Courtesy Ciara Leina'ala Lacy
Ciara Leina'ala Lacy: Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Awarded Prestigious Fellowship

Native Hawaiian Filmmaker Awarded Prestigious Fellowship

Benjamin Brewer

In January, it was announced that Native Hawaiian Ciara Leina'ala Lacy (Kanaka Maoli) became the first recipient of the Merata Mita Fellowship from the Sundance Institute. Named in honor of late Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, the award was created as a way of continuing her legacy by helping indigenous filmmakers. According to the Sundance Institute, the fellowship provides financial support, access to strategic and creative services and mentorship opportunities.

Lacy’s first feature film, Out of State, follows the story of a group of Native Hawaiian prisoners who, after being moved to Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, began practicing hula to feel closer to home and connect with their culture. The fellowship will help Lacy and her creative team finish the editing process and complete post-production.

“It’s not a cheap pursuit,” she says. “As an independent filmmaker, my family and I have invested heavily to make sure this project sees completion.”

After applying for the fellowship, Lacy received a call from Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), director of Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Film Program, notifying her of the acceptance into the program. "Our fellowship recipient was selected from a pool of Indigenous Sundance alumni who are currently working on a feature film," said Runningwater. "The award is intended to provide strategic support at a critical moment when funds, advice and guidance will help advance a project to the next stage. In this case, Ciara Lacy's project was selected as she enters post-production and strives to reach a final cut of her feature documentary."

In January of 2016, Lacy and her production crew set out for the festival in Park City, Utah to be present for the public unveiling of the program. According to the Sundance Institute, the 2016 Merata Mita Fellowship is supported by several international partners, including: the Embassy of Australia; New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok 2017); Indigenous Media Initiatives; and Pacific Islanders in Communications.

“It was incredible to receive the fellowship,” said Lacy. “I could chat with other filmmakers and it helped shift the film in a positive direction.” With the fellowship in hand, Lacy and her production team returned home to Oahu to resume work on the film, which is due to be released next year during festival season.

Lacy, who was born and raised on Oahu, went to hālau hula, a school focused on the practice of a modern form of hula. Her mother, Melicent Leina'ala Lacy, took young Ciara with her to rallies for Native Hawaiian sovereignty, as well as the preservation of historic cultural sites. As a college student, she later developed an interest in filmmaking and wanted to produce music videos.

After graduating from Yale with a bachelor of arts in psychology, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in filmmaking. For almost a decade, Lacy worked on a broad array of projects as a producer, writer, production supervisor and production manager.

“When I was in New York, I always knew I belonged home,” she said, “but it gave me great experience and my background as a producer is something I have been able to fall back on.”

Lacy said working with the prisoners on her film project Out of State gave her a better understanding of the struggle of the prisoners to maintain their identity as Native Hawaiians far from home.

“I felt like I was home, and I wasn’t,” she says. “I work very hard to maintain objectivity, and it’s often hard to create a story about your community because when you seem them struggle, you feel their struggle.”

Because of her own experience with hula, Lacy is uniquely suited to tell the story of the prisoners with their shared cultural background. “We’re natural storytellers” she says. “I have always appreciated documentary as an artform, and filmmaking seems like an organic outgrowth for us.”

As the first recipient of the Merata Mita fellowship, Lacy said she intends to follow in the footsteps of her late benefactor.

“I never knew her personally, but she set a path for female indigenous voices,” said Lacy. “There are more female voices in the documentary space, but the mainstream film industry is male-centric, and that kind of thing propagates itself over time.”

Lacy believes that the industry is experiencing a shift in which a demand for new voices is apparent. With aid from the fellowship and the Sundance institute, Lacy plans on making her voice heard.

“I am excited for filmmaking in Hawaii,” she said. “There are a lot of stories here.”


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