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:
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.)