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Wāhine Directors @HIFF43: Kyeng McGuirk

Aleta talks with Kyeng McGuirk about her short film The ʻIlima Lady, which premiered at the 43rd Hawaiʻi International Film Festival (HIFF).

This episode is part of our weekly series of WĀHINE DIRECTORS @ HIFF 43 - a series of interviews that are a great opportunity to learn more about the directors' films that were screened at HIFF and their creative process. Also available on our podcast.

KMG: My name is Kyeng McGuirk, and my film is called The Ilima Lady. I was the director, producer and writer.

AH: What is the film about?

KMG: The film is about Debbi Barrett, who's a humble floral designer, born and raised in Honolulu, her upbringing was through Hula under Aunty Mikey's tutelage. She is very quiet and humble about her practice. But if you observe what she creates with plants, you know that there's a lot of integrity and there's just something culturally honest and beautiful about the things she created. It is not a formula. That's what caught my eye when I initially met her was not only how dynamic and beautiful her arrangements were, but she would then talk-story about how each plan was either gifted to her or planted in her yard by a significant person in her life. And she considers them, you know, part of her family. It just kind of got me curious because she sees the world so differently than I. I do. Plants are not mere objects to her. And because of that, I think it really relates to how Hawaiians view their land, their ʻāina, and how they care for the things that are part of the ʻāina, that includes all things, even inanimate things like rocks. 

AH: How did you discover this story and what really drew you to it? And really like, this has to be a film. 

KMG: I bumped into her one day. She was doing the flower arrangements in the condo I was living in, and I just was so mesmerized by how masterfully she was manipulating the plants. And then the backstory with her family and the culture and hula just added another layer to the story.

AH: And what has been your favorite part as a director, kind of learning about Debbie and capturing all this footage? What has been your favorite part or the most rewarding part of this process?

KMG: The most rewarding part was when things got hard, we were able to work through it, and I think that's kind of how you have to approach this with a documentary you could, you know, control almost anything, the environment, the subject. But if you are flexible and you have integrity, you'll get through most of the hurdles and obstacles. And this there was a significant one here with her getting ill in the middle of production. So we had to work through that and I'm happy to say that I feel like this project helped pull her out of it and I was able to not only document, but really learn from her spiritual journey, you know, coming back from the illness. So I feel really privileged that she trusted me enough to go through that process.    

AH: You keep drawing back to like ethics of documentary filmmaking. Would you like to talk about what that process was like for you?

KMG: I think that if you're aware of the power you hold as the person who holds that camera and, you know, have kind of all the creative decision making and you understand that, then it's easy to realize what's ethical, what's not ethical. Because through the whole process, I wanted it to be clear to her that this was a film that would only, like, uplift her story and she went through some really vulnerable moments in her, her, her, you know, throughout the filmmaking. So at one point, I had to turn the camera off because there was just no way she could consent. 

AH: What did you learn throughout this process? Because I know you're working on another film now, and this was, like, the first one. So when it recap some of the things you learned.

KMG: I learned that every deadline that you set for yourself times that by two!    Having it be my first film. I was super ambitious trying to get things done kind of as quickly as possible, but actually in the slower moments, a better story came out. So the biggest lesson I learned was just have patience for the process. You know, you're not always going to get that thing that you wanted in the shoot, but you might get something better if you're paying attention. So, for example, in the Aunty Mae interview, we were so focused on getting the interview set up right that we almost entirely missed all the great B-roll that was happening in front of us, which was Aunty Mae interacting in a very natural way with Debbie and her caregiver and talking about memories. So, you know, I noticed I just picked up the camera and just started shooting. I didn't even care if it was in focus or not. But that's kind of the biggest lesson I learned was to just be aware that there may be a better or a better story emerging from the, you know, the set up that you put together. I also learned I really love production, like I love the filming and shooting of all of it's just like so much fun. I love bring people, creative people together and seeing what we can make and that. I worked really well with an all female cast and crew. It's just so supportive and natural.

AH: what did you want the audience to walk away with after seeing this film?

KMG: This audience in Hawaiʻi, in Honolulu may get something different out of it because these are the stories so deeply personal to this place. So hopefully what they get out of it is they see stories that mirror their own experience in a very affirming way. So it was really rewarding to me. After one of the screenings that I did, when an audience member came up to me and totally just spontaneously, spontaneously said, I totally recognize that street as my valley, you know, that's to me, that really spoke volumes. I was just like, I really I loved hearing that, you know, why shouldn't their valley also be in the film, right, and tell the special story about a place? So hopefully that is what they get out of it. Times are kind of difficult right now, it's such a struggle when you think about everything that's been going on in Hawaii and in Maui. And hopefully this story helps people who are struggling with any form of illness or spiritual crisis so that they can be inspired by somebody who literally, you know, pulled herself out of that. And it's very difficult to do, you know, especially when you're battling with internal things, been going on for a while. So hopefully people can draw inspiration and use it in their lives.

AH:  Given that this is your first film, like the first fully polished, finished film, and you are a female filmmaker I'm wondering if you have any advice to other people that are currently maybe where you were a couple of years ago?  I'm wondering if you have any advice to other people that are currently maybe where you were a couple of years ago?

KMG: My biggest advice is if you've got a story you want to tell, just pick up a camera and start shooting. Go out there and just start shooting it and making it. The money will come and the support will come because people see and recognize in you that the story wants to get out. People start believing in the story as you believe in it. And so go out and just do it. Like don't wait for a grant to come through or, you know, someone else to join your team. Just start doing it. And people kind of, you know, join you. 

AH: My next question is where are you working on the next film?

KMG: So at the same time as I was producing The Ilima Lady, I, I had a personal I had a story that meant a lot to me personally, which is my next documentary is going to be feature length, and it's about a Korean artist in Seoul and she is 85 years old and she is making 100 portraits of women who fund the resistance movement when Japan colonized Korea, that was before WWII. And so the reason why this is so personal to me is that 20 some years ago after college, I went to Korea and lived in Seoul for two years on my own, and it was really me trying to reconnect with my heritage. And I happened to meet this artist.  Her name is Yun Suknam and she just blew me away because she's so just affirming of women. And Korea is, was and is a very traditional patriarchal society, so to have someone like her stand up for other women and ordinary women, not like just, you know, just everyday women and be so empowering and affirming, I really I really drew a lot of inspiration from her and so I told her  then I would share her story because I would wish I had known someone like her growing up. But, you know, life got in the way. And now that I know how to make a film, I want to make this film about her and share with her this latest project, a mission chance. And that film is called Traces of Brilliant Spirit!

Kyeng McGuirk is an emerging documentary film director and producer based in Honolulu and a first-generation Korean American woman. Because Women and artists as a group have not been well documented in the annals of history or film, Her mission is to produce educational films and other media content that focuses on women and under-represented communities in the USA and Korea.

Learn more about Kyeng at ⁠

Aleta Hammerich is a local filmmaker and graduate of UH Mānoa School of Cinematic Arts with experience in directing, cinematography, and editing. She has worked on projects such as Reel Wāhine of Hawaiʻi (2021), The ‘Ilima Lady (2023), and Homestead (2023). Aleta is passionate about using filmmaking as a platform to share women’s and LGBTQIA+ stories.


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