Camera-toting tourists sustain art
Bishop Museum film archivist DeSoto Brown says a great deal of hula captured on film beyond what's found in official collections is thanks to tourists and their inevitable Kodak memories.
"It can be found in many archives and collections in a lot of places, because people shot it and took it home after their Hawaii trip, or because commercial or promotional films included it," said Brown. "I think you could find hula footage all over the USA and in other countries, too, if you had the time to really look thoroughly. If I had the time, I'd do it myself!"
Brown answered questions about hula on film:
Question: When was hula first filmed and by who?
Answer: The oldest surviving film of hula seems to be footage that was shot around 1915. It's held in the National Archives, and it appears to be from a U.S. government visit around that time -- possibly some kind of Congressional junket. The dancers are kind of joking around and not performing seriously for the camera.
Of course, so little film survives from this time period that we have no way of knowing what else might've been filmed even earlier than this. Starting in the early 1920s, when 16-millimeter film was marketed specifically for amateurs, a lot more movies of hula can be found. And this ties in with the increase in tourism and the advertising and promotion that was done for it.
Q: How has hula generally been treated on film, both in documentary and in Hollywood?
A: Movies of hula that were shot in Hawaii usually are of performances that were done for tourists, like the Kodak Hula Show. Untold miles of film were taken there over the years! It started in 1937 and ended just a few years ago.
Anyway, these types of shows were put on by Hawaiian people, so they're the real thing, but of course mostly of a hapa-haole type. With the growth of interest in ancient hula, which has been occurring since the Hawaiian Renaissance of the '70s, there are more opportunities for people to have filmed the kahiko style.
There have been a few efforts to seriously document hula, as it was taught by certain important kumu hula. Bishop Museum has some really valuable footage like this, of Mary Kawena Pukui, and 'Iolani Luahine, and Eleanor Hiram.
I guess most people would agree that Hollywood movies of the past -- say, up into the 1960s -- either just completely misrepresented the hula through ignorance, or for intentional mockery. Sometimes this can be amusing and kind of fun, and other times it's insulting. Some movies made an effort to have more authentic dances, like the 1951 "Bird of Paradise" that was filmed here on location. The producers actually had knowledgeable consultants on that one.
Q: Is documentary footage for hula performed long ago a good learning tool? Are there any kumu studying what's been preserved on film?
A: I think probably hula will always best be taught in person, with an actual kumu guiding the students. But there have been instructional films to teach hula. Kumu hula have definitely visited Bishop Museum over the years to watch historical movies of hula that we have.
One thing which I've learned from these teachers, which I never had really known before, is that there was a particular style of graceful hand and finger motions which are not really well known today. You can see it even in the hapa-haole style which was danced up into the 1960s. The fingers were moved in a pronounced waving motion. This seems to not be so popular any more, and dancers now seem to keep their fingers more straight.