Festival Wrap: Island Casual Mixes with Serious Cinema Aesthetic at Hawaii International Festival 2017

The Hawaii International Film Festival turned 37 in November, and along with its typically top-notch programming and famous hospitality, it also somehow seemed to become a little more Hawaiian this year.

Maybe that had something to do with it being the first year at the helm for Executive Director Beckie Stocchetti and the new direction her programmers (Anderson Le and Anna Page) took with their decision to create the Best Made in Hawaii Film Awards (for which I served on the jury of the feature section), but whatever the reason, this edition of the festival felt like an organizational reboot, maybe even a return to its roots.

Bill Pullman accepts the Halekulani Lifetime Achievement Award. Photograph courtesy of Hawaii International Film Festival

While an editor from MovieMaker has attended HIFF for the past several years, this was my first time not only to the festival, but to Hawaii. Not surprisingly, both are easy to fall in love with. It starts with the fact that in my experience everything just seems easier in Hawaii. From the easygoing people, who are genuinely warm and friendly even in the tourist mecca of Waikiki, to the legendary weather, (yes, it’s perfect every day) to the fact that there’s always a beach and a breeze and a drink close at hand, there just isn’t much not to like. Every film festival has its own personality, and with HIFF, the state’s “aloha” spirit infuses the festival with a likability that would be endearing even if it weren’t such a serious cinema endeavor. But it’s very much that, too.

I was invited to HIFF as part of the jury for the inaugural “Made in Hawaii Feature Award,” and when not getting to know the moviemakers in attendance or exploring Oahu (special thanks to jury foreman Lance Rae for his way-beyond-the-call-of-duty day spent carting me and my family around the island) I spent most of my time watching and thinking about the features in our competition.

I’ve been a juror at many festivals over the years and I can honestly say that the quality of the features in competition at HIFF was truly excellent. Alexander Bocchieri’s feature Go for Broke: A 442 Origin Story won MovieMaker’s first “Hawaii Movie Maker Award” and its PR prize package worth approximately $20K. The film chronicles the formation of the all-Japanese-American WWII fighting unit the 442, the most decorated combat unit in American military history. Other features in competition were Stephen Tringali’s look at the aftermath of bravery, Corridor Four, Gemma Cubero del Barrio’s quirky portrait of individualism, Ottomaticake, Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander’s informative and well-made Proof of Loyalty: Kazuo Yamane and the Nisei Soldiers of Hawaii, and the moving narrative Kuleana, Brian Kohne’s ambitious tale of what spiritual responsibility means to Hawaiians.

Ciara Lacy’s award-winning documentary about two native Hawaiians serving life sentences in an Arizona private prison

Despite the tough competition, the clear winner for us was Ciara Lacy’s incredible documentary, Out of State. Here’s the statement my fellow jurors Jordan Kandell (co-writer of the Disney hit Moana), Ty Sanga (writer/director of the TV series Family Ingredients) and I wrote when we presented the award to Ciara:

To create a feature-length film is never anything less than a miracle. You simply need to carve out years of your life, assemble, mobilize, and lead a small army willing to go to war with you, and of course, convince someone to finance your vision to help turn it from dream into reality. Knowing all of that, the jurors for the inaugural “Best Made in Hawaii Feature” award were faced with a seemingly difficult choice: which of our worthy, passionately-made miracles should be recognized as the “best?” In the end, while each nominee had its merits, there was one unanimous choice that stood out. One movie which impressed us, in both narrative and documentary categories, for its technical merits in directing, cinematography, editing and storytelling. And most importantly one movie that most moved this jury. The themes that this powerful, poetic film explores are specifically grounded in a uniquely Hawaiian experience—exploring the struggles of contemporary Hawaiians through an intimate, honest, and empathetic lens. Yet the story this film tells, the complex characters it follows, and the struggles they face have universal relevance. For all these reasons, the jury is proud to bestow the Hawaii International Film Festival’s inaugural “Best Made in Hawaii Feature” award to Ciara Lacy’s Out of State.”

I look forward to attending HIFF again. As anyone who has been to these islands can attest, they have a way of quickly endearing themselves to you, and when it’s time to leave you feel a genuine sadness … as you would if parting from an old friend. Hawaii and I became fast friends and I can’t wait to write the next chapter of that friendship. MM

The 37th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival ran from November 2-19, 2017. Call for entries to the 2018 HIFF is now open. Feature image photograph by Brandon Kawamura. All other photographs courtesy of HIFF.

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