Challenging Cinema (And a Day at the Beach): Third Cinema Paradise Fest
by Wendy Mitchell
Like any sane person, my first trip to Hawaii had me daydreaming of leaving my "real" life behind and moving to the islands. But a friend who used to live here for several years warned me that life here isn't quite the same as life elsewhere in the United States. He used the analogy of a tricycle with a wobbly wheel -- if you can be content with the shaky ride, you'll do fine in Hawaii, but if you're going to constantly want to fix the wheel, you might go crazy.
The wobbly wheel example seems apt for the Cinema Paradise Independent Film Festival as well. This third-annual indie film fest, held in Honolulu from September 17-23, definitely had a few wobbles but was also a lot of fun to ride. The main shakes were logistical: the utter chaos of the box office on opening night (it got better as the festival continued), projection and sound problems, a bit of incorrect info in the festival catalog, driving audiences crazy by running the same short films in front of several different features, the lack of a festival shuttle to theaters and events, and so on.
But here in paradise, those glitches seemed kind of charming -- this festival is so obviously a labor of love that it's hard to complain. They have something that big sponsorship money can't buy: passion. The festival's two directors, Sergio Goes and Chris Kahunahana (both filmmakers themselves), are in this for the right reasons: to support films they love and to give something new to film lovers in Honolulu. Goes explains the festival's role, "We're this small festival that shows really cool films and provides and an amazing experience for people who come and visit." He continued, "The priority for us is the films and the filmmakers. It's not a five-star festival but in our way we try to take care of people who come over. We try to invite people who share the same vision we do. There's absolutely no celebrity thing going on at this festival, and that's the kind of filmmaking that we want to promote. That's the kind of filmmaking that we want to do ourselves."
The much larger Hawaii International Film Festival, with big stars and a big Louis Vuitton sponsorship, is held here in late October. Cinema Paradise is clearly an alternative event for the community, but it also tried to be welcoming to the number of filmmakers in attendance. Still, there's no real industry presence and there's definitely no acquisitions frenzy here (well, no frenzy of any kind, which makes it a relaxing event). The locals seemed to embrace it, as many screenings were sold out (or close to it). Goes said this year's event had about twice as many attendees as last year's. Another admirable aspect of the fest was its outreach -- it inspired a number of budding filmmakers at its youth media workshop with local students, and filmmaker Liz Mermin hosted two filmmaking workshops with Pacific New Media Workshops. Plus, the sponsorship of the Movie Museum allows for cash prizes for local filmmakers.
This year's program was mostly strong, but from an industry perspective, wasn't groundbreaking: some of the features are several years old, and a great many of them (probably too many) were drawn from the Tribeca Film Festival program (festival directors Goes and Kahunahana attended Tribeca). I saw several very strong films (all Tribeca alums). The most impressive was Liu Sen Dou's "The Green Hat," one of the strongest debut films of the year. This atypical Chinese film follows a group of young bankrobbers whose lives intersect with an impotent policeman. The first half of the film, with the bankrobbers, felt wonderfully fresh and compelling; I was a little less interested in the failing marriage of the policeman in the second half. Still, this film announces a major new talent. Among the docs, I was most impressed with Liz Mermin's "Beauty Academy of Kabul," about a group of women who travel to Afghanistan to teach local women hairdressing skills after the fall of the Taliban. This film was touching, enlightening, and often funny -- probably the most entertaining portrait I've seen about life in that part of the world. A completely different kind of documentary was Carey Schonegevel's "Original Child Bomb," a very artistic look of the history of atomic bombs, and the impact of bombings on ordinary people. It should be required viewing for every citizen of the world.
On the opposite side of the spectrum was Robert Greenwald's "Uncovered: The War on Iraq" (which played here along with his "Outfoxed"), which I found to be unenlightening and potentially irresponsible. The doc looked like it had been thrown together -- a bunch of video interviews with talking heads with bad patriotic music on a loop behind them. I mostly was disturbed by the film's "experts," a mixed bag of folks -- some of whom I'm sure are legitimate, but when someone's title is shown as "25 years of foreign service," I have no idea what that really means and where they served, so it's hard to trust their sweeping statements about Saddam Hussein. Even if Greenwald had top experts, there's nothing here that you don't learn from watching Michael Moore's far better "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Cinema Paradise's theme this year was "What is real? What is unreal?" which seems especially relevant with the rise of reality programming, the documentary boom, and the state of the world around us. Two fictional films seemed particularly apt with this theme -- I found each of them technically flawless but thematically somewhat troubling. They were "Point and Shoot" by Shawn Regruto, a not very enlightening look at the world of coked-up models in New York, and Christian Johnson's ego-driven feature "September Tapes," about a young man who wants to capture Osama bin Laden himself. There indeed was a streak of realism in each film, they might be able to fool some audiences into thinking they are documentaries. Obviously these are both smart filmmakers, so I look forward to seeing if I can connect more with their future projects.
Among the shorts, the standouts for me were "Estilo Hop Hop," Virgilio Bravo and Loira Limbal's eye-opening work-in-progress documentary about the hip-hop revolution in South America; and Caecilia Tripp's magnificently shot "The Making of Americans," which gave a hip-hop slant to a Gertrude Stein opera. Other great shorts were Goes' own work-in-progress documentary "God Bless America: ATM Inside," which showed a not-always-pretty side of America during a road trip after September 11th; Davina Pardo's experimental "Birdlings Two," about the relationship between her and her father and a film he made decades ago, and -- for something completely different -- local Gerard Elmore's "Amasian: The Amazing Asian" was a campy superhero story that had me laughing out loud and really connected with the Hawaiians in the crowd.
In fact, a lot of the programs seemed to really connect with the crowd -- the locals here seemed starved for political films, and Cinema Paradise gave them a great many. The festival also showcased some more cutting-edge short films, a flash animation program, and youth-oriented films that seemed popular.
The festival held several social events, including an opening night party at Chinatown hotspot Indigo (where the bar became so crowded that many festival attendees fled to a karaoke dive across the street), a lame party at the Hyatt (where I searched in vain for someone, ANYONE from the festival for the first two hours of the public party), a Brazilian BBQ at a new art gallery, and a closing night event at Buddha Bar in Waikiki. The closing night awards kept up the laid-back vibe -- the awards were decided by Kahunahana and Goes, and they also chose the audience winners not based on any voting but just by observing crowds at the theater. Local winners were saluted with calls of "Right on, brah."
Even with the great films, the highlight of the festival for many people was outside of the theater -- the festival heads recruited their friend, local Johnny Bopp, to take filmmakers and visitors on a special island tour. We saw a side of Oahu that you won't find in the guidebooks: a muddy hike to a waterfall called Jackass Ginger, a roadside restaurant offering a cheap and tasty "plate lunch," body surfing lessons at an uncrowded beach, and a round of $1 tequila shots at a Waikiki dive bar. That tour was the sort of one-of-a-kind experience that you can't get at a bigger festival, no matter what their hospitality budget is.
Next year, the festival may move to the spring to avoid schedule conflicts with the Hawaii International Film Festival, the IFP/Market in New York, and the Toronto International Film Festival, so there could be even more incentive to attend. But Goes hopes to keep it intimate. "Our goal is to keep it small. We don't want to become another monster festival, of Course, we'd like to get more sponsorship and money, we want to keep it small and just do what we do better."
Cinema Paradise Winners 2004:
Hale Ki'i'oni'oni award (for Hawaii filmmakers)
First Prize: "The Land Has Eyes," directed by Vilsoni
Second Prize: "Balls Deep," directed by John Ta
Third Prize: "Amasian: The Amazing Asian," directed by Gerard
Honorable Mention: "Pain," directed by Tyson Suzuki
Best Dramatic Feature: "The Green Hat," directed by Liu Sen
Best Documentary: "The Beauty Academy of Kabul," directed by
Best Short Film: "Queen's Recipe," directed by Keith Jinsub
Best Animation: "Rockfish," directed by Tim Miller
Best Experimental: "The Making of Americans," directed by
Dramatic Feature: "Point and Shoot," directed by Shawn
Documentary: "Original Child Bomb," directed by Carey
Short Film: "Estilo Hip Hop," directed by Vee Bravo and
Animation: "Dating Doesn't Like Me," directed by Aaron
Experimental: "Sweet Samoa," directed by Tomas Casas