My Own Private Hawaii: How a Native Hawaiian Shot Her Film at a Tough Private Prison in the Arizona Desert

I wasn’t trying to make a film, but perhaps that’s how most good things cross your path: You’re just not looking.

In fact, at the time, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to make another movie. I was deep into physical therapy and was told by doctors that I should find a new career when my auntie recommended I watch a YouTube video. Reluctantly, I clicked on a news piece from an Arizona station and watched as a group of incarcerated native Hawaiian men performed rituals in a high- security prison, thousands of miles away. As a fellow native Hawaiian, their raw passion spoke to my core. I didn’t know how, but I knew I needed to tell their story, to make this film. So, I called my cousin, Beau Bassett.

Having worked as a public defender in Hawaii for many years, Beau had a deep understanding of the criminal justice system. Despite this, he estimated it would take six months to a year to gain access to film in the prison. Things moved quickly, however, once we connected with the right person, the Hawaii State Department of Public Safety’s Public Information Officer. Should the State grant access, the private prison where we wanted to shoot would likely say yes, too.

The key to getting approval? Addressing the state of Hawaii’s concerns. Outside of typical insurance requirements, they worried we would make something trashy or inaccurate. So we addressed their apprehensions right in the body of our contract. Beyond that, we relied upon our professional reputations and our reputations in the community to instill confidence in the project and our intent to document something profound happening behind prison walls.

The next obstacle to tackle was, of course, money, and we had only 10 days to find it. Flights, crew, insurance, and gear would all be pricey, particularly given the six-hour flight between Hawaii and Arizona. All in, we estimated we’d need about $5,000. The first money came from a grassroots organization called the Hawaii People’s Fund, which gave emergency grants for community projects with immediate cash flow needs. Next, we hit the phones, calling everyone we knew for ideas. Leave it to my live-off-the-land, Buddhist Auntie on the Big Island of Hawaii to tell me to look up an angel investor in the phone book. I did as instructed, and believe it or not, we got the rest of the funds we needed by leaving a message on an answering machine. Yes, sometimes you do get lucky.

With the cash and approval to film, we now needed the right crew. We made the decision to keep our team small: DP, sound, and director. I was reluctant to bring on more people not only because of cost constraints but also because fewer people to keep track of meant fewer potential liabilities. Safety is paramount in my book. Once we had our crew, getting in the prison meant having all of us pass background checks––which I found myself holding my breath about, even if for no real reason.

Planning a shoot in a medium-to-high security prison also meant understanding facility protocols. Every piece of equipment would need to be passed through a metal detector and painstakingly inventoried, a process that could take hours with our typical camera and audio kits. Our cinematographer Chapin Hall, aware of these constraints, paired down our camera package to the bare essentials: one camera, one lens, batteries, and media. We had have little to work with other than natural light, composition, and proximity to the subject. In return, we could spend more time with our subjects, rather than tediously checking in equipment. In hindsight, this turned out to be a good bet, as Chapin was able to craft an intimate and emotional story in a remarkably cinematic fashion.

Crew dancing on the set of Ciara Lacy’s documentary Out of State. Photograph courtesy of Ciara Lacy

Last but not least came the puzzle of scheduling our days. We had to plan within the confines of the prison’s routine, particularly when it came to ‘count.’ Count is a literal accounting of all inmates held at the facility, which is conducted at regular intervals throughout the day. No movement in or out of the prison is allowed during this time, so we carefully plotted our days around it. Running behind, even by a minute, could mean being held within the facility an additional two hours, forcing the crew deep into overtime. Not an option on this indie budget.

By the time I got on the airplane to fly Arizona to film for the first time, I was already tired. It had taken everything to just show up––even overcoming a freak storm and flight changes to get there on time––so much so that I had never engaged in the kind of musing you hope to do as a first-time director. In fact, my head was so stuffed with logistics and run-of-the-mill production-induced fears that when I finally entered the main grounds of the facility, I did the one thing I didn’t expect to do: I cried.

There, in the middle of a dusty prison recreation yard, were 100 men chanting in my native tongue. Prior to arriving, I had never stepped foot in a prison, let alone known someone who had spent time inside. I didn’t even know what to wear, so I brought along a bunch of men’s T-shirts to avoid any distractions I thought my gender might cause. Mentors had advised me to love my subjects but I also felt the need to be cautious given my subjects’ histories. However, every expectation I had was thrown out the door when I saw these chanting men dressed in native Hawaiian dress and prison uniforms. As a fellow indigenous Hawaiian, my gut immediately knotted knowing that those standing before me weren’t just prisoners—they were also my people. Caught off guard, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I chanted back.

It was in this fashion that I spent my first day in prison, observing cultural practices behind bars as the men prepared for makahiki, the indigenous Hawaiian season of peace and harvest. Incarceration in the U.S. means you are stripped of so many of your rights, but your identity and religious freedom are yours to keep. These men had petitioned and won the ability to chant and dance in this unlikely space as part of their first amendment rights, and this was what I was here to document.

It was in this setting that a thick, bald, bulldog of a man with an indigenous Hawaiian tattoo running down the right side of his face first stepped up to me and said, “I’m going to find you when I get out of prison.” My heart skipped a beat. But as we continued to talk, I realized that he meant he wanted to show me he could make it on the outside. This man, David, would go on to become the first subject of our film, and the rest of our subjects found their way to us in an equally organic fashion, each hoping that participation in the documentary would be an opportunity to give back, to do something positive, and show that they’d changed for the better. This ethos was so strong that their willingness to participate in the film extended for years, beyond hard time served, beyond the first taste of homecoming happiness and into the ups-and-downs of everyday life back in Hawaii.

I’ve been asked, “What was it like being a female director in an all-male prison?” I’ve always considered my gender to be my superpower. Yet I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into an all-male prison environment. However, once up and rolling, we saw a very nuanced picture of manhood in prison with varying degrees of femininity expressed by the inmates. So despite expectations, my gender wasn’t a novelty in that setting. And from the perspective of the men in prison, they were eager to share and relate, regardless of who I was, particularly because of how removed they were from their own relatives.

Looking back at the five-year miracle/odyssey of the making of Out of State, I’ve been disarmed more than once by what the filming process and the recording of real-life has presented me. And, very likely, the tenacity to finish this project, despite all the twists and turns, has been this guiding principal: that documentary can be a restorative process for both the filmmaker and the subject. And that despite the struggles to make this Herculean feat happen, somehow, at the end of this journey, the men and myself are much better off having had this experience. MM

Ciara Lacy’s documentary, Out of State, won the “Made in Hawaii Film Award” at the 37th annual Hawaii International Film Festival in November.

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