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Festival Watch: Hawaii International Film Festival

By David Weissman

A group of filmmakers pose for a photo. The festival jury (from left): film directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Arturo Ripstein, the Japan Society's Kyoko Hirano, IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane, the Mowelfund Film Institute's Nick Decampo.

"When Strangers Meet" was the motto of the 14th Hawaii International Film Festival, held November 4-17, 1994, in Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, and neighboring islands. At least it must have appeared that way when, following an evening of screenings and a morning dive trip, I lumbered out of the sea with clumsy flippers and a dangling snorkel to congratulate Native American filmmaker Victor Masayesva Jr. while simultaneously dripping salt water on the blanket of Museum of Modern Art film curator Sally Berger. Such is the casual nature of this unique event.

As a producer, along with my partner Matthew Westfall, of the documentary video The Last Refuge, it was the occasion of our second premiere at the festival. Much had changed since 1990, most of it for the better. All the more remarkable when one considers that state and other institutional support for the event had evaporated earlier that summer. Enthusiastic sponsorship from local advocates and businesses, under the effervescent stewardship of festival director Jeannette Paulson, managed to resuscitate this lively and important cultural crossroads of the Pacific.

More than one-third of the 100 entries at HIFF were either long or short documentaries. These selections were also fairly divided between film and video—an important distinction, as many festivals that accept only film limit documentary possibilities, especially documentaries on indigenous issues, an arena in which video equipment is a key factor in allowing access, high shooting ratios, and small crews. Indigenous subject matter is a prime consideration at HIFF, and among the entries screened were Victor Masayesva Jr.'s complex and well-researched examination of Hollywood's appropriation of Native American culture, Imagining Indians; Mary and Allan Code's Nu Ho Ni Yeh ("Our Story"), which chronicles the sad decline of the Sayisi Dane people of northern Canada; and Gillian Darling and Carl Green's The Washing of Tears, in which the sym­bolic trek of a northern Canadian people to New York's Museum of Natural His­tory to reclaim religious artifacts taken from them nearly a century earlier becomes a quest that reunites the living generations with the traditions of their an­cestors.

A t past HIFF events, debate has raged over the nature of indigenous films and filmmakers, the autonomy of the image, and the right to appropriate it. A panel discussion was held this year, and although our work, The Last Refuge, tells a story of tribal Filipinos, as non indigenous makers my partner and I were not a part of the panel. Nevertheless, simply watching the films—or, more accurately, reading the subtitles—tells a story that is rather universal. Whether produced by native or nonnative, in Asia or the Amer­icas, the issues facing indigenous peo­ple—the recognition of ancestral land of rights chief among them-were couched in much the same language.

Among the nonindigenously themed documentaries were Australian Lawrence Johnston's elegiac, somber, and beauti­fully photographed Eternity (see ID, February 1995), which traces the author of the mysterious word eternity that appeared painted on streets around Sydney. Another, Rhino skin: The Making of a Movie Star, had Dina Marie Chapman tracking Tod De Pree as he struggles to make his break as an actor in Hollywood. The film features many campy and very inside industry jokes, but has enough broad humor (albeit mean spirited at times) to keep the general audience chuckling. Damien: All the World's Hero, about the work of a Belgian priest who ministered to lepers, was of special interest on Hawaii, where he established his colony on Molokai. This Dutch videotape, however, was technically uneven and seemed long in arriving at its conclusion that the treatment of the lepers bears studying in regard to the current stigma of AIDS. Moving the Mountain by Michael Apted has the greatest amount of production value in any documentary I have seen since A Brief History of Time. This story of the dissident students of Tiananmen Square goes beyond Errol Morris's symbolic and stylized "recreations" in actually dramatizing the childhood of one of the protagonists. While it remains to be seen whether this trend in blurring the distinction between documentary and drama is a novel twist or simply a novelty, it did not distract from the power of the actual Tiananmen Square footage or the forceful, erudite convictions of the students portrayed. Gianfranco Rosi's Boatman, which won the Silver Maile for Best Documentary, is photographed in a black and white style that removes what would have been the distracting and potentially exoticizing fil­igree of the Indian backgrounds, allowing the audience to focus on the simple profundity of life and death along the River Ganges. The beguiling boatman and the macabre cast of characters he meets along the river are perfectly chosen—a cross between Italian neorealism and Woody Allen, reminding us of the Hollywood feature film maxim that, even in documentaries, "casting is everything."

The HIFF has always been an important venue for catching the latest works from China, Oceania, and Southeast Asia. Invoking its mandate to represent all films of the Pacific hemisphere, HIFF this year included special programs of Mexican and Canadian cinema—two nations not traditionally associated with the Pacific Rim, but whose cultural importance more than matches their share of geographic coastline. Mexican director Arturo Ripstein was on hand to present his The Beginning and the End and White Lies, as well as the historical epic Cabeza de Vaca. From Canada, acclaimed director Denys Arcand hosted a retrospective that included his provocative Jesus of Montreal and his first English-language film, the stylish Love and Human Remains. HIFF also features informative panel discussions and seminars. A program entitled "The Anatomy of a CD-ROM" was presented by Rand Miller, cocreator of the best-selling CD title Myst. A good primer for someone like myself, who is versed in the more traditional media formats, Miller's seminar demonstrated not only the possibilities but, more practical, the limitations of CD-ROM technology.

My partner and I were also asked to participate in a panel discussion presented by the Film and Video Association of Hawaii. The panel also included Lynda Hansen of the New York Foundation for the Arts, Eamonn Bowles of Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, IDA Executive Director Betsy Mclane (who served on the HIFF jury), Gaylen Whited of the GPN educational television service, and Dina Marie Chapman and Tod De Pree of Rhinoskin. In part, the discussion seemed to address the sense of isolation many makers on Hawaii feel from the mainland film and video community. On the one hand, Hawaii serves as an exotic locale for visiting mainland crews, whose presence bolsters the short-term economy but does not generate either money or spirit to foster a true local film scene. Eamonn Bowles, noting the ascendance of "Asian chick" in cinema and the success of The Wedding Banquet, felt that at the very least, independents like Miramax and Goldwyn were in a better position to explore the distribution of indigenous features. At the same time, he presented the reality that out of 10 or 15 competed features submitted every month, perhaps one is chosen every three months. For the ben­efit of the nonfiction/community-access­ based audience members, a number of the panelists engaged in debate over whether PBS was really capable of serving that community, given the few openings on P.O. V. and the commercial demands of even the Arts & Entertainment Network or the Discovery Channel. The discussion also addressed the relative merits of new and improved video technology and its applications for documentary. Westfall and I defended video as allowing budget-conscious independents to create works that, if photographed with the precision and care cinematographers working in film take for granted, could compete visually with film. Given that we self-funded our project with money from our day jobs (as did many of the access-oriented people we spoke with afterward), the presence of so many documentary videos on display at HIFF supported the widespread potential of this medium. (One video documentary, Tom Coffman and Robert Bates's Ganbare, about the prejudice encountered by Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, won the Hawaii Filmmakers Award.)

As a festival participant, I find one of the most pleasant aspects of the HIFF to be the plethora of receptions (catered-a not insignificant distinction in the world of often starving documentarians). There was a Vietnamese buffet one night, as well as the Canadian and Mexican receptions, replete with, respectively, proper high tea and refreshing margaritas. These venues also provided opportunities to distribute press kits to the local media.

A key drawback to the HIFF is the problem of local transportation. The theaters are spread throughout Oahu, some quite far from Waikiki, and the distances tend to rack up hefty taxi fares in addition to making it difficult to schedule screenings at close intervals. Although the festival did arrange transportation for us as filmmakers, on those days when we wished to see the work of others, it was a scramble to share a ride or an expense to grab a cab. Films shown on the far side of the island would have been a possibility only with a rented car. Perhaps in the future, the benevolence of the local sponsors could be extended to pry open some of the Waikiki feature houses that were dark during daylight hours to create a more concentrated "downtown " venue for the films.

As an invited producer, I found the HIFF staff to be extremely helpful, exemplars of the genuine aloha spirit. A lot of credit goes to Jeannette Paulson as well; so much of her ebullient personality is evident in the aura of the festival. She manages to know all the filmmakers by name and to seem to be in all places at once. When our documentary was to be screened on the island of Maui, there were a series of technical glitches that pre­-empted the showing. I was dismayed, but anxious somehow to salvage the day. As I was wandering around a campus venue, Paulson appeared, hopping as she was from island to island, and got in a huddle with some of the local HIFF co­ordinators. Before long, I was on a cellular phone to a local radio station, where I was reading news of our postponed showing to a DJ, who then read the announcement over the air in both English and Tagalog. To my surprise , several dozen people showed up at the belated screening, many of whom had heard it advertised in Filipino. Given the number of venues, different islands, and limited resources, such glitches were inevitable; at least in my case, the show did go on!

Kudos also go to the HIFF for their gala award evening. Departing from the traditional speech/dinner/banquet hall format we experienced in 1990, the current incarnation included large screen videos to display clips of the nominated contenders, as well as musical performances by two island favorites, the Cazimero Brothers. Among the award­ winning films were the best feature, Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker, from Hong Kong, and the best documentary, Boat­man. The buffet held outdoors in the cool tropical evening was a perfect way to conclude the festival—one of the few occasions when so many of the filmmakers present all had a chance to reflect on the week's events before returning, "strangers no more," to their respective lands.

David Weisman is a Los Angeles-based producer/director of documentaries about inter­national development and environmental is­sues.