Surf, turf, movies under the stars, and plenty of opportunities for enlightenment: The Maui Film Festival closed its 8th edition Sunday night. Standout films divided time between politically-charged docs and studio sneak peaks, while highlights on the party front included every culinary event the festival threw. The festival is the brainchild of Barry Rivers, who moved to Maui 30 years ago. "I saw a need," said Rivers, who rivals any major fest programmer with his passion and intelligence, "There wasn't any independent cinema here. I started a weekly film series which evolved into the event we have now."
Ultimately, the Maui Film Fest is about movies. A movement has been brewing the past several years, call it "Spiritual Cinema" (think "What the #$*! Do We Know?" meets "Whale Rider") that is heartfelt, consciousness-raising fare. Mix that cine stuff up with the social issue charge of the times--global warming and the race to do something about it before it's too late--and you get a sense of the programming here: films that inspire awareness, both personal and political. But this is Maui, where the seaside rules and studio execs retreat, all within the frame of native tensions. So into the screening cauldron go surf pics, local issue flicks, and enough A-list presence on and off screen to make this an island celebration deserving of industry recognition.
Several docs tackled environmental issues. Steven Strout premiered a new cut of "Revolution Green: A True Story of Biodiesel in America," a film about biodiesel with its heart in the right place, but in need of a stronger edit. Chuck Davis' "Transforming Energy" explores alternative energy possibilities in a thorough way, while Tim Green's "Hawaii-Message in the Waves," which made its U.S. premiere, bridges local and global ecological issues. After the doc's recent BBC broadcast, the U.K. town of Modbury was inspired to become "plastic shopping bag free."
In the spiritual quest department there was the world premiere of "Through the Eastern Gate," about three young Westerners who give up the rat race to seek "something more." The 50 minute pic transcends the "lost youth" vibe to deliver a soul-provoking look into the deeper meaning of life. Filmmakers Julien Balmer and Mironel de Wilde clocked the most miles to attend MFF. "He flew from Denmark and I came from Thailand," says the Swiss-born Balmer. Their time in Maui was "more than perfect"--withstanding their car breaking down on a sightseeing tour. "It was a blessing in disguise. We hitched back with a film distributor." Rick Ray's "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" played to welcoming crowds and won the Compassionate Vision Award. His Holiness is a popular man in Maui, the festival presented its inaugural Visionary Award to the Dalai Lama during his visit last month.
On the fiction front, Sundance winner "Rocket Science," Jeffrey Blitz's coming-of-age with a stutter story, was a hit. "Waitress" and "Once" screened well, and big crowds were also on hand for "family friendly" pics "Evan Almighty" and "Arctic Tale." "Charlie Bartlett" by Jon Poll took home the Audience Award for Narrative Feature, and festival honorees Claire Danes and William Hurt were on hand to receive awards and participate in conversations about their work.
Now, the waves. One might recall Bethany Hamilton, the young surfer who tragically lost her arm after a shark attack... Becky Baumgartner's "Heart of a Soul Surfer" is a peek into her comeback, inspired by her religious convictions. Gregory Schell's "Chasing the Lotus," meanwhile, features archival footage by underground filmmakers Spyder Wills and Greg Weaver sure to please surf fans, and "One California Day" by Mark Jeremias and Jason Baffa brings depth to the 'Hang Ten' with its excellent account of the history of surfing along California's coastline, shot beautifully in super 16mm.
One of my fest faves, "America the Beautiful," chronicles the beauty industry's effect on women--through the lens of a 12-year old model and its effect on men through the voice of director Darryl Roberts. "I wondered how my view of women became so beauty obsessed, and I set out to find out."
What better place to watch "In the Shadow of the Moon" than under the nighttime sky? The Celestial Cinema is an outdoor venue on Wailea's golf course that provided the most satisfying viewing experience I've ever had. Watching David Sington's doc about lunar landings while nestled in a hillside cove--with the ocean in the distance and the stars blazing on high makes returning to a walled cinema challenging. The adrenaline packed "The Windsurfing Movie," although in need of better story structure, made great use of the 50 foot screen and Dolby Digital sound, and gets my vote for greatest "score" of the fest: landing Rolling Stones tunes. Other docs making festival rounds were "Lake of Fire," Tony Kaye's opus to everything abortion rights, and "Crazy Sexy Cancer," Kris Carr's unlikely love poem to her rare form of cancer. "Crazy" is a doc you won't want to miss for the inspiring life-affirming in the face of seeming disaster message. Documentary Audience Awards went to "In the Shadow of the Moon" (Feature) and "I Want to be a Pilot" (Short) by Diego Quermada-Diez.
My time in Maui was picture perfect, from my initial "lei" after landing---yes I paid for it and have no shame---to the closing day screening of the super crowd-pleasing "Na Kamalei: The Men of Hula" by Brooklyn filmmaker Lisette Flanary, who was in attendance with live hula performers. And, I was well fed--the nightly feasts were outstanding. In keeping with the mission of the fest I left enlightened (well, getting there) and entertained. Mostly I was inspired by the effect the festival had on its community. And by Maui's Movie Macher and festival visionary Barry Rivers, who barked sweetly at me when I was trying to do my reporting job by finding some newsworthy bites: "I don't give a shit about premieres."
He knows others might want to count those numbers, and that's okay, but his fest is about "something different." I understand now, I understand his tough love and the purpose of his festival. What the real news just might be is sharing the power of film with the local community in a be here now kind of way. Maui may be an island in the middle of the Pacific, but it's a festival full of relevance--and lots of class. [For a complete line up and list of awards, visit MauiFilmFestival.com. Aloha.]