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ARTE for Art's Sake: Hanging Loose with Europe's Most Filmmaker-Friendly Channel

By Wolfgang Hastert

Wolfgang Hastert filming Able, a local Hawaiian man, on a beach bear South Point, Big Island of Hawaii. From Hastert's film 'Hawaiian Shirts -- Happy Stories on Fabric' which he made for ZDF/ARTE. Courtesy of Wolfgang Hastert Films

As independent documentary filmmakers go, I am a lucky man. Consider, for example, my latest project for the European TV Channel ZDF/ARTE: I was dispatched to Hawaii for a month and a half to report on that quintessential Polynesian icon, the Aloha shirt. Not surprisingly, when I told friends about my assignment, several of them offered to "assist" with the documentary.

I learned that Mark Twain had embarked on a similar mission in 1866. The Sacramento Union underwrote his journey to the islands, expecting him to pen "Letters from Hawaii " in return. "I went to Maui to stay for a week, and remained five," he wrote afterwards. "I had a jolly time. I would not have fooled away any of it writing letters under any consideration whatever."

Unlike Twain, I kept my end of the bargain, and "fooled away" my days on the islands keeping a busy work schedule. I had planned to stay for seven weeks--just enough time to research, travel and shoot a 45-minute film. However, I had to trim a week off my trip when I learned that ARTE had pushed up the airdate for my film by a month. We now had to sweat a bit in order to make the deadline. Still, it's a small price to pay in order to work for ARTE, one of the most filmmaker-friendly and risk-taking outlets on the planet.

Directors can forget about moviemaking by template when they work for ARTE. The French/German TV channel embraces "ecriture," the unique handwriting of individual filmmakers, because it sees itself as a showcase for independent auteur television. Yet, the channel insists on films with style, unity of content and form. ARTE editors have a complicated task: to commission or buy several fiction and documentary pieces and fit them into a television "theme night." Over the years, I have contributed to themes about dieting, online dating and the history of underwear. To pitch my latest project, I left a copy of The Hawaiian Shirt, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, with my commissioning editor, Olaf Grunert. The beautiful, colorful shirts in the book sparked his imagination: He envisioned a "Dreams of the South Seas" theme night; ARTE would brighten up a dreary European winter evening with windswept palms, scantily clad hula girls, bronzed surfers and ukulele tunes.

About nine months later I got the go-ahead from Grunert--in part because I am based in San Diego, and he considered me to have "easy access to the islands." Before production started, I flew to Germany to discuss the budget with the producers at ZDF. At the same time, I immersed myself in research. On e-Bay, I found a gaudy blue Hawaiian shirt, emblazoned with white parrots, palm trees and an enticing map of the islands; this object would be the focal point of my film. Twain's letters from Hawaii were another form of inspiration: I began to envision my documentary in the form of postcards from an exotic locale.

Filming began on the US mainland, in Hannibal, Missouri, where I paid homage to Twain, wearing my blue Hawaiian shirt for a ride on a Mississippi riverboat. Then, as the author had, I escaped to the islands. When Twain made his trip almost a century and a half ago, he was sent to scope out the commercial "prospects" of Hawaii. As Hawaii has blossomed into a highly lucrative paradise, the Aloha shirt has become one of the symbols of its allure and its prosperity.

Once in Honolulu, I began shooting footage of the shirt industry. From there, I followed the map on my shirt to Kona, on the Big Island, where I made more delightful discoveries of island beauty and magic. My assistant, Troy Page, and I set up camp at his parents' coffee farm in Captain Cook, and were able to capture a more obscure, recondite Hawaii. I wanted to honor the indigenous culture of the islands and find a cinematic way to express the romance of Aloha culture. We trekked through luscious fern woods, tiny villages and hidden beaches, where we filmed sequences about local surfers and fisherman, as well as the handblockers, seamstresses and retailers of Hawaiian shirts. Footage from these island journeys became colorful shimmering postcards to an audience far away.

One morning we met up with one of the "originals." Ruth Hirata has been crafting Hawaiian shirts since the 1940s, and still comes to her shop to work every day. I knew I had found one of the main characters for the film as she talked about the first Aloha shirt she ever made. Hirata believes that many of the images on the shirts tell the true story of life on the islands.

As we shot footage, we made daily shipments of Super-8 film to labs in Kansas and Hollywood. Back in California, my students at University of California San Diego began hand-developing the black-and-white footage. The film was taking shape. But in Europe, producers at ZDF/ARTE were already waiting for a rough cut. They had set their airdate, and they wanted a peek at the film.

Post-production was stressful, since I had only one month to make a rough cut. My editor, Carol Martori, and the text editor, Rachel Myers, worked long shifts with me to shape the film's narrative. Although I had originally wanted to tell my story as a series of postcards, I had to rethink this strategy because it was making the film too personal. We reworked the format, and regained our focus.

Finally, I was ready to fly to Europe and deliver the product. I spent my time on the airplane translating the film's narration from English to German. In Mainz, close to ZDF headquarters, standard conversion, color correction and titling were done. The next day, I drove south on an ice-covered Autobahn to ARTE's headquarters in Strasbourg. I presented my German narration to the editors, and we spent an afternoon discussing the text and adjusting it to the final cut of the film. I then went back to Mainz, recorded the German narration and sent the master tape to France for translation and recording of the French narration. Ten days later, Hawaiian Shirts--Happy Stories on Fabric aired in Europe, on a cold winter's night. Although my documentary was broadcast after midnight, I was happy to learn that the ratings were almost identical to those of the evening's feature film, which aired during prime time.

As my Hawaiian adventure ended, I was eager, as always, to embark on new journeys and explorations. I feel lucky, indeed, to have a continuing relationship with ZDF/ARTE, and look forward to many more projects with them. Thierry Garrel, the chief producer of documentary films for ARTE, believes in creating an "intelligent spectacle"--programming that is culturally significant, but still accessible to viewers that don't have a background in the humanities. Garrel sees the television viewer as his brother, and intends to treat him accordingly. I share this philosophy. With Hawaiian Shirts, as with any of my films, I want to entice and educate, and ultimately connect with my audience.


Wolfgang Hastert has produced and directed many films on American culture. He teaches in the Visual Arts department at UC San Diego.