Folktales and Fairy Tales: Translation, Colonialism, and Cinema

Four lectures at UH-Manoa show the power of myth

Folktales and Fairy Tales: Translation, Colonialism, and Cinema / You know the feeling. You look around you and the path to your past seems to have vanished like a trail of bread crumbs. Or you’re out on the H-1 and Granny cuts in front of you, smiling–her teeth glitter like fangs. Maybe you’re at Nordstroms trying on new shoes but the first pair is too big, the second too small and the third, well, that pair is juuuuust right.

Oh, yeah, that fairy tale thing is still going on and going strong. Apparently, we can’t escape those Hansel and Gretel moments of life. To understand why, an upcoming symposium at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa will essay a look at how these stories we tell ourselves help us to define who we think we are.

“Folktales and fairy tales are so often seen simply as stories for children or fantasy tales from the past. It’s common for us to think that “universal” and “timeless” go together with folk and fairy tale. Instead we are thinking location, present value, and history,” explains Cristina Bacchilega, one of the organizers of Folktales and Fairy Tales: Translation, Colonialism, and Cinema, the four-day gathering of scholars, writers and filmmakers beginning this Tuesday.

Bacchilega, a folklore and literature professor in the UH–Manoa English department, points out that we are still telling ourselves stories and we should be aware of that.

“What we are doing with this symposium is to highlight how very alive these tales are in contemporary culture and politics, especially in the medium of film and especially here in the Pacific Indigenous movements have urged a recognition of oral traditions as history and knowledge at the same time that a worldwide revival of storytelling has sparked renewed interest in traditional tales,” she said.

And not just traditional tales. Life may be more Grimm than you think, especially in the movies. When a little girl must perform three mysterious tasks as in Pan’s Labyrinth, or when kids can travel to another land through a magical wardrobe, or baseball players materialize in a cornfield, we are in the midst of a fairy tale.

According to Vilsoni Hereniko, professor at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at UH–Manoa, films have become one of the media we use to keep that sense of wonder.

“Like folktales and fairy tales,” he says, “the feature film is often about human beings on journeys of discovery, whether it be about themselves or about other people. Along the way, the protagonists of these stories overcome many obstacles and quite often they eventually triumph, particularly in Hollywood films. In this way, the magic we find in folktales and fairy tales is kept alive.”

Hereniko will be one of the presenters at the symposium, speaking Tuesday evening on the topic “Film as a Colonizing Medium: Indigenous Knowledge, Translation, and the Market Economy.” On the following evening, Noenoe K. Silva, also a professor at UH–Manoa, will talk about “Ka’ililauokekoa: The Translation of a Traditional Hawaiian Story to Video” and on Thursday, folk tale scholar, playwright and translator Jack Zipes will present “De-Disneyfying the Fairy-Tale Film.”

Bacchilega notes that the symposium will bring together top experts from around the world, sharing their expertise in indigenous politics, Pacific literature, film studies, history, oral traditions and fairy tale studies. Together, she says, the goal is “to consider the changing value of folk and fairy tales, their power as films to shape contemporary images of wonder and magic, their many empowering uses.”

Hereniko, whose film The Land Has Eyes contains elements of legend and folk tale, goes even further.

“Film provides an avenue for indigenous people to challenge earlier stereotypes about themselves that have been circulating since the arrival of Europeans or foreigners,” he says. “Some of these earlier portrayals–such as films that depict Hawai’i or Tahiti as exotic and romantic destinations and ignore colonial dispossession of native lands–mask harsh realities and injustices that have been the experiences of indigenous or native peoples.” Hereniko believes it important that indigenous peoples again become tellers of their own stories. And if those stories employ the power of wonder, that’s all to the good.

According to Hereniko, “In The Land Has Eyes, the world of myth and the world of daily experience intersect and influence each other, converge at the end and resolve the protagonist’s search for the truth. The film aims to portray a world view that is not unique to the Rotuman people only, but to many indigenous cultures worldwide.”

“Unfortunately,” he adds, “this alternative and different view of reality is often missing from studio films about indigenous cultures, particularly films that aim to be universal and to appeal to mainstream audiences.”

Folktales and Fairy Tales: Translation, Colonialism, and Cinema, University of Hawai’i–Manoa, Tue-Fri, Sept. 23–26, check online for events, locations and times at [folkandfairytalesuhm.googlepages.com]