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Five Reasons to Hang Ten at the Hawaii International Film Festival

By Elizabeth Blozan

From Thomas Campbell's 'Sprout,' which screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival. Courtesy of Hawaii International Film Festival

If you've been looking for a really great (that is, tax deductible) excuse to spend a week in Waikiki, now you have one. This October the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) turns 25. Travel & Leisure Magazine calls HIFF "one of the ten best film festivals in the world," and film critic Roger Ebert raves about the festival's "enormous" turnout of film fanatics. If you're not already dusting off your Hawaiian shirt, here's five more reasons to help HIFF celebrate its silver anniversary:

1) Hawaii's Happening Doc Scene.  Hawaiians are an opinionated people, according to HIFF's programming director, Anderson Le. "It's really rooted in Hawaiian history," Le says. To this day most native Hawaiians see their designation as a US territory in1898 as a takeover. Combine a century of activism with the island's vigorous outdoor sports and music scenes and a startling diversity of immigrants and you get a modern Hawaii brimming with visual tales to tell.

 Hawaiians have joined the digital revolution with gusto, thanks to ample state-sponsored training available through the public access television station and the school system. In fact, one of Hawaii's most prolific production companies, Searider Productions, can be found at Waianae High School. The company is so successful that this program, based in one of Hawaii's poorest school districts, earns much of its funding by producing corporate ads.

"If you look at festivals like Seattle or San Francisco, they'll have a small section—‘Seattle Filmmakers!'" notes Le. "But it's different here in Hawaii." Every year HIFF has a host of independently produced TV and feature docs, student docs and surf docs produced by leaders like Jack Johnson to consider for programming. Le sees programming local fare as a mandate, and HIFF sets aside two hours a day for homegrown projects. These screenings provide a community forum, such as at the 2004 festival when dueling docs—Ed McNulty's First Light and Puhipau Joan Lander's Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege—portrayed two sides of the battle between astronomers and Hawaiian spiritualists over the prized peak of the Mauna Kea volcano. 

 "It's especially gratifying to see such great filmmaking happening here in Hawaii," says Executive Director Chuck Boller. "And audiences agreed, with three awards won by local filmmakers." One of these was the Blockbuster Audience Appreciation Award for Documentary that went to Steve Ma'i', Kaliko Palmiera's 15-minute doc about a local music legend Steve Ma'i'.

2) A Pan-Asian Banquet.  Hawaii is home to immigrants from every Asian culture in the world, so you can't find a better US festival for catching documentaries about Asian culture. Last year's screenings included Travis Klose's snappy pop doc on Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Arakimentari, a must-see for anyone into photography, Tokyo or erotica; Dinaz Stafford's gentle Still, The Children Are Here, depicting the indigenous Garos of India; Ann Marie Fleming's Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, about a turn-of-the-century Chinese magician; and a rare screening of Wang Bing's nine-hour epic West of the Tracks, about a Chinese factory town's transition to a capitalist economy.

An audience favorite at the festival was Catriona McKenzie's Mr. Patterns, a portrait of Australian Geoff Bardon, an art teacher sent to a remote region in the outback to teach the Papunya aborigines living under forced relocation on a government reservation. Young and idealistic, Bardon saw a community with an ancient intact culture on the brink of extinction. His efforts to help the Papunya become self-reliant by selling their "dot paintings" inadvertently brought the Papunya to world fame and Bardon to personal crisis. Nic Tesorini and Jo Plumley, the writers of the film, were on hand to enjoy the world premiere and receive the 2004 Golden Maile Jury Prize for Best Documentary. The 2004 jury also awarded a special prize to Hosup Lee's And Thereafter, a haunting portrait of the failed assimilation of a Korean war bride.

3) The Aloha Spirit.  Like most festivals, HIFF hosts many events, including seminars and meet-the-filmmaker happy hours. But in Hawaii this standard fare takes on a hypnotic charm with the requisite umbrella drinks, the live Hawaiian music, the mysteriously dry rain showers and the ubiquitous scent of leis that festooned many a beaming filmmaker. One event you can't find at any other festival is the outdoor "Sunset on the Beach" screenings, a laid-back public fete on the sands of Waikiki. San Francisco-based filmmakers S. Leo Chiang and Mercedes Coats provided the quintessential Hawaiian experience with their documentary To You Sweetheart, Aloha, about 94-year-old Bill Tapia, inventor of jazz ukulele. After the screening Tapia strummed his instrument on stage for a delighted crowd, just two blocks from the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where he played in the 1920s on the night it opened.

4) Surprisingly Affordable! Thanks to the tourist trade, Waikiki has become a freakish little town of pre-packaged escapism where Japanese brides commingle with drunk teens screaming at Neil Diamond impersonators. As one HIFF staffer puts it, "Waikiki is where we keep the tourists so they don't ruin the island." But bless those tourists, because thanks to them you'll find cheap airfare in October and rooms starting at $50 a night. And the festival's shuttle service works nicely, so you can even skip renting a car.

5) Programming Director Anderson Le. At 29, Anderson Le (dubbed by his staff as "the youngest Vietnamese-American festival programmer in the world") brings an avant-garde eye to his festival. He premiered Niki Caros' Whale Rider, and last year even convinced Sundance to let him scoop them with his US premiere of Olivier Assayas' Clean. Le has earned a reputation in festival circles and is often asked to emigrate, but he insists Honolulu is his destiny. After all, as a mere fetus, Le forced an emergency landing in Honolulu of the jet taking his pregnant mother from a Vietnamese refugee camp to Arkansas. Says Le, "I feel what we're doing here is really great, just trying to open up a lot of different aspects of arts and culture that are not usually prevalent here because we're so isolated. And also to sell Hawaii as a destination for arts and culture. There's so much stuff beyond Waikiki. Go see films here and see what Hawaii's all about. It's just so multiethnic; we have so many voices, so many ideas."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, California. She is currently producing a documentary on LA rockabilly.