The simple name Song Contest belies the intense devotion and importance students give to this competition.
And the description can also be very simply stated: The students of the private Kamehameha High School in Hawaii each year compete in singing Hawaiian songs.
But the entire 2,000-strong student body sings at the contest, and the event is more a rite of passage than just another school event. Many of the students enroll in Kamehameha High just to participate in Song Contest and the ’ohanas (families) of the students feel the same pride as their children.
The new PBS documentary, “One Voice,” on KUED on Friday, June 29, at 9 p.m., follows the competition, and the documentary is enjoyable viewing — not only to learn about this one-of-a-kind contest and to get a glimpse of this unique high school, but also for the sheer beauty of the mele, or Hawaiian songs, that the students sing in impressive four-part harmony with a deep passion uncharacteristic of typical high school students.
Kamehameha High was founded in 1887 with an endowment by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, great-granddaughter and the last royal descendent of King Kamehameha the Great, who united the Hawaiian Islands.
According to its admissions policy, Kamehameha High offers admissions preference to Native Hawaiian applicants as a way to remedy past harms and current imbalances suffered by the indigenous people of Hawaii as a result of Western contact. But there’s been a paradigm shift at Kamehameha. The school first existed to prepare Hawaiian kids for Western life, but now the focus is the reclamation of Hawaiian culture and language.
Where “One Voice” stumbles is its introduction of the school. The program profiles the elected student conductors, who are interviewed throughout the year. The articulate students do a good job explaining the nearly decade-old tradition of Song Contest, but the school is only mentioned in connection with the competition, and it’s difficult to piece together the school’s structure and history.
The contest requires 10 conductors, three each for the senior, junior and sophomore classes and one for the freshmen. The competition for seniors, juniors and sophomores is co-ed, boys and girls, while the freshman class only competes as a single graduating class.
There are brief snapshots of these students who are given the honor to conduct, and their family backgrounds range from broken (one student lives with his aunt and uncle, after his parents’ incarceration) to pampered.
Brolin is a driven young man for whom winning is everything. Baba struggles to gain the respect of his peers. Truman buckles under the weight of being not only a song director but a wrestler. Ka'ai'ohelo is inspired by an emotional visit to her ancestral homeland on Molokai.
The documentary’s crescendo is the year-end competition, which commands massive local media attention and has been broadcast live on TV since 1968. It’s a moving scene as the students enter the Neal Blaisdell Center, one of the largest auditoriums in Honolulu, dressed completely in white, with the young women in matching to-the-floor dresses. They are distinguished by class in either an orange, pink, red or green sash, along with a single matching lei. Or some students, especially the conductors, have multiple leis around their necks and also hung from their arms.
The emotions are intense and tears flow freely from the students and their parents. And it’s hard for non-Hawaiian viewers to not get emotionally caught up in the many victories of Song Contest.
A chorus of approval greeted “One Voice” at its initial screenings. Following a series of heavily attended screenings in Hawaii, it won the Audience Choice Award at the 2010 Hawaii International Film Festival, took home similar honors at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and was named best documentary at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Helmed by Lisette Marie Flanary, a Kamehameha High graduate, “One Voice” follows her “Na Kamalei: the Men of Hula” and “American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawaii,” which were also award-winning documentaries.