Skip to main content

Booth, Marlene (on native filmmaking)

Kristy Perez-Kaiwi
May 2010

Marlene Booth is an award-winning filmmaker who, along with the late Dr. Kanalu Young, produced the film entitled Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai‘i. She was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa. A descendant of a Russian-Jewish family, Marlene shares about her life growing up in a Jewish home and living in Middle Protestant America. Cultural identity and expression were, and still are, very important elements of what shapes her character.

In this interview, she describes her fascination with and appreciation for Hawai‘i and its culture through her own demonstration of aloha and grace, stating that each of us has a unique story to tell. She depicts Hawai‘i as a “place that rewards interest, and rewards a certain kind of appreciation of each other of difference in a way that’s worth exploring.”



KP: Could you share your background, where you come from and your family?

MB: I was born and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa in the Midwest and I am third generation there. All four of my grandparents immigrated there. They were Russian-Jewish immigrants and so their first encounter with America was not like New York, or Boston, but essentially Iowa; Iowa, they were right in the middle of it. And, I didn’t realize this until I turned 50 that I grew up in a certain way with two languages too. In fact, the film I made just before Pidgin was about living with two-ness because on the one hand, we were smack-dab in Middle America, and there, it’s Middle Protestant America, a few Catholics . . . but essentially . . . my home life and the life of my extended family was this sort of very loving, very close, large Jewish family. But I grew up in the ’50s–’60s. I graduated from high school in 1966, so at the time I was growing up, conformity and fitting in as a cultural expression were really important. And so I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between those two worlds. I learned without anybody being a teacher to me that there was a person I was outside, who was somebody who blended in just fine with Middle America, and then there was somebody else I was at home; and that wasn’t a different person, it was just a person who had different cultural things going on; some different linguistic things going on; certainly different foods were eaten and I went to the synagogue on Saturday, not on Sunday. There were different words we had for grandmother and grandfather. I celebrated different holidays, and all of that I loved. I mean I just ate up that sort of cultural expression because it was expressed to me in a very loving way.

KP: Did you feel that essentially you had to live two different and separate lives and you couldn’t bring them together?

MB: The interesting thing really for me is how unaware I was until I started making film about it when I was nearly 50 and I had already lived away from Iowa for most of my life. I left when I went to college at 18 and didn’t ever live back there. So I think I wasn’t aware of it. What I came to learn through the making of the film Yidl in the Middle. Yidl is the Yiddish word that means “little Jew,” “little Jew in the middle.” I think what I learned from making that film . . . because I began to go back over scenes from my childhood. You know, I’d go through these great home movies that my father had taken and look at photographs and things like that. And I suddenly saw them differently once I began to write and think about it. In thinking about it later, I think I just made adjustments. I think I just thought . . . “Well” . . . a few things, I think I learned that when I gave voice to my difference, it was a conversation stopper. I was sensitive to social cues and I didn’t want to be stopped in the conversation. So I just learned, “Okay, I won’t talk about that.” You could sometimes see there’s almost a step back and they’d look at me like, “Oh, this is really different. And, I don’t want to deal with difference; this makes me uncomfortable.” And, I could see that it made people uncomfortable and I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable. So, I just said “Alright.” In public, I’ll call my grandparents “grandma” and “grandpa,” even though that’s not what I call them. And, I’ll call my synagogue “church,” if that’s what makes people comfortable. I think it was those kinds of instantaneous translations that I made. But I did it without thinking. It was only later in looking back that I realized I was doing it in calculation all the time, which I think is common to people who feel this. So if you had asked me at age 10 or 20, or I think even 30 or 40, I would not have answered the way I answer now because I was just not aware of it. What I was aware of was that later, I gravitated toward living in a place . . . I mean . . . I married my high school sweetheart (also somebody who is Jewish whom I knew from Hebrew school), and we moved to the East Coast and we were then ultimately in Boston. And that was a place where there was a big concentration of Jewish people and there was no need to translate myself. The two kind of merged and then I began . . . then once I had children, I began to see the differences between them and me and their ability to be who they are no matter what the setting. Of course the climate had changed. It wasn’t the 1950s, the multicultural, you know...all those things.

KP: So after high school, what sparked your interest in film?

MB: I went to college also in the Midwest. I went to Beloit College, which had a high concentration of kids from Kamehameha Schools.

KP: Really? Interesting.

MB: Yeah, so some of the people I know here or I’ve run into were in college with me. That was probably really my first exposure to kids from Hawai‘i; I’m sure it was. So, it was a small Midwestern college. I spent my junior year of college in Israel, in Jerusalem. That was a real cultural immersion for me. That was the first, and really only time, I lived in a place where Jews were in the majority. So it was the only time I had a sense of kind of that being a cultural expression. And things were just beginning when I was there, which was 1968–69 academic year. There were new tensions beginning to arise between Israelis and Palestinians. And so, there we were in the majority, but we were not necessarily the good guys in the majority. We have become less good guys in the majority as time has gone on. I mean, but I would say the salient thing for me about that year was the sense that that part of me just . . . who I had been up until that time didn’t need to function any longer . . . that sense that I had to be, which I think I didn’t know about . . . but I exercised, of needing to be on guard . . . that I didn’t need to be on guard. Then I became sort of defensive about being American, I mean that was the identity that stood out, right . . . so that was the kind of . . . yeah, very interesting time.

KP: How do you immerse yourself in both cultures?

MB: I think it’s been really key to who I am as a person. Because I both have a sense . . . I guess I feel like I came into the world as an outsider (in a certain way) . . . and that identity of not belonging to the majority group has formed a lot of who I am. And, you can of course take that in a good way and say “there are lots of outsiders,” and “why are there outsiders,” and “what does it mean to have a majority culture,” and “who defines it,” and all of those things. Or, you can have a chip on your shoulder about it and say . . . or you can deny who you are. So, there’s a variety of ways to go. 

KP: Uh hmm . . . in the 1960s, what was the dominant culture? What was the “in” thing?

MB: Well, I don’t think my experience was unique that way. There are certainly people I’ve talked to here, who’ve grown up here. I could show you my high school year book, and say, “Guess,” or “I want you to guess” or “Let’s flip to the page that has the homecoming court.” So, blonde, blue-eyed, thin; none of these things were a part of my family genetics and they haven’t gotten in there yet, so you know I was never going to . . . I was certainly never going to look like that. One of the things that I became aware of as I made my film Yidl in the Middle, was the way that my house smelled different from the houses of my school friends . . .

KP: With the aroma of food?

MB: Yeah, with the aroma of food. I mean a part I think because we kept . . . my family followed Jewish dietary laws. My mother koshered meat  . . . stuff like that . . . and I think the food she made, which were the foods she learned from her Eastern European mother were not what, you know, Jenny Fletcher and Kathy Smith, you know, all of these kids were eating different foods. We didn’t eat bacon you know, things like that. Everything about homes and some stuff in terms of how people dealt with each other . . . I think my . . . you know, a lot of this has to do with my mother, I think, and her . . . she would be like a lot of Hawaiian women I have met I think in terms . . . she’s very open, she’s very warm, she’s very loving and so our house reflected that. I think a lot of the kids I grew up with came from homes where there was more distance. We didn’t have a sense of rigidity of roles that way . . . but I think the standard was blonde, blue-eyed, thin. 

KP: And so, after school, after studying abroad, how did filmmaking come about for you? How did that happen?

MB: Well I graduated from college in 1970; it was really just a couple of years after the second wave of feminism got launched. And again, where I grew up and when I grew up, and looking around at my family, I assumed that there were just a few paths open to women; nursing, teaching, secretarial, stewardess, something like that. But nothing much beyond that really. So after I finished college, I certified to teach, and I was a high school English teacher for two years, but as I was looking for teaching jobs (I had just finished my student teaching), my husband and I were going to be in New York City for the summer and I thought I would get a job being a camp counselor (it’s just what I’d always done).  And, a friend of mine said, “You won’t get a job as a camp counselor; it’s not available. What else would you like to do?” And like that, I said, “I’d like to be a filmmaker.” Those words not only, had never come out of my mouth, they’d never come into my head. So it was as though, when those words were said, it was kind of like looking behind me saying, “Who said that?” But once I said it, I had a sense that, “Well, of course that’s what I want to be.” You know I put on plays as a kid. I’d always have imaginative puppet shows and things like that. So, just articulating that sentence got me to say it to somebody else, a friend, who said, “Well I know somebody in film.” That led to my getting that summer, so before I even was in the classroom with a classroom of my own, I got two jobs in filmmaking. I got a job in New York City; I mean boy was I starry-eyed, which was great! It was really that job writing a script for an educational film (a group that was doing some sort of curricular film for middle school students); it was perfect for me. I felt in working on those, that I was coming back to myself. I felt as though there had been some essential something in me that had been sort of “pigeonholed” towards teaching because I couldn’t see . . . I just didn’t feel as though the world was my oyster; that anything was possible . . . you know . . . like a few things were possible. So that felt great and that really launched it. Then the high school where I taught actually had a film course, and I taught film for a nine week term there. And then I went to film school and got my Master’s degree and then I haven’t looked back other than the fact that for the first 20 years that I was in film, I kept all my English teaching books ’cause I thought, “Well, there’s no guarantee. There’s no clear career path here.” 

KP: Well, from then till now, how many films have you made?

MB: I should’ve counted, but I think I’ve made about 7 or 8 big films; sort of an hour-long, roughly hour-long educational TV kind of films. 

KP: So when you say “an hour long” “big film” are we specifically talking about documentaries?

MB: Yes, yes. 

KP: Okay, and there are different kinds of films?

MB: There are narrative films, although documentary films tell stories too. But I mean, if I wrote a script and hired actors, that’s not documentary, even if I had them acting out a true story, that would be sort of a dramatization of a true story. So that’s the big distinguisher . . . or animation . . . I’m not drawing, I don’t know how [chuckles]. But I think that the biggest difference, documentary and what you would think of as a Hollywood film. 

KP: You shared with us that recently you received an award . . . and the award name?

MB: Um, I actually got a few awards this year, the most recent was the Best Human Rights Film Award and the Grand Jury Award from a festival called the Honolulu International Film Festival which is soon going to be changing its name to the Waikīkī International Film Festival. 

KP: Would you be so kind as to share with us how the film Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai‘i came about and how you and Kanalu met?

MB: Sure. Well, it of course would not have come about if I had never met Kanalu Young. My husband and I, and the younger of our two children lived here for one year, when my husband had his sabbatical from his university in Boston in ’99–2000. During that year, I met the women who staffed Pacific Islanders in Communications and they asked me to sit on a panel judging film proposals. So something like 20 or 30 film proposals came in and they had brought in 4 people in media and 4 people in academics to read these proposals and make judgments about them; would they be good films, should they be funded. Kanalu and I both sat on that panel and I found that we had very similar responses to the films. So I approached him afterwards because I’d fallen in love with Hawai‘i that year, quite unexpectedly. I didn’t expect the people to be who the people were. It took me by surprise and won my heart and I just wanted to learn, learn, learn, learn, learn. I wanted to make a film, and I thought you know, “I’m an outsider, what sort of film can I make? What would I look at?” But it was on my mind. The seed had been planted for me. So I approached Kanalu and said, “Have you ever thought of making a film?” Once I came to know him, I came to realize that he rarely said “No” to things. And he said, “Yes. I’d love to do it.” I was going to be moving back to Boston like a week later. So we said let’s keep in touch by email. Let’s think about this, think about what we’re doing. Tossed around ideas and then I would come back to Hawai‘i; I tried to come back to Hawai‘i every year for a few weeks to make a public service announcement or something. We’d get together again and talk and I thought we were . . . we had decided on the idea of looking at Hawaiian and the rebirth of the Hawaiian language. I came out from Boston one summer and spent a good two weeks doing a lot of research; meeting all the people at UH, and at UH at Hilo, and Pūnana Leo, and lots and lots of people and sort of trying to get a sense of the landscape and who the people were, and what the story was. Kanalu was teaching at the university that summer and so he couldn’t accompany me on most of these visits and I didn’t have a cell phone and he might not have either. So, I did this research and I came back just before I had to go back to my home in Boston, met with Kanalu in the Student Center at UH and said, “Look, this is what I’ve learned, these are the people I’ve talked to, this is what I think the story is, here’s where we could go with it, let’s apply for funding.” He had like a comment or two, and then suddenly he like leaned back in his wheel chair and said, “You know, I love Hawaiian, but I think we should do a film about Pidgin.” And I thought, “What?! You haven’t said anything about Pidgin. If you were thinking this, why didn’t you tell me?” And I said, “Why? Why Pidgin?” And he said, “Without Pidgin, I would cease to be whole.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s a pretty powerful comment. I don’t have a comeback to that.” Um . . . I didn’t know . . . I had no sense of how we would get from that comment to a full-fledged film, but I said, “Well, let me think about this. So I went back, I still desperately wanted to do a film here, but there I was in Boston, and it’s one thing to be here, here in Hawai‘i as a non-Pidgin speaker and you hear Pidgin all around you and you can buy books and you can find ways of immersing yourself. But not in Boston, there wasn’t anything; there wasn’t any place I could go. So I went online and I found this group called “Da Pidgin Coup” (who were in the movie). They became an outlet for me. Anyway, that ultimately led to the film. I mean after that I sort of learned enough to feel as though we could write a beginning grant proposal to PIC (Pacific Islanders in Communications) and we did and we got funded. Then we did research together and I came back and we did research together and it turned out that there was a great job for my husband here in Hawai‘i, then we moved here, and that was when both of our kids had finished high school, so we didn’t have to move them from a place where they’d grown up. We moved here and then Kanalu and I really jumped in with both feet to work on this film. 

KP: Because Hawaiian language is really only linked to a certain group of people, it’s nice to hear that Kanalu expanded that, thus making Pidgin the result of all this hard work. I think it’s so important that we recognize those things because in Pidgin there are cultural implications and there’s history behind every single part of how Pidgin came to be. 

MB: Yes, and I think that’s what he was after. I think he didn’t know himself quite what he was after. But I think he was looking for a place in Hawai‘i that included both his Hawaiian-Haole mother and his Chinese-Haole father. And I think Pidgin was that place. 

KP: And so, what are some of the goals and objectives that you would hope your audience will receive after watching this film?

MB: I think essentially I want people to look at Pidgin as a language. And I think once you do that (sounds like a simple thing to say), there are a lot of implications that spring from it. I think if you credit it and value it with being a language, you don’t then say, either out loud or in your head, “Hmm, this person in front of me who’s speaking this language, this dialect, this stuff,” (or whatever you want to call it) “I don’t think they’re smart because they don’t talk like me.” Because you wouldn’t say that about somebody who spoke Hawaiian, or Spanish, or French, or Portuguese, or Japanese, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “They’re speaking a language” and then go on to say, “Therefore, I bet they’re intelligent. I bet they can learn.” I think there’s been real harm done, probably largely unconsciously, on the part of a lot of people to lots of people in Hawai‘i who are Pidgin speakers about whom all of us have made assumptions that just aren’t true. And I think they’ve been especially painful in a classroom when teachers, or student teachers, or anybody hears a kid talking Pidgin and says . . . whatever it is they say that conveys to the kid that home doesn’t belong in the classroom. Because I think it becomes what we were talking about earlier which is, “splitting the child.” If Pidgin is, for a kid, a language of home, a language of family, what are you then saying to a child if you say, “Don’t bring that in here.” Are you saying, “Mom can’t come in here with you?” Or dad or grandpa? You know, what does that do to the kid in terms of the child feeling comfortable in the classroom and feeling as though that’s the place “I’m supposed to be. I belong here. I belong here and all that I’ve been up until this moment belongs here with me.” So I would like people to think about what the implications are for Pidgin speakers of denying them the same opportunity and the same chance to be regarded as learners, as people with the same abilities and possibilities as anybody else. If that came from the film, that would be extraordinary!

KP: It would. But, I think it already . . . it touches on things that either the audience wouldn’t think about or even sensitive topics, it touches on those things. It kind of exposes that in a subtle way just to get people thinking. 

MB: Yeah, I think all of us are guilty of some kind of prejudice and often we don’t even know that we’re doing it. You pick up things that are in the air. You pick up attitudes and you don’t know where they came from. You don’t even know that you’re exhibiting them. But usually if they can be harmful for people, and usually if it’s a judgment based on not understanding the full implications of something, then they probably are harmful and you’d want to try to act against it. But, not in a way that makes people feel guilty because we all share in the blame. All of us.

KP: And so now, how do you feel? I have a sense from you that you have so much aloha. What is it like for you as you connect with others in the community?

MB: Well, it feels . . . you know, I’m very much aware that I’m not of Hawai‘i, that I was not born here, that I’m not Hawaiian, all those things are quite clear to me. On the other hand, Hawai‘i is this really warm, accepting place where there is so much to learn about so much! I can’t even begin to list all of the . . . you know. I feel as though Hawai‘i and people in Hawai‘i have been so kind to me. That’s been really terrific that it feels like home, it feels like home in that way. But it’s a home in which I want to know more. I’m studying Hawaiian; because I worked on a film about Pidgin, I can begin to get (if I think about it; it doesn’t come without thinking) the inflexions of Hawaiian without doing it in the English way. There’s just so much to tell the world and to tell people here . . . because in some ways Hawai‘i reminds me of parts of the Midwest where in the Midwest we feel like, “Oh, we’re not the East coast and we’re not the West coast; who are we. Do we have an identity? Are we important? Will anybody listen to us?” And it gives us the sense that maybe . . . maybe our voice isn’t so important. And I see certain tendencies like that here too. I see it among my students at UH when I say to them, “You have stories to tell and you are the people to tell those stories because you know them; it’s your music.” And I think there’s a lot to spread around. I think to have aloha . . . I mean what is the “aloha spirit”? What is local identity? All those things are really worth exploring. In Hawai‘i there are a million answers! You know, it depends . . . there are so many ways of looking at it here; looking at the story, looking at the people saying . . . so I feel like it’s the tip of the iceberg that I’m just . . . and that I’ll never you know, I, myself (and maybe nobody will ever know all of it). But it’s an exploration that gives back to you. It’s not a culture in which people say, “You can’t ask.” I think if you know how to ask . . . I think there are certain both cultural and linguistic things that you need to know that open doors for you. There are ways to get doors closed. But, if you come to it with honesty and curiosity, I think there is so much there. The people and the culture mimic the landscape. And the landscape always smells beautiful and has this sense of sort of . . . how you belong. I suspect in certain ways a lot of this stuff hasn’t been talked about. There are the obvious things that have been talked about. I think there are other things that just haven’t been explored and all of that just interests me. I also feel like Hawai‘i, if you let it, pulls on some really good parts of you as a person. It’s not a place that rewards aggressiveness, thank goodness. It’s a place that rewards interest, and rewards a certain kind of appreciation of each other, of difference in a way that’s worth exploring. I just think that there’s so much here.  

Mjb-kanalu-72  large

photo credit:

Award-winning filmmaker Marlene Booth, pictured here with Dr. Kanalu Young, produced the documentary film "Pidgin: The Voice of Hawaiʻi."

Related articles