Film is powerful.
It tells stories across generations, across countries, across cultures.
In this year’s virtual Doc Edge Festival, documentaries from around the world – and Asia – will show New Zealanders a different view on life.
One of those films is Tokyo Hula, from director Lisette Flanary. Hula is woven into Flanary’s life: her mother is from Hawai’i and she’s been immersed in the cultural tradition for most of her life.
About 10 years ago, Flanary became curious about a hula trend in Japan. At the time, around 400,000 Japanese people had taken up hula. Today, it’s risen to two million – more than the population of Hawai’i.
Since the 1980s, hula has exploded in popularity in Japan and many Hawaiians have travelled to the country to teach it in its cultural context.
But taking such a cultural icon overseas is complex.In the 1980s, kumu hula (masters) who travelled to Japan to teach were sometimes called “traitors” and were accused of selling Hawaiin culture. But over the decades, more and more kumu hula have taken the tradition across the Pacific to Japan, along with musicians and other people associated with hula.
Flanary first saw Japanese hula dancers take the stage in the early 2000s and was instantly intrigued. The dancers were technically perfect but there was something missing.
“I thought ‘this is so weird and I can’t quite put my finger on what I’m fascinated by here. But I’m going to have to explore this.’.”
“On one hand, it's really great, hula is everywhere. It's in Europe, it's in Japan, and Asia and even Mexico.
“But on the other hand, what happens when you transplant something that is a cultural icon, and a huge beloved tradition here in Hawai'i and take it to another culture? And how do you teach it in another language?“
Tokyo Hula director Lisette Flanary.
Many kumu hula now teach overseas for these very reasons, to keep hula to its cultural roots. Often, it was advertised in Japan as a dance class or a way of keeping fit. But over the years, Flanary has seen – and documented – a changing tradition.
“The big shift that I've noticed is there's a lot more interest in learning about the language.
“[Japanese students] are getting more interested in studying the traditional form, or what we call the kahiko style of hula. They want to learn how to chant. It's not just putting a CD in the machine and pressing play.”
While filming in Japan, Flanary found it wasn’t just the dance and cultural context which were now being taught.
“One of the trippiest things I think I shot was this smile workshop, where there's a woman who teaches workshops where people can perfect their smile for hula.”
One of the hula classes in Japan that Flanary captured on film.
“I've never really thought about, you know, culturally. It's very challenging for Japanese people to smile. They really have broken it down into exercises for the face. How do you smile at 70 percent, how do you smile at 50 percent?”
She also saw Japanese students responding to what she personally loved about hula – the sense of community and the family created within the tradition.
“For me, it was it was very moving to see so many people dancing in Japan who felt like this was an outlet for them to be emotional and to hug each other.”
Since the Doc Edge Festival started in 2005, festival director Alex Lee has seen more and more diverse voices come through, including a number of Asian-focused or Asian-made films. This year’s festival has 12 such documentaries and shorts.
“Documentary is becoming more participatory and democratic,” he said, “There are a lot more voices coming out from countries or places that you would never have been able to hear a story from in the past.”
Doc Edge Festival director Alex Lee.
Lee said he’s noticed that more documentaries coming through – especially from certain parts of Asia – are from people picking up the camera to tell their own stories.
Take, for example, About Love. Director Archana Phadke turns the camera on her own family, documenting the minutiae of family life and structure across three generations living under the same roof in South Mumbai.
She captures her parents arguing, health issues, her brother’s marriage – little moments that make up her family.
“Film in itself, it's very, very effective in being able to put people into a position of understanding because you see something on the screen,” Lees said, “You hear it, it's very visceral. If I watch something, I can see something that is real. That's why documentary is so important, when you realize it's not just fiction, and that this is actually happening.”
“Then you become aware and your eyes are open.”
The Doc Edge Festival launches virtually on Friday, June 12 and runs until July 5. To find out more and book tickets for the virtual events, including Q and A's with filmmakers, visit the Doc Edge website.
A selection of Asia-focused documentaries presented during the festival:
- A Thousand Cuts: What would be the result if you put Trump’s narcissism together with Putin’s vicious vindictiveness, into the moral vacuum that is Britain’s Johnson, added some seasoning in the form of the Brazilian Bolsonaro’s arrogant self-entitlement, and switched on the blender?
- Confucian Dream: The battle between tradition and modern life for a young mother in China
- Mr. Toilet: What do you get when you cross an eccentric self-made man with a load of crap? Jack Sim. To a stranger, he’s a guy obsessed with toilets, but to those who know him, he’s ‘Mr. Toilet’, a crusader for global sanitation.
- Shadow Flowers: Follows the story of Ryun-hee Kim as she tries to return home, to North Korea
- Smog Town: China, long plagued by smog, has declared war “for the defence of the blue sky”. Smog Town shows the battle underway in one of its most air-polluted cities, Langfang.
- Asia Media Centre