Directors Amy Hill and Chris Riess were surprised to find the 94-year-old subject of their documentary “Hula Girl” just so cheerful despite missing out on becoming famous. In the late 1950s, Joan Anderson brought a bamboo hoop to the U.S. from her native Australia and then watched it become a national phenomenon — imagine the mid-20th-century version of the fidget spinner — but her name was nowhere in sight.
“There’s people who say woulda, coulda, shoulda over and over again and that ultimately destroys them,” Riess told TheWrap. “That never happened with Joan.”
“Hula Girl,” one of the finalists in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale about Anderson’s fight to let the world know she played a significant role in the popularity of the hula hoop.
Hill learned of the story when she got a call from her mother saying she met Anderson’s daughter at a restaurant by happenstance. While Hill and Riess work on docu-style commercial spots for companies like Pepsi and Band-Aid, they were drawn to the story because it reminded them of their childhood, when a toy like the hula hoop could distract children for hours.
“There’s a freedom of being entertained by a bamboo hoop,” Hill said. “We are living in a very different time now.”
While interviewing Anderson in her Carlsbad, California, home, Hill and Riess noticed the secret to her high spirit that they keyed in on: the love for her husband, a World War II pilot whom the film says had “a gentleman’s handshake” with toy company Wham-O co-founder Arthur “Spud” Melvin about doing business.
“They ignored us. They totally cut us off,” Anderson said about Wham-O in the documentary. “But why be angry about something you can’t change?”
Missing out on a big financial opportunity could have led to bickering and fighting, Hill said, but Anderson and her husband brushed it off their shoulders. “Her love for him is at the core. I think that’s how she moved on through her life and was happy,” Hill said.
But that doesn’t mean Anderson isn’t savoring her moment in the spotlight: The film even screened at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival. On Valentine’s Day, the co-directors also showed the film to Anderson and her family.
“She felt vindicated as all hell,” Hill said. “This is her moment.”
Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote through Aug. 21.