It’s all about the power of words and connection: connecting with your land and its sacredness, your people, and eventually, your self for Native Hawaiian slam poet, academic, artist and activist Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, as featured in the Sundance 2021 Short Film: This is the Way We Rise. The short film is a documentary is about the protection of the sacred land that is Hawaii’s Mauanakea. In this interview, we talk to the film director, Ciara Lacy – who is a Native Hawaiian, herself– about the filmmaking process and working with Jamaica Osorio.
First of all, congratulations on Sundance, Ciara! Can you tell us more about your filmmaking process and your collaboration with Jamaica for this film?
Thank you! The film is part of an anthology series that was commissioned by PBS’s American Masters and Firelight Media. Firelight Media is an organization dedicated to supporting BIPOC filmmakers – filmmakers of color in the public television space. And as a fellow from Firelight, they’ve helped me build my career as a documentary filmmaker.
I had being watching Jamaica’s work for a while and I love slam poetry. I think poetry itself is very Hawaiian: how we speak and how we write. It’s very metaphorical. It’s filled with similes and analogies to the real and natural world. It got me really excited because [slam poetry] was a way to access Hawaiian culture that still felt relevant but also updated. It was a way to look at our traditions in a new way. I was also excited because I’m typically a vérité documentarian – I like to follow real life as it unfolds. I thought this would be my first chance to plan something in advance.
And I had a whole plan. Then, right before we were about to start shooting, I get a text from Jamaica saying that she was getting the call to go to Maunakea – to support its protection. And as a fellow Hawaiian I understood what that meant and having spoken with her, I understood how important the cause was to her. So, you know what do you do? You say ‘OK‘. I called our team and we threw our plans out the window and we just showed up.
Was that the first time that you two met – on the spot right before filming – or how did you two meet?
No, we had lunch a few times before. We were planning this whole thing that was very specific and would be done in a specific way and we threw that out the door and started over again.
Let’s talk about the cinematography. In the film, you followed them from different dates in real-time right? When you said you planned it: how long did filming take – the interval of those times from start to finish?
We started filming it June or July and we probably stopped in September. I think it feels more expansive in terms of time because we had many cameras so a lot of the photography came from me and the cinematographer I typically work with, Chapin Hall. But because we couldn’t embed ourselves and live at the Mauna in the way that we want to, there is a lot of footage that is licensed from other filmmakers and so a lot of this became a collaboration. There’s a lot of use of other people’s camera which is not something I typically do but there’s also so much going on and so much coverage of the Mauana.
It was incredible. Hawaiians were just live streaming from their iPhones. And it was radical. Radical cinema. This is direct to the people by the people. There was something incredibly captivating from the day that we couldn’t be up there. I was glued to the computer looking at social media. In the film, there’s not as much as I’d hope, but there is social media coverage. And the reason I put that in there was because it was true to the experience at the time. They were taking the initiative to put their voices out there to show what was happening and it was powerful.
What do you want non-Hawaiians to understand about the sacredness of Maunakea?
I think because it’s Jamaica that you see on-screen, if we connect with her and her perspective, then we begin to understand how she views what’s happening there. And I think she has some really powerful words: Science versus Development, right? For me, as someone who isn’t an academic and doesn’t have the same power with words, hearing somebody break [ideas] down in the way that Jamaica does really helps you to reframe and understand.
That’s one of her superpowers is giving a framework to latch on to: to understand those things that don’t necessarily feel good, particularly as Hawaiians.
I think my hope is since this piece is around art and the artistic process, that it doesn’t feel too heavy of an agenda conversation. Because if I’m too heavy-handed about it, then it’s easy for people to reject the voice that way. And I think people are really savvy and they understand subtlety, and I want them to create their own meaning about [the film].
But if I was to say what’s the goal? It would be to connect to the Hawaiian that you might not have thought to connect with before. And as we say in the film, Pilina and that sort of emotional connection hopefully makes you understand them just a little bit more with this film.
There was this one scene where Jamaica talked about not having written any poetry in three years. Did you know about her writer’s block beforehand? What was that like for you in capturing her creative process going into filming?
I didn’t know. I think when you’re an artist and you’re not writing, it’s not something that you want to throw out there. The beauty of what we were able to capture was the resurgence of that artistic voice. What I got to see was Jamaica write multiple times a day and throwing that up on her Instagram and how amazing it was and how people needed her voice. It just meant so much to people. It gave them a way to understand and process what was going on. It was incredible and then looking at it, in hindsight, it not only gave something to everybody else, it gave her back herself as an artist.