“A Place in the Middle” is a beautiful look into Hawai’ian culture and living outside the gender binary

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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.

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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.”

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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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