Image by John Hook
Of all the plot narratives found in movies, there’s one that resonates with Ciara Lacy the most. “Oh, the comeback, right?” she says. “I’m a big believer in redemption. I don’t believe in waiting for somebody else to find our solutions. You have to find it yourself.”
In discussing the comeback, it’s nearly impossible to avoid references to sports films. The now-famous locker room speech by Tony D’Amato, played by Al Pacino, in Any Given Sunday, immediately comes to mind: “We’re in hell right now, gentlemen. And we can stay here, get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell one inch at a time.” Emboldened, the team emerges from the locker room and goes on to win the game. While victory in real life is never quite as dramatic, the motifs in Any Given Sunday and such films are not unlike Lacy’s own.
Lacy grew up the daughter of a Native Hawaiian activist, and as a child, she remembers her mother hauling off her and her two siblings to protests and rallies. She remembers when her mother was arrested during the building of the H-3 freeway, where she and a few others had camped out in protest. “She just didn’t think it was right to build a freeway there, and when there’s something that doesn’t feel right, you do something about it,” says Lacy. “When I think back, I’ve definitely become like my mother in a lot of ways.”
As the valedictorian of her graduating class at Kamehameha Schools, Lacy was about as driven as they come. She went on to study psychology at Yale, receiving academic scholarships but still working three jobs to get by. The standout student, however, had other aspirations in mind. “I’ve always wanted to make music videos, ever since I was in high school,” says Lacy, who recalls sitting in her room entranced by directors like Michel Gondry, known as much for his music videos (a favorite of Bjork, The White Stripes, and The Chemical Brothers, among others) as his feature films (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). “But I didn’t tell anybody that’s actually what I really wanted to do in college,” she says. “I guess I was a little scared.”
After college, Lacy moved to New York, where she scrounged around the city to make ends meet, temping, teaching SAT Prep, even selling hot dogs. As fate (read: drive) would have it, she found a job with a small company that made rock ‘n’ roll documentaries. “I would basically just prepare their Fedex packages, but I didn’t care, I was stoked,” she recalls. She later held jobs with Lion Television, where she worked on reality TV shows about wedding dresses and home security, and 44 Pictures, which produced large music productions, shooting concerts at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. Her career was taking off. Then, a mysterious, debilitating illness brought her life to a jolting halt.
She began getting pain in her hands, which she shook off as carpel tunnel. But then it got progressively worse, so much so that she was forced to move back to Hawai‘i. “I couldn’t carry my laundry, my purse, couldn’t work on a computer for a long period of time; I couldn’t really type; I could handle maybe one car ride a day,” she says, ticking off the painful symptoms delivered by what doctors called a career-ending disease. “I was used to being independent. At 30, that’s when you want to be building your career … but here I was going to physical therapy, on painkillers, and no one could figure out what was wrong with me.” Doctors eventually diagnosed her with thoracic outlet syndrome, brought on as a result of a genetic malformation between her collarbone and rib and exacerbated by repetitive stress. “I was pretty depressed, I got fat, my attitude sucked. I just didn’t know what to do. I had my whole life back in New York.”
Lacy began seeing a physical therapist, one of her mother’s friends, who encouraged her to continue her work in film. “She threw out ideas all the time, and I was like, how am I supposed to do a documentary anyway when I can’t even carry a camera?” But eventually, one of those ideas stuck. “She told me about this very short piece done on these men dancing hula in an Arizona prison. I finally watched it,” Lacy recalls. “And I cried. … It was a really tough time for me, and in some crazy way, I thought—and this is gonna sounds nuts—but I had this thought of, oh, we could heal each other.”
The clip became the basis for Lacy’s feature-length documentary Out of State, as well as the platform for her application to Native Lab in 2012, which Beau Bassett, a childhood classmate from Kamehameha as well as a Native Lab fellow, encouraged her to apply for. “I’d like to think that I’m open-minded, that I’m progressive, but I had a lot to learn about my own prejudices going into making the film,” says Lacy, who applies this re-evaluation of herself to society as well. “Systems are often contextually based, so when our society changes, the way we approach things should change too, but that fluidity doesn’t always naturally happen.”
Today, Lacy is back at it, but this time at the helm, working daily with a crew of just two others to produce Out of State. Where her previous jobs entailed working on projects with structures and financing already in place, Out of State is a brand new experience, one that requires her to direct and produce, among the myriad of other tasks that go into bringing a documentary to life, like securing funding and distribution. It’s a project more than two years in the making, with production to wrap at the end of 2015. As Native Hawaiian filmmakers, Lacy and Bassett, who is helping produce the film, consider Out of State their “kuleana project,” one that both are willing to fight for. “It’s not something easy to do, but we are compelled to do it,” says Lacy. “Because how do you live if you don’t have hope? I think hope is what’s important to being human, and everybody deserves to have a little bit of that.”
Meet the other Sundance Native Lab fellows from Hawai‘i: