Indies in Paradise; Honolulu's Second Cinema Paradise Film Fest
by Clairborne Smith
At the first program of the Cinema Paradise Island Independent Film Festival in Honolulu last week, an audience member -- perhaps the filmmaker -- kept taking flash pictures of the screen as a short documentary, "The Song Bird of Puna: Auntie Becky Pau," was playing. The screening had begun late and then had to be scrapped due to technical mishaps during the program's other offering, "Pinaytration," a satiric mockumentary about a group of young R&B divas.
That screening did not go the way the festival's director, Sergio Goes, had planned; the program had to be rescheduled. So it wasn't quite the auspicious start for the second Cinema Paradise, a festival that grabbed attention last year during its inaugural run after it nabbed the U.S. premiere of "11'9'01" when no one wanted to touch that politically unflinching movie.
As it turns out, however, that particular screening was the only unfortunate element of Cinema Paradise, which is eclectic, intimate, vibrant, focused, and increasingly beneficial to the audiences and filmmakers it serves. Although he presented a smooth-running festival, Goes would say that the kind of problems that occurred during the first program -- kinks that larger, older festivals tend to have ironed out -- are preferable to the stultifying "bureaucratic mass" some of those larger festivals seem to have become. One day during Cinema Paradise, in fact, Goes was talking to "Speedo" director Jesse Moss about what it was like taking Goes' own doc "Black Picket Fence" (2000) to various festivals. "His experience and my experience going to festivals were very similar," Goes says. "You end up going with some of the bigger festivals and you feel like your film is left to the side in some small screening room somewhere and it's not promoted right and you're definitely not part of the hype," he says. "And then you go to festivals like ours, which are younger and more passionate, and the people that are organizing it are still really excited about what they're doing and it ends up being a much better experience." Goes is in the uncommon position of being both a filmmaker and festival programmer and is keenly aware that his experience as a festival-vet filmmaker makes him a uniquely well-informed festival director.
As a result, Goes and his co-director Chris Kahunahana, who depend on approximately 40 volunteers and a small staff to help produce the festival, have a clear vision of how they want Cinema Paradise to grow. "I want to see this film festival attracting more attention from the independent film community," Goes says, "and being able to attract more of the films that we want to have, even though this year I was able to get close to everything I wanted." Both years of Cinema Paradise have been successful, with packed houses and intriguing lineups of films (this year attracted 500 submissions this year for 100 slots); Goes says Cinema Paradise will remain independent and "a celebration of that type of filmmaking, giving those filmmakers a chance to be in the spotlight. We would like to be able to fly every single filmmaker over."
Taking place over one week at one of Honolulu's three art-house theaters, Cinema Paradise covered a wide swath of international movies with 30 filmmakers in attendance. (Unlike so many other festivals, the word "International" appears nowhere in the title of Cinema Paradise even though its lineup is more international than most festivals'. Hawaii, with its mix of Filipino, Portugese, Brazilian, American, Hawaiian, and Japanese people, is such an unassumingly international place that putting "International" in the title of a film festival there would almost seem beside the point.) Goes, who grew up in Brazil, programmed a Cinema Brasil showcase because of his own passion for his home but also because screening recent Brazilian exports like "Madame Sata," "Bus 174," and Eduardo Coutinho's "Edificio Master," a documentary about 37 residents of an apartment building in Copacabana, is a testament to the creative renaissance that can happen when a government like Brazil's gives incentives to businesses that help fund Brazilian-made films.
The popular Black Belt Theater showcase featured four movies, two of them Kung Fu satires. (Kung Fu is big in Hawaii: until the early '70s, there were several movie houses in Honolulu devoted solely to martial-arts films.) "Shaolin Ulysses: Kung Fu Monks in America" is Mei-Juin Chen and Martha Burr's documentary about five Shaolin kungfu monks from China who immigrated to America in the '90s who have been trying to build Shaolin temples in places like Houston and Las Vegas. "Drunken Monkey," which features "Kill Bill"'s Gordon Liu Chia-hui, was one of the hits at the festival, and it's no surprise why: with an emphasis on the fact that its actors are really performing their own martial arts moves and its unforgettably haunting tone, "Drunken Monkey," which made its U.S. premiere at Cinema Paradise, is an emblematically Cinema Paradise kind of movie: it is deeply rooted in a particular culture but is accessible to non-natives of that culture, it's unique and independent, and because it hasn't been screened in the U.S. before, it's a little exotic (something we still expect from Hawaii, despite its overrun of tourists).
Not everything that Cinema Paradise organizers like is foreign, however. "There's two films that I consider represent everything that we are trying to support," Goes says. One of them is A. Dean Bell's "What Alice Found," which won a special jury prize at Sundance and best dramatic feature at Cinema Paradise. Shot on DV, "What Alice Found" is the story of a somewhat naïve young woman who leaves her dreary small town in New Hampshire to become a marine biologist in Florida only to realize that life on the road isn't necessarily better than life at home. "And then 'Bus 174' is also the kind of filmmaking that I really like," Goes says. "Bus 174" is Jose Padilha's probing, complex documentary about a bus hijacking that occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. Goes says, "It's an example of getting something that was in the mainstream media in a very superficial way then deconstructing it and finding what was happening behind it. And I think that's part of the role of independent filmmakers -- to tell the stories that aren't being told in mainstream film, and bring those to an audience with such power like that movie does with the ability to change perceptions."
The theme that Cinema Paradise organizers put forward this year for the festival is transformation, but youth could just as effectively have been the organizing idea. Everything about Cinema Paradise is about youth -- its own age, the films it programs, the young filmmakers it supports, the film scene in Hawaii festival organizers actively want to bolster. That may be one reason NYU film school graduate Adam Bhala Lough's debut feature, the notably accomplished "Bomb the System," about New York graffiti artists, won the audience award for best dramatic feature (it could also be that "Bomb the System" is excellent: evocative, stirring, and unsentimental).
But one aspect of youth is inexperience, and Goes is perfectly aware that many of the Hawaiian films Cinema Paradise presented are not on a par with the quality of the other films at the festival. Nonetheless, he showed them. "There aren't any excuses anymore about the local film scene," Goes says. "Films made in Hawaii should be just as good as films made anywhere else because all the resources are available. Hawaii's a very complex place with many important stories to be told and there excellent filmmakers here but I've not seen a new generation of filmmakers come out and make films that are important or relevant." To help foster local filmmakers, Cinema Paradise organized the first annual Hale Ki'I'oni'oni Award, a $5,000 cash prize given to a local filmmaker whose work screened at the festival and who jury members think should be encouraged to make more films. Winner and Honolulu native Nathan Kurosawa's 18-minute, 35mm "Kamehaneha" is about the warrior-king who brought all of the Hawaiian islands under his rule.
Goes' favorite part of the festival are the youth media workshops, where local teenagers shoot footage with the guidance of experienced filmmakers. Leading one workshop were Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras, the directors of "Flag Wars," which aired on P.O.V. this summer; young filmmaker Tanuj Chopra, whose short "Butterfly" screened at Cinema Paradise; Jesse Moss; and Goes. "We did a little banter with them and we talked about our experiences as filmmakers," Goes says. "And then we actually go out and shoot some footage, a documentary of about five minutes and we edit right on the spot and then we project it before one of the evening's shows that night and we give them filmmaker badges. They really walk out of there feeling like they are now filmmakers."
Given its success, the Cinema Paradise staff now has to consider how to maintain the intimate, driven feel of the festival with the business structure that they must institute in order to keep it going. "Up to this point, this festival happened because of -- how do I describe this? -- almost my lack of responsibility or focus," Goes confesses. "To look at what we've done in the last couple of years, it goes against every little bit of common sense. We just really wanted to do this and made it happen no matter what." But Cinema Paradise is now an official 501c(3) and has a board of directors. "I've been having those types of discussions with our small staff about how we are going to make the transition from being this little mom-and-pop festival into a more structured organization. That transition is going to have to be flexible," he acknowledges. "We need to stay true to my vision and also make the festival more of a structured business organization." He pauses, then says, "We're looking forward to that. That's the way it should go."