Standing Above The Clouds

Audio recording of interview available here:

Miko: I would love to hear about how you use film as a tool to educate folks. 

Jalena: Part of my filmmaking practice is using film as something that can be healing for the people that are in it and something that can be generative. So with my film project, Standing Above the Clouds, I always saw it as a feature length project, but in order to really be in partnership with the community, we created a short film that could be used more as an educational tool. It also helped hone our skills as a filmmaking team and has been used to spread awareness about the mountain and about the movement. We had envisioned pre-COVID, pre-new normal, that the short film would be touring all around the world with the workshops that the protectors do in classrooms and on all these different outreach trips to conferences and universities. 

Miko: Describe the workshop that you do with the subjects of the film pre COVID and then now during COVID what’s the difference? What are workshops? 

Jalena: We’ve done some different workshops where it would be a screening of the film and then a talk back. Or some introductory points from the protectors and then we watched the film and then Aunty Pua would teach one of the chants that you see in the film. In COVID times we either screen the film online, or people watch it and then come with questions. Then we talk about the movement and the process of making the film and about the trust between us as a filmmaking team and people in the film. It’s been really beautiful to see the kind of impacts the film has had even in these COVID times. Of course it’s a lot easier to do that kind of outreach in person. We know that a lot of people are left out by the digital divide. A lot of the communities that specifically we wanted to be reaching out to, for instance, on the Rez or in low income communities, many people don’t really have access to these spaces of conference spaces or film festivals. 

But with the school being online, we have been able to present in a bunch of different classrooms, which has been really great. We have an accompanying curriculum. A collection of different lesson ideas or a bunch of different age ranges that teachers can get inspiration from. That was a really beautiful process because we got to hear what teachers were thinking about the film and what points they really wanted to bring out in the classroom. That was really helpful in thinking about the longer version too, of what felt missing or what were the kinds of things that needed more explanation and what was landing with different people. 

Pua Case and her daughters Hāwane Rios and Kapulei Flores in front of the ahu or shrine at the base of Mauna Kea 

Miko: A lot of indigenous people have kept a lot of traditions, so sacred and so quiet and within their own community. Protecting that and carrying on that tradition. How was it working with these families and getting them to include you in those traditions? 

Jalena: I didn’t really push for it. I was just present. And then would be willing to be invited to things. And then would always not film if I was told not to. Even not necessarily like sacred ritual things, but can I film you when you go on this drive? If someone says no, then that’s fine, and I respect that fully. I think that has really built the relationship. And then also just the amount of time too, and showing up consistently has built the relationship a lot as well. 

I don’t want to speak for the people in the film or for indigenous people or anything like that. But what I hear from the people that I work with is a desire to tell the world that they are still here, and their culture is still alive. One of my motivations for working on this project and doing this film is to really resituate indigenous women as the leaders of the environmental movement, who always have been and will continue to be, but just haven’t been recognized as the leaders. 

Part of that is, you know, being a little bit vulnerable and showing some different things that people don’t know. That’s also why it’s so important that we have the kind of trust and partnership that we do. 

Miko: What advice do you have for people sharing about a culture that they don’t belong to? 

Jalena: I think it’s all about communicating your intention and knowing your place. So for me, I was really transparent upfront, you know, I want to do something about mother daughters. Mother daughter activists and this intergenerational aspect of leading and healing and how those two go hand in hand. 

Miko: So you started with a commonality that you were grounded? 

Jalena: Yeah. Started with a commonality that I was grounded in and then was open to their thoughts about it, what they thought should be included. And really listening. And I think it’s different when it’s not your own culture, you have to be a lot more collaborative and a lot more willing to listen to what is seen as acceptable and what is seen as not acceptable.

The film is a lot about Hawaiian culture because it’s a Hawaiian movement and Hawaiian people, but all of us are so many things, so we have many commonalities and many things that are different. I think it’s just about acknowledging that and knowing where we’re coming from and what our intentions are and what we want to build together. 

I think a lot of it is also just being in the right place at the right time and things align for certain reasons. The main pillar of my work is this idea of consent, continuous ongoing consent. And that means constantly talking about intentions and boundaries. And that also means understanding that something that’s okay to film one day might not be okay to film the next day. So I think having that respect and knowledge. Is really important. 

Jalena filming Pua Case in the van Pua and her daughter Kapulei were living out of on the mountain 

Miko: In the beginning you were talking about taking the knowledge that you have learned and you in your life have had a lot of different teaching artists that have been your mentors. In dance and music and theater. Can you talk about how that has impacted you as a filmmaker? Having these perspectives of artists kind of guide you. 

Jalena: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about that recently too, of being a witness and holding space at all these ceremonies. And I think growing up, doing so much performing arts and so much ceremony in different ways, really trained me for that and growing up, doing a lot of different art forms, some that were my culture and some that were not, taught me that kind of respect and, humility for when you were learning something that’s not from your own culture. Cause I think it’s a really fine line between appreciation and appropriation, but there is such a beauty in artistic exchange and in learning different art forms and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things and that’s something that can unite all people. 

I think it also made it so that I was familiar with the mix of activism and art forms or spirituality and art, because that’s what I grew up around, both in my own culture and in a bunch of different cultures, too. So it didn’t seem, I don’t know if unusual is the right word, but it just felt, it felt like home to me. I mean, I grew up going with you around to different schools, telling stories about our culture and our people. So when the protectors are doing hula that talks about their stories, their creation myths, like that doesn’t seem unusual to me at all, that you would do that with your family. 

There’s so much beauty in respecting and learning a different kind of ritual and respecting someone else’s ritual and it really just expands your worldview. It also shows that a lot of these rituals are really similar. It’s about honoring the land, honoring the different directions, doing things for good luck, for good health, for permission. It’s a lot of really similar things. So I think it can really be a uniting factor. 

Miko: So, what is your wish? When people see her film, even the short film what is your wish that they walk away with?

Jalena: Well, I want them to know that Hawaiians are not only still here, but are organizing and leading a global movement. I also hope that people walk away knowing that art and activism are one in the same. And also that if you want to stand for something, if you want to do something, you can do it. As long as you have the support of a few people that you can really count on. It doesn’t take as many people as people might think. The last shot of the film, it’s this sea of women. But for the two years prior that we were filming, it was not like that at all. There would be protests where there were five people, ten people, and it would just be those, you know, staunch supporters that would show up every week that really carried it and that’s exactly what you need to sustain something. 

All of the mother daughter activists standing together at the base of Mauna Kea

Miko: So this is a film that is about artists that are activists that utilize chanting, utilize storytelling as a means to enact political change. How do you see documenting that work impact your work as a filmmaker?

Jalena: There’s this indigenous framework that the things we’re doing now are for the next seven generations and the things that we benefit from are because of the past seven generations. So I think that framework has made a huge impact on my work and particularly with the protectors that we’re working with and with Hawaiian culture, so much of it is an oral history. If no one had made these chants and memorized them, if no one had done these dances to remember lineages and remember lava flows and how things were formed, then we wouldn’t have that information now. 

So it also puts in perspective this work of documenting it so that the next seven generations have the tools to do what they want to do and to protect the things that they want to protect and stand for what they want to stand for. Because we know that not everyone gets access to these incredible leaders in real life, face to face. So film is a great way to have that intimate relationship, but also make it something that a lot more people can experience. But it’s still in a way that’s authentic and in a way that can touch them and move them. It’s taught me so much and formed my filmmaking practice so much, but I think the biggest part is thinking about being a witness and holding space so that in the future, people won’t have to wonder if they come from powerful women or not, they’ll know that they do. And people won’t have to wonder who their ancestors are and what they did and what they stood for. It can be, it can be there and it can be there in a way that’s not just the headline news but something that’s really intimate and shows not only the highlight moments but also the struggle moments. 

Pua Case with her daughters Hāwane Rios and Kapulei Flores holding each other overlooking Mauna Kea.