Vision & Voice: Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Ciara Lacy on the Artistic Process as a Form of Catharsis

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Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy's 2017 documentary 'Out of State.'

Ciara Lacy’s new project ‘This Is the Way We Rise.’

November is Native American Heritage Month, and to celebrate, the Sundance Institute is running a weekly series, Vision & Voice: Indigenous Cinema Now, profiling artists who have been supported by the Institute’s Indigenous Program throughout its history. We kicked off the series last week talking to Navajo filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe; this week, we’re back speaking with Native Hawaiian writer/director Ciara Lacy, the first-ever recipient of the Institute’s Merata Mita Fellowship.

Lacy made the festival rounds in 2017 with her debut feature, Out of State, a documentary about two Native Hawaiian men who rediscover their Indigenous traditions while serving time in a private prison in the Arizona desert. In her recent conversation with Indigenous Program associate director Adam Piron, Lacy — who brought Out of State through the Institute’s NativeLab in 2012 and 2014 — talks about her origins as an artist, the importance of compassion in storytelling, and making films with her community in mind.

Jamaica Heolimelekalani Osorio in Ciara Lacy’s new project 'This Is the Way We Rise.'

ADAM PIRON: How did you get into filmmaking?

CIARA LACY: Growing up, filmmaking wasn’t something I thought could be a real career. It felt lofty, like something other people could pursue, not me. But I had this obsession with music videos. I would spend hours on end just watching music videos — stuff from the Chemical Brothers or directed by Chris Milk. I was struck by this combination of art forms that I loved. I loved that music could be a springboard for visual creativity, and you could do so many things with a music video. But I didn’t give myself permission to study film or feel like I could graduate from school with a degree in it.

It didn’t feel practical for me, so I studied psychology in undergrad and focused my education around depression and crisis counseling, which would later inform my work as a filmmaker. After college, I came back home to Hawai’i for about a year and tried to get a job, but I couldn’t — it was super hard for me. People recommended I go back to school, and for me at the time, the cost of it wasn’t an option. The other suggestion was to go somewhere else and try to build my résumé and skillset. So I left Hawai’i and moved to New York with $2,000 and a credit card and tried to figure out.

Ciara Lacy's 'Out of State.'

AP: You talked about your background, specifically around care and helping people out, and I think that comes across in your films. I wouldn’t necessarily call it restorative justice, but there’s definitely probing issues that are specific to Hawai’i as a microcosm of the things throughout the country and the world. Do you see that as how you go about making your films, or is it maybe the other way around?

CL: For me, I think, the artistic process is catharsis. I think it starts with the artist, and if I’m thinking of pursuing a project, I challenge myself by really asking “Why are you doing this?” With my first film, Out of State, I was struck by the work that needed to be done in the American carceral system. But there needed to be more for me to commit to the film. I always challenge myself to think what part of this process, what part of this story, what part of this issue do I find a personal connection with, a piece that could be restorative for me, because the work itself can take a really long time, and I need to know in a deep way why I’m doing it.

The artistic process is catharsis. I think it starts with the artist, and if I’m thinking of pursuing a project, I challenge myself by really asking ‘Why are you doing this?’

—Ciara Lacy

There are many ways we can access telling a story: You can access it through community connection, you can access it through what we as Hawaiians call koko or blood — what your cultural/ethnic/racial background might be — and then there are other ways we can connect with work. You can be from a community but also not have the right process or be the right person to steward a story — so I have to understand for myself what is that piece of me that will find restoration through the work, and hopefully if I can find restoration, somebody watching the work can find that for themselves as well. And oftentimes, I know I’ve done my job right if the subjects I work with take away a sense of restoration from the process as well.

Ciara Lacy’s new project ‘This Is the Way We Rise.’

AP: There’s a regional focus in your films, specifically Hawai’i. Are you thinking about making your work for the community there first, or is it more kind of about letting everybody know about what’s going on within that community outside of it?

CL: I think my answer to that question starts with colonization. Colonization has impacted — and continues to impact — how we as kanaka maoli, as native Hawaiians, see ourselves and how settlers in our home see us, as well as the rest of the world. I have found that there have been different layers of acceptance and rejection to work about our home and our people, as Hawaiians, both from within and from outside, due to this system of control.

Colonization tends to suggest that work from outside of Hawai’i has value above and beyond community-driven work, and I don’t agree with that.

—Ciara Lacy

Colonization tends to suggest that work from outside of Hawai’i has value above and beyond community-driven work, and I don’t agree with that. But recognizing that perspective has an insidious dominance at times, I often feel the need to push for support from beyond our home to get the work and its cause noticed. I’m not saying this strategy is successful in every instance, nor do I even like it foundationally, but it’s part of the struggle of creating space for our work.

Ciara Lacy's 'Out of State.'

AP: One thing about your films is that they’re very conscious about achieving a very real objective outside of themselves as films. Was that approach in your style something that you set out for, or was it more a result of dabbling around and that’s where you landed?

CL: I think every project has its own goals and its own message and mission. When we did Out of State, I designed that film around what were the gaps and needs that the film could satisfy. Because when you’re starting a film, depending on what it is, there are a thousand different ways you can approach it. You make all these macro and micro decisions along the way, but what’s going to guide where you take it?

With that film specifically, I felt like the thing we needed our community most to recognize was that we need to care. We need people to recognize that our prison population is made up of our people — they are our community members, our neighbors, our cousins, the person in line at the supermarket. It was about addressing the othering; there is no other in this, it’s all us — and if we fail them, we fail ourselves.

So for that project specifically, the design and the goal was when you walk out of watching that film, you needed to feel something — that sense of injustice, that sense of emotion and sense of despair. The hope was that if you walked out feeling that, then the film would sit with you, kick around in your mind, and when the issue comes up again or there’s another conversation, maybe you’ll do something, say something, think differently.

I think the truth is often messy, and I want people to sit in that discomfort.

—Ciara Lacy

I think there’s often, particularly in American-centered storytelling, the need to have a solution, the need to have a clean ending — and if you walk out of a film, particularly one that has a socially conscious orientation, if you’re given the solution, what is the call to action for an audience? I think the truth is often messy, and I want people to sit in that discomfort. And if you’re given a single solution, does that falsely suggest that an intersectional issue can be tied up in a bow with one approach? So many of the things we tackle today are the outcomes of multiple factors crisscrossing, thus their solutions need to be just as complex or varied.

I think it’s important to reiterate that the goal and the approach for every film is different; with Out of State I wanted to leave people unsettled to elicit action or a shift in perspective. I’m not saying this is how we should always approach work for BIPOC communities that are dealing with trauma; I think that was one strategy for one film with a specific goal. I think there also is and must be space for BIPOC films about hope and joy and rich depictions of people as well.

Ciara Lacy’s new project ‘This Is the Way We Rise.’

AP: Your filmmaking oscillates between a state of anger and a state of compassion for a lot of the subjects, and I’m curious about how you strike that balance. You were saying that it’s almost like you were working things out for yourself through it as well. Even outside of Out of State, where else do you see that within your own work?

CL: I think there’s probably a much bigger emotional range that goes on in me than what most people see. I probably come across as pretty even-keeled or upbeat, but I think it’s hard to exist in a state of compassion and also not have that coexist with frustration. If you feel for something, it’s hard to not also feel the injustice, the sadness, and the full scope of humanity with it as well. I think that’s part of making sure people understand they’re connecting with real humans. You have to give them all the realness.

With a film like This Is the Way We Rise, my most recent doc short for PBS’s American Masters and Firelight Media, I definitely feel like I was working out my emotional response to life unfolding as we filmed. When we got started with that film, we had one expectation as to how things were going to go, and when we got into production, when the movement with Maunakea struck, it broke open how we were going to approach the story and we had to pivot.

The process of retooling what that film would be while being witness to a powerful moment in modern Hawaiian history filled me with a tidal wave of emotions. I was constantly questioning my proximity to the issue: Am I too close to it? Am I not close enough? Do I understand my community, and do I understand what the possible visions for our future could be? Honestly, I’m still learning and listening, but I’m glad I had that film to force me to deal with all of this. And I’m grateful to subject Jamaica Heolimelekalani Osorio for the privilege of witnessing her growth and restoration alongside the movement for Maunakea.

Ciara Lacy's 'Out of State.'

AP: In terms of finding a form within your film, do you find yourself pushing against the western way of filmmaking that you talked about before, or do you lean into it a little bit, also trying to weave a certain cultural logic of what you’re trying to approach, specifically with a lot of the nuances of being Hawaiian?

CL: I don’t think I’ve totally landed on that. I’m aware of the western form and what’s conventional from that perspective, but there are a lot of other western-focused cinemas that are more open to different forms of storytelling, and I think that part of this is a broader conversation about opening up how people influenced by American culture access stories. I’m in the process of trying to figure out how to do it so that I can help expand my approach to work but also make sure that our own community will still access the work.

And that was a concern with the way we constructed Out of State. I had concerns that it was put together in a way that might not have attracted a lot of people, but what was the ultimate goal of that film? Was the ultimate goal to get a community to make movement on an issue, or was it to get traction in terms of its storytelling in reviews and what its critical acceptance was? From the beginning, the goal was to transform a community. Is that going to be a central goal for every film? No. But I think that was the central goal for that film.

It’s that push and pull, making sure that you’re listening and helping amplify what is being said, but constantly moderating with how an audience is going to respond to that.

—Ciara Lacy

So a lot of this is that interplay between what is the film trying to say or what are the people you are working with, whose faces are on screen — what do they want to say? And that’s actually where it starts for me most of the time. I will disappear into their perspective to the point where I’m like, “Ciara, what is your opinion on this? Who are you? Where is this?” It’s that push and pull, making sure that you’re listening and helping amplify what is being said, but constantly moderating with how an audience is going to respond to that. What is going to centralize the message so that people get something out of it?

For me, I want an audience to take away something new. What do you get out of these 10 minutes, 12 minutes, hour and a half? What are you going to step away with that you didn’t expect? This is going to be the work in progress for my life. I read that there’s this concept in the media that the audience will track something if it's interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate; it’s the interesting that will propagate online and get the clicks, not necessarily the factual accuracy, and I want to be able to get both.


Ciara Lacy's interest lies in crafting films that use strong characters and investigative journalism to challenge the creative and political status quo. She has created content for film and television, managed independent features, as well as coordinated product placement and clearances for various platforms. Her work has shown at festivals around the world as well as broadcast on networks including Netflix, PBS, ABC, and Al Jazeera. In the digital space, she has created content for notable outlets like The Guardian and The Atlantic.


Lead photo:

Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy's 2017 documentary 'Out of State.'