October 19, 2009

Hawaiians criticize "Barbarian" movie

'Princess' sparks heated debate

By Katherine Nichols and Gary ChunA question from filmmaker Vilsoni Hereniko, a director and professor of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii, about why the word "barbarian" was included in the title sparked ardent responses from Kilcher and writer/director Marc Forby.

"The title was meant to bring in, and then challenge audiences from, say, middle America who might be expecting something like sexy dances at a luau," said Forby. "We wanted to draw attention to how Hawaiians were treated in the 1800s; this has never been about exploiting the Hawaiian people. I never knew it would get so heated. I thought the irony would be obvious." He also apologized for the controversy and any offense the title has caused.

Producer Nigel Thomas hundreds of possible titles were considered.

"It's very hard to come up with a title that doesn't sound like a cruise line," he said.

But it's a topic that continues to rankle some native Hawaiian leaders.

"We take serious issue with the title of the upcoming film 'Barbarian Princess,'" Abigail Kawananakoa said in a statement. "It is a perpetuation of the wrongs and hurtful aspersions cast upon our people for well over 200 years." Yet she went on to note that after viewing the movie, she will "neither condemn nor celebrate it."
Comment:  Translation of "The title was meant to bring in ... audiences": "We're pandering to people who think Native Hawaiians are half-naked savages in grass skirts."

The irony of the title--that indigenous people aren't really barbarians--should be obvious to people after they see the movie. But that's only one of several points worth considering. It's not clear to me that Thomas and Forby have thought about any of them.

"Barbarian" may sell tickets, but...

  • Where's the evidence that the "Barbarian" title will draw more viewers? How much research did Thomas and Forby do on the subject, if any?

    Did the research go deeper than asking a focus group which title they liked? Because in the real world, people judge movies by the buzz, trailers, reviews, and word of mouth--not the title.

    I don't know what titles they rejected, but "Princess Kaiulani" would've been a perfectly good title. It would've hinted at the "exotic" subject matter without hitting people over the head with the stereotypical word "Barbarian."

    Thomas and Forby give the impression that they wanted a sensational and controversial title to draw attention to their movie. That they cared more about filling seats than the feelings of Native Hawaiians. If they don't like the resulting criticism, too bad. They should've consulted with Hawaiians before choosing a stereotypical title.

  • I wouldn't wager too much on audiences' ability to understand irony. I suspect many people who saw Dances with Wolves or Into the West thought, "These Indians sure were colorful and complex people, for savages." After all, these movies showed Indians in the past, not the present. Because they didn't have modern technology, one could call them "primitive."

    Barbarian Princess presumably ends with the US taking over the islands and ending the Hawaiian monarchy. There's probably a hint that the Hawaiians weren't sophisticated enough to stand up to the Americans. In other words, that the most "civilized" people triumphed again. Therefore, I bet some people will leave Barbarian Princess thinking, "Those Hawaiians sure were barbarians, all right."

  • Non-viewers won't get irony

  • The real issue is that Thomas and Forby are thinking only of the few million people who will see the movie and get the so-called. Good for them, but hundreds of millions of people won't see Americans acting less civilized and more savage than Hawiians in the movie. They'll see only the title on marquees, advertisements, and websites. The only message they'll get is "Hawaiian = barbarian."

    Thomas and Forby are already having to explain what their title means. For the next umpteen years, fans and reviewers will have to explain that "Barbarian" is ironic. They'll have to explain it because billions of people who see only the title will assume that Hawaiians are indeed barbarians.

  • I addressed this issue before in Princess Kaiulani Trailer. What I said still stands:Just because the press of the day used the phrase "Barbarian Princess" doesn't make it a good title. The press also called Indians things like "Heathen Savages," "Dirty Redskins" and "Murderous Devils," but I wouldn't choose those as titles for a Native-themed movie.

    Many people won't get the irony or even see the movie, so they'll think "Hawaiians = barbarians." I suggest something that combats stereotypes--like "500 Nations" or "We Shall Remain"--not something that reinforces them.
    For more on the subject, see Q'orianka's Hawaiian Epic and Kaiulani Controversy Continues.

    Below:  "The Honolulu Film Festival kicks off with the film 'The Barbarian Princess' already sold out." At the Iolani Palace, also the headquarters for Hawaii 5-0.

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