Photo: Inmates perform a chant at the Saguaro Correctional Center
Inmates at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona perform a chant as a part of their protocol to celebrate makahiki, a period in the Native Hawaiian lunar calendar when peace and proseprerity are at focus. - Photo: Chapin Hall

For the past two decades, Hawai‘i has been shipping inmates to private prisons on the continent. Today, about 1,300 prisoners from Hawai‘i are incarcerated at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, 3,000 miles from home. Moved by the plight of Hawaiian inmates practicing their culture behind bars in a desert prison, Ciara Lacy produced and directed her debut feature-length film OUT OF STATE, which premiered in June at the LA Film Festival, and won Best Documentary Feature Film two weeks later at the Cayman International Film Festival.

In November, OUT OF STATE will be screened at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, which will release its schedule the first week in October. You can also find out about other screenings at www.outofstatefilm.com/screenings.

Ka Wai Ola asked Lacy about her experiences making the film and why it’s so important to shine a light on Hawaiian prisoners serving their terms in the Arizona desert.

Why did you choose to highlight Hawaiians incarcerated in Arizona?

When I first learned of our Native Hawaiian men engaging in cultural practices at a private prison in Arizona, something struck at my core. The idea of our people, thousands of miles from our island home, chanting amongst desert sand and cactus didn’t make sense to me. I was immediately drawn to learn more, to understand the value that our culture not only brings to those far away from home but to those seeking rehabilitation.

What were your expectations at the beginning of the project? Did they change over time?

The first time I walked into the Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona I cried. There, in the middle of a dusty prison recreation yard, were almost 100 men chanting my entrance into the facility. Prior to arriving, I had reasonable concerns about filming in prison and had been advised by mentors to love my subjects but to also be cautious given their histories. Every expectation I had was immediately thrown out the door when I saw these men chanting in varying shades of traditional Hawaiian dress and prison uniforms. Caught off guard, I did the only thing I knew how to do; I chanted back.

As a Native Hawaiian, the metaphor of our cultural practices behind bars was immediately overwhelming, evoking profound resentment for the ramifications of the colonization of our people. To date, we struggle at the bottom rung of so many socio-economic factors in our own lands, including a striking overabundance of our people populating local and distant prisons. Sadly, this is not new information about our community. However, what captured me in this prison space was the humanity and connection between men. If, in this most unlikely setting, thousands upon thousands of miles away from home, our people could discover their native culture from each other and create a bond, so much more was possible. And it still is. From the outset of this project and persisting to today, I believe in our people and in our potential to heal.

Were the inmates receptive to participating in the film? What did you learn from their experiences in Arizona?

Our men at Saguaro were generous in sharing their stories and cultural practice, an ethos that not only extended to our filmmaking team but also a general sentiment that they shared with each other. I value placed on our culture in this setting. Truly, all knowledge is not learned in just one school.

What do you want viewers to take away from this film? Is there a particular audience you’d really like to see it?

Day to day survival in our modern world, especially given the economic challenges of living in Hawai‘i, isn’t easy. Compound this with the struggle of applying for a job with a criminal record on your resume after years of separation from society, and the high rate of recidivism in our community is, unfortunately, not shocking. My hope is that audiences will leave viewings of OUT OF STATE emotionally impacted by the experiences of our subjects, gaining first-hand insight into the humanity behind their struggle. While the film has been seen by audiences far and wide, our team is committed to sharing this film with our people, creating a brave space for us to discuss this issue in our community.

What was the most rewarding part of making this film?

I’m hopeful that the most rewarding part of this process is on the horizon: engaging in vital conversations about the state of our fellow Native Hawaiians in the U.S. criminal justice system and fostering innovation to improve this situation. In addition, I have been moved by the power of what seeing our own people – so often erased from Hollywood or the general media’s depiction of Native Hawaiians – can do for us. Every screening of OUT OF STATE that we attend is a strong reminder that there is value in seeing ourselves in moving pictures, and that the current wave of Native Hawaiian filmmaking has much promise to further strengthen our collective identity.