Filmmaker Ciara Lacey explores how a group of native Hawaiians found their culture in an unlikely place

Filmmaker Ciara Lacey explores how a group of native Hawaiians found their culture in an unlikely place

GOOD DOCS sat down with Ciara Lacey to discuss her latest film OUT OF STATE, an intimate portrait of native men returning to Hawaii after a cultural reawakening at a private prison in the Arizona desert. Interview conducted by Zachary J. McIntyre.


Why are these Hawaiians in prison and how are they finding their culture there? 
While roughly eight million tourists flock to Hawaii to vacation each year, the idyllic image of paradise is tenuous for its indigenous Hawaiian population, who rate last on many measures of socio-economic status in their own home. Perhaps most distressing is that 40% of the inmates or parolees in the state are native Hawaiians, while Hawaiians represent only 25% of the overall population. Thus, native Hawaiians, like other communities of color in the U.S., are struggling from an overrepresentation in the current structure of the criminal justice system. In fact, in 2010, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a State of Hawaii governmental agency, released a report admitting a negative bias exists against native Hawaiians in the state’s justice system. In addition, since 1995, Hawaii has shipped male prisoners thousands of miles away to the continental U.S., likely the most extreme example of prisoner exportation out of state, to for- profit prisons, due to overcrowding.There is a gap in our community’s cultural knowledge, particularly when it comes to language, due to colonization. For many years after the overthrow in the late 1800s, native Hawaiians were not allowed to speak their language and other cultural practices went underground. A renaissance in the 1970s shifted this ethos, empowering Hawaii’s native population to publicly reclaim who they were. For many of the men in our film, a life of economic and social struggle under the shadow of a difficult history as indigenous people led to a lack of knowledge of their identity as native Hawaiians. Their cultural awakening in prison is in many ways organic - the product of the prison population teaching and supporting each other - as well as supported by a small group of community members committed to bringing our culture to our people. 

What sparked your interest in filmmaking? Where did it all begin for you?
In college, I was obsessed with music videos. I studied whatever I could get my hands on, pieces by Chris Milk or Michel Gondry, fantasizing about making something just as cool as them one day. Yet, my roots were in social justice. My mother was an activist, advocating for the needs of native Hawaiians. So, I think the combination of my interests – social justice as well as music videos – made documentary filmmaking a very appealing journey.

Where did the desire to tell this complex and compelling story originate?
OUT OF STATE tells the story of native Hawaiians finding their culture in prison and their journey to reintegrate into the community upon release. I’m a native Hawaiian, born and raised in our islands, so there were some natural connections that I had with this concept, but I’d never been to a prison before we began shooting. I first learned of this story from an Aunty who really encouraged me to do a project in our community. She knew I had worked in television on the continental U.S., so felt I could do this. However, I had never created a project independently. Eventually, I found a YouTube video of the men held at this prison dancing hula online. There was something about what they were trying to do, that felt powerful, that I connected with. For me, I really understood the idea of second chances, of trying to come back from difficult situations even when your own home has sent you so far away. What they were doing was meaningful. 

With OUT OF STATE, what was the story you set out to tell and was the final product different than you had imagined?
As a documentary filmmaker, I have been told that if you end up with the exact same film that you set out to make then you haven’t listened along the way. OUT OF STATE is a vérité film, and we were always listening, striving to be as honest as possible in terms of recording real life as it unfolds. Process is incredibly important to me. Being true to what you observe means you’re going to get something different from expectation most of the time, which is neither good or bad, it’s just life. And hopefully that truth resonates. 

How does it feel to connect the subject’s struggles and a major societal problem, such as prison rehabilitation, and this search for family and culture?
I think it is more important than we realize to have a sense of self and identity. For me, knowledge of who I am and where I come from acts as a compass. It inoculates me against the ups and downs of life. Once our subjects learned about who they were as native Hawaiians, their culture became core to who they were, and they knew they had something that belonged to them, that could never be taken away. That is power. 

Who did you make this film for and what lessons do you want audiences to take away from it?
If I could have one small goal for this project it would be to have people leave a screening of the film with an emotional response, to care. Most people today consume a lot of media, so they are an incredibly savvy audience. They know when they are being manipulated and they will shut off. I didn’t want to force people into a box; that’s not how you help sway minds or evoke feelings. I wanted to provide them with experiential visual information, so they could come to their own conclusions. And for many people, the film sticks with them for days, because they are sifting through what they think. Just knowing that people are thinking deeply about the film is noteworthy. Unless you work at a prison or have reason to be in a prison these are often spaces many have no interaction with. So, the film has presented an opportunity for people to better understand these places, and I think it is valuable. We have had people leave screenings saying “I used to be a lock ‘em up and throw away the key kind of person, and now I’m not sure.” The fact that we shifted the dial for one person is relevant. And if the film had presented a very singular sort of answer, I think that would have been overly reductive and dishonest.A film like OUT OF STATE doesn’t come with a single solution. I’ve been told by experts in the field that we will need many perfect solutions to improve things. This issue rests at the intersection of so many things. Thus, the solution is not about addressing only poverty or racism or culture or better education- it is about recognizing that tackling all of these issues will get us in a better spot. 

What kind of dialogues do you think OUT OF STATE will spark in classrooms and communities?
I think creating open spaces to talk about the fact that we have people in our community who have spent time in prison is important. Why isn’t dad around? Why is mom missing? This can be really difficult for people to talk about. Watching a film like OUT OF STATE allows for a brave space where audiences can speak honestly about their experience, whether emotional or intellectual or both. That is powerful. I don’t want people to feel like they need to hide from the truth. We have an issue of mass criminalization in this country and there are many of us dealing with the same issues. Let’s deal with it together. Above and beyond that, in academic circles, the points for dialogue and exploration are many. How did we get to this place: is it post-colonization and the effects on native people? Is it poverty and the cycle feeding into the prison system, historical trauma? Male identity and masculinity and its interaction with the prison system? While this may sound broad, I think the film truly gives the opportunity for many to find a mirror in the work that they are doing.
This must be very personal for you, being from Hawaii. Telling a story about your people.
Yes, as a Hawaiian this film is very personal. We talk about authenticity in filmmaking all the time, that’s something in the documentary space that is incredibly important, and I think that this was vital to making this film. Our subjects shared their lives with us because they knew we cared, that we respected their story deeply. Finding a true connection with somebody and letting them provide an entry into their lives is something I take very seriously. My gratitude to the men brave enough to participate in this film, for being that open to us and willing to be that vulnerable. For many of our subjects, this film felt like an opportunity to give back to their community, to show that they’re trying to do something better. It was that sense of social responsibility that drove them to continue with the film despite the years it took to make. It is a lot of work to make a vérité documentary and a lot of time. It takes years and I’m grateful to our participants because they had a strong sense of what they felt the film would do for our people. In so many ways, this film is truly theirs, a gift to help our community.

What are you working on right now, what is next for you?
I’m working on a new film it is called THE NINTH ISLAND, which is about what I call economic exile. It is about the displacement of the native Hawaiian people based on economics. We’re still at the early stages in the project, but here’s the thrust of it: we always talk about gentrification as a change in a space, but we never see where people go. And what influences that final decision to leave? That’s what we’re looking to focus on.