The Show Must Go On

Portrait Images by Aaron Yoshino

HIFF‘s spring showcase takes place from April 10 to 19 at Dole Cannery in Honolulu. Find out what’s showing here.

Together in the dark, watching a movie, remains one of our culture’s favorite ways to receive a story. For the last 34 years, the Hawaii International Film Festival, HIFF for short, has brought international storytellers to the islands and delivered a generation’s worth of narrative to the world. Despite the advent of film at our fingertips, attendance at the festival has not wavered.

There are as many approaches to running a film festival as there are film festivals. At least a half-dozen exist in Hawai‘i alone: the Waimea Ocean Film Festival, the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival, the Maui Film Festival, the future Lanai Documentary Film Festival, to name a few. Internationally, there are thousands, some consisting of a weekend of obscure art house flicks for a few loyal attendees, others lasting weeks. HIFF, at 15 days (eleven days on O‘ahu and four on Big Island and Kaua‘i), is expansive in its breadth. Its organizers are dedicated to the mission of bringing the films of Hawai‘i, Asia, and Europe to the masses. It is among the oldest and most respected of its kind in the world, having made Honolulu one of the preeminent places to show film, alongside Berlin, Cannes, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Toronto, and Sundance.

Despite being renowned for selection and programming, with a catalog of films that now includes 178 unique showings, some of the films at HIFF are divisive. But even after viewing cinema bordering on smut or with a half-brained narrative, audience members rarely feel ripped off. Part of the excitement of a film festival is its capacity to surprise. We purchase tickets knowing the crapshoot; knowing that on occasion, we might be transported to an alternate universe, a different time and place, another’s mind.

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Robert Lambeth, current HIFF director.


Amidst a labyrinth of mostly unoccupied commercial spaces between a Costco parking lot and the state’s largest movie multiplex id HIFF’s nerve center. It is here that the diverse team busily prepares for the annual event. Formerly an actual pineapple cannery, today, the area is composed of Dole Cannery, home to shops and chain fast-food joints, and the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium multiplex, where the majority of HIFF’s films are shown.

I’m shown to the office of the festival’s director, Robert Lambeth, whose appearance belies his life as a man of vocational extremes. Anyone who can transition from the commune culture of Hawai‘i Island, where he managed the restoration of old theaters, to the high-strung money talk of London’s finance district, then land in Honolulu to run the state’s largest annual arts event, is a person who’s had more ambitious conversations than anyone outside politics. “You’re catching us in crunch time,” Lambeth says, as he and his predecessor and mentor Chuck Boller take a break to talk festival history. “I met Chuck years ago through theater restoration and worked with him for years prior to coming back. Part of the deal I struck when I came on board was that we need to get back to the neighbor islands,” Lambeth says. “And we’re doing our best. We don’t get nearly as much [financial support] as we once did from the counties, but we’re making it work. We’ve led the way in creating a system of independent theaters that would show art house films,” he says proudly.

Chuck Boller has remained integral to the festival as its director emeritus. Something about Boller’s tailored clothes, perfect diction, and bearded appearance give him the air of a man who runs a chocolate factory, which is not far off: To bring the magic of cinema to the masses, HIFF employs dozens of movie lovers who find themselves in more stable roles of administration. Like many festivals, HIFF is staffed in large part by “festival gypsies” (Boller’s term), the specialists who act as film shippers and programmers. “Nobody’s done more for Hawai’i-Chinese relations than Chuck,” Lambeth tells me. Boller is the sole foreign advisor for the Beijing Film Festival. In October, for the fourth annual China Night, HIFF flew in superstar actor Huang Xiaoming (who was in Los Angeles filming the latest John Woo film The Crossing) for a high-end fundraiser. The event funded the scholarships of eight Hawai‘i-based film students to visit Shanghai and two select scholarships for students to participate in the American Pavilion of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

In addition to student development, HIFF is introducing entirely new narratives to the local community through the New Frontiers program, which focuses on Islamic communities. For the filmmakers invited to the festival in 2014, the diaspora of Islamic communities is less compelling than the narratives of individuals surviving and finding love in the modern world. This year’s New Frontiers program featured Hasan Elahi, a multidisciplinary artist whose work on the surveillance state has made him internationally famous, and Desiree Akhavan, who uses Iranian-American identity only as a starting point in her feature Appropriate Behavior, a romantic comedy making an argument against coming out as bisexual to immigrant parents. “I’m always surprised when I meet someone who hasn’t heard of HIFF,” says Boller. Considering the expanse of films, discussions, programs, and community development, Boller’s incredulity is no surprise.


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“Nobody’s done more for Hawai’i-Chinese relations than Chuck,” Robert Lambert says of director emeritus Chuck Boller.

In the early 1980s, Hollywood production and financing shifted toward juvenile mass appeal. In the wake of the gritty realism of the 1970s, multiplexes were built across America, and studios reconfigured to capitalize on the staggering commercial success of George Lucas’ Star Wars. At the same time, the art of filmmaking was being taught in universities around the world. Women, indigenous people, and American minorities were picking up the craft. The idea of a documentary as a nonfiction narrative became realized. Movies had proven to be capable of high-minded abstraction or pulp narrative; as transformative forms of fiction or forgettable camp trash. Film had conquered the world.

Art house cinema and festivals were the reaction to the commercialism and uniformity that were becoming normative. It was in this climate that HIFF was created in 1981, starting off as an academic affair with ambition. The back pages of the inaugural catalog were even left blank for notes. Jeanette Paulson Hereniko, the festival’s founding director, recalls the early days when HIFF was held at the East-West Center: “When we started, every movie was free, and we promoted discussion of content over production. The East-West Center’s mission is to promote cultural understanding—we just added the ‘through film’ part. And over the years I saw such transformative things.” In 1985, she invited Zhang Yimou, famed filmmaker and director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, on his first trip out of China. In 1986, Hereniko oversaw the co-screening of American and Vietnamese films of war.

“We brought Roger [Ebert] to Maui in 1985,” she remembers. “It was his first time meeting Asian film critics, and he took his first trip to Japan as a result of that.” Ebert also met Donald Richie, the esteemed Western critic and scholar of Japanese film and culture in the late 20th century. That initial trip was transformative for Ebert, who returned annually. It is well known that Ebert was more than a critic. Embedded in his weekly discussions of film were countless tricks for creative writers, the wonder of which inspired those in all fields of English language: art criticism, history, critical theory, creative writing, law. It was in Hawai‘i that Ebert was introduced to a decades-long appreciation of Asian and Asian-American film. It was here that he also fell in love with his wife, Chaz, Lambeth says. In 2011, cancer and surgery robbed Ebert of the ability to speak. What happened next was followed religiously by those devoted to his work. His blog, which was previously the site for decades’ worth of criticisms, evolved into a discussion far beyond movies. He used film to relate the personal to the political in ways that are nearly impossible to duplicate. He returned to Hawai‘i one last time in 2012 and presented a discussion of film through text repeated by a computerized voice and his wife. “I think theirs is a beautiful love story,” Boller says. “It’s still very raw for her. We’re very proud to carry on this legacy. In 2015, we’re launching the Ebert Young Critics Foundation,” Lambeth adds proudly.

Art house cinema and festivals were the reaction to the commercialism and uniformity that were becoming normative. It was in this climate that HIFF was created in 1981, starting off as an academic affair with ambition. The back pages of the inaugural catalog were even left blank for notes.

From Hereniko’s to Lambeth’s tenure, the technological changes to movie-watching have been immense. HIFF’s 2003 catalog has a full-page ad from the now-failed video rental store that says, “Make it a Blockbuster night.” The keiki of contemporary Hawai‘i will never know the experience of perusing for, renting, and ultimately paying late fees to watch a movie. Kids aren’t missing much from the last days of celluloid, either. Once decried, digital projectors have become both normative in the industry and built to approximate the same dreamy brightness of light projected through film. Boller shows me how one works. “Most people have no idea this is what a movie looks like,” he says, showing me a hard drive in a yellow, padded plastic hazmat case. “A few years ago, we got a film from India in one of these that was filled with water,” he says. “Other times, we’ve had the wrong film in the case, or it wasn’t digitally set for the projector and we can’t show it. We figure something out.” Nary a hair on his face is misplaced at the thought of disaster. For film festival organizers, it’s all in a night’s work.

Considering its focus on underrepresented communities, HIFF has shown many works of ethnographic proselytism with scores to settle. It was in the last decade that the festival became the true showcase for Hawai‘i’s diversity, whether through unrehearsed local voices or non-American blockbusters. A favorite short of 2004 was Amasian: The Amazing Asian, written and directed by Gerard Elmore, the story of a local boy who ate radioactive rice, enabling him to graduate early from high school and fly. The superhero defended the planet from an asteroid by defeating his nemesis Wai‘anae Man, whose powers were derived from magical slippers. That same year, HIFF’s most popular showings were from Korea, a nation whose filmmakers have proven their superiority in all things dramatic and violent. If there was an award for making viewers recoil in terror and awe, it would have gone to Old Boy by director Park Chan-wook, the now-classic Shakespearean thriller-horror-gangster movie that inspired Spike Lee to do a nearly shot-by-shot remake a decade later. In 2006, HIFF played the horror-social commentary The Host to a packed audience made up primarily of the vibrant Korean community in urban Honolulu that frequents the half-dozen video stores off Ke‘eaumoku Street.

For films whose subject matter is Hawai‘i, HIFF has been the site of controversy. In 2009, the biopic Princess Kaiulani was met by protestors who decried its working title Barbarian Princess, as well as its title role being portrayed by a non-Hawaiian. Leading actress Q’orianka Kilcher subsequently gave a teary press conference with community leaders and now leads a life of activism. Princess Kaiulani tied for “Best Feature,” as voted by HIFF audience members. The 2012 feature The Land of Eb by Andrew Williamson stars exceedingly talented Jonithen Jackson, who plays a man not far from himself: Jacob, a Marshallese head of household with a sense of humor and penchant for filmmaking, living in an immigrant community of farm workers on Hawai‘i Island’s fertile slopes. The Land of Eb is reminiscent of foreign movies that follow the indignities of ostracized communities, in this case highlighting the immigrant experience mere miles away from the resorts and million-dollar homes being developed in Kona. Lambeth reflects: “Film tells us about our own community.”

HIFF has brought Hawai‘i out of the cinematic provinces. And for emerging local filmmakers, it is an institution: The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Academy for Creative Media (ACM), which fosters many young filmmakers who eventually end up showing films at HIFF, began in 2004 after years of planning and outlining under the guidance and diligence of its founding director, locally born Hollywood producer and director Chris Lee. What began with just a few select classes grew course by course. Since 2008, ACM has offered a creative media major at the university, with tenured professors, hundreds of graduates, and three tracts in digital narrative, gaming animation, and critical studies.

“What they’re learning is visual storytelling,” says professor Marlene Booth, who has been with the program since its inception. A filmmaker since the late 1970s, Booth transitioned to teaching when she moved to the islands in 2003. The documentary she co-produced with beloved educator, author, and filmmaker Kanalu Young, Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai‘i, received the “Audience Choice” award at HIFF in 2010; a free showing of the movie in the fall of 2009 during a sunset screening in Waikīkī remains among the most-attended viewings in the history of the festival. With the assistance of ACM students, Booth is working on a biographical documentary about her late co-producer, who was prolific despite disability, tentatively titled Kū Kanaka: Stand Tall. “Of course, we have our own showcase of films, but we depend on HIFF the way we depend on cultural institutions. And for the designated ACM night at the festival, it becomes the first—except for our own showcase—the first time our students venture outside. It’s important to our students to submit. It is scary to take your work outside the classroom, to persuade yourself that you can do that. For the kids who get stuff in, it’s wonderful for them.”

Over three decades, HIFF has become Hawai‘i’s largest community arts event. There is some irony in the glamour of film premieres and fundraisers that are necessary to bring forth stories that often discuss poverty, racism, and mortality. But “telling a compelling story,” says Booth, “is at the heart of what we do as filmmakers. It’s what people want and need.” Considering the thousands of movies that have shown at HIFF, the work of hundreds of festival organizers, and the countless individuals who have brought their works to isolated islands, what more could be asked of a film festival, of a community event, of art itself?

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