The Culture of Films

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Festivals Abound Throughout Hawaii

WESTERN AUDIENCES HAVE “DISCOVERED” ASIAN FILMMAKERS IN HONOLULU – and fallen in love with them – for nearly 30 years. Hollywood stars have sat side-by-side with fans at outdoor screenings on Maui for life-affirming stories in a truly majestic setting. up-and-coming directors have premiered documentaries on sleepy Molokai; and surfers-cum-filmmakers now have their very own monthlong celebration of surf movies.

In Hawaii, there is a film festival for everyone. They are popular not only with the filmmakers who are presented with an opportunity to showcase their creative genius, but with a growing audience who can’t seem to get enough time in front of the silver screen.

Last October, at the depth of the recession and without a title sponsor, the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) – the oldest and largest film festival here – sold more than 78,000 tickets during its two-week run, chimes in legendary film producer Chris Lee. The former head of Columbia/ Tristar and a founder of University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media, Lee refers to this phenomenon as a reflection of Hawaii’s “movie-rabid audiences” to the selection of films being screened.

“I think film festivals are one of the best indicators of a vibrant arts scene and overall economy,” says Lee. “The number and variety of fests that we have here, throughout the Islands, attests to our health in both respects.”

Chuck Boller, executive director of HIFF, says he often sees the same people at the state’s various film festivals because there are few theaters that regularly screen independent projects.

“There are definitely film festival people who go from festival to festival,” he adds. “One reason I think we do well here in Hawaii is because there are no art houses. The only place to see those films are at HIFF or at other festivals.”

Whether they are at a Hawaii Theatre screening for HIFF or at the Ohina Short Film Showcase at the Doris Duke Theatre, those audiences are “visually literate,” says Honolulu film commissioner Walea Constantinau.

“We have a huge appetite for this art form and a huge appreciation for it,” she says. “Maybe that is because we are a multicultural place that really loves to see different stories from all around the world.”

Considered a launching pad for filmmakers, HIFF is a cinematic crossroads of East and West. Now in its 30th year, it has been a steadfast supporter of films from Asia and the Pacific Rim, and is the most likely venue for the region’s top films to premiere.

“When I think about what I can see at HIFF, I know I am going to see one kung fu movie, one crazy, ultra-violent Korean film, some great animated films and one high-brow drama that is very artistic,” Constantinau says.

The Maui Film Festival, which marked its 11th year this summer, has fashioned a unique blend of the Valley Isle’s famous laid-back lifestyle with a guest list of Hollywood celebrities – although festival founder Barry Rivers prefers the term “luminaries.” They have included Clint Eastwood, Pierce Brosnan, Helen Hunt, Geena Davis, Zoe Deschanel and William H. Macy.

Maui’s signature is the outdoor venue it sets up each year at a golf course in Wailea. Patrons watch original films on a 50-foot-wide, three-story-tall screen with Dolby surround sound, with Haleakala looming in the foreground and the moonlit Au’au channel behind viewers.

Rivers aims to find films worth spending time on, like those that offer cultural enlightenment, he says. The 50 films he showed this summer were culled from 1,000 applicants.

“We just look for ‘smart with heart,’ ” Rivers says. “We are trying to move culture in a direction that gives people hope.”

Filmmaker and Maui-native Joel Moffett, who teaches at the Academy for Creative Media, believes most people do not know how exclusive the Maui festival has become. He was thrilled when his award-winning local short, Poi Dogs, was given its Hawaii premiere at the festival this summer.

“Its reputation in the world of festivals is stellar,” Moffett adds. “They don’t accept as many films, but the caliber of them and the caliber of the celebrities who often attend is the same caliber of Telluride or Sundance – of all the best festivals.”

Hawaii’s film festivals also fuel the dreams of those who train their cameras on the world around them. They are providing an outlet for a diverse offering of locally made films – documentaries, shorts and narratives – that have flourished since the Academy for Creative Media was created in 2003, says Lee.

“I think anytime you can see your work on the big screen with a real audience, it’s both inspiring and terrifying and always gratifying,” Lee says. “For the festival audiences, it means they are seeing authentic Island stories. For the festival programmers, there is so much work being generated they actually have real choices. And for the filmmakers, they know they have to deliver competitive films.”

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