By Harriette Yahr | Indiewire June 22, 2009 at 8:21AM
Maui rolled out the red carpet (on the beach) and the chocolate (drizzled with coconut) to celebrate their 10th year of film paradise. The Maui Film Festival, June 17 - 21, brought a solid slate of "movies that inspire" — and healthy dose of rock-n-roll — to this Hawaiian island 2500 miles from the mainland but not far from the current state of indie cinema.
Opening night, the waves swelled up—high up—onto the massive 50-foot-wide "Celestial Cinema" outdoor screen in Dana Brown's electrifying "Highwater," about life and intense surfing competitions on Oahu's famed North Shore. Says Brown (son of "Endless Summer" filmmaker Bruce Brown), whose previous surf-ode "Step Into Liquid" was a critical sensation, "I thought I'd never do anything else in surfing, that I had said everything I had to say. That turned out not to be the case." Typically, it's the guys who brave big barrels in surf films; this year at Maui, the gals took on the surf in The Women and the Waves. "I call myself an accidental filmmaker," says surfer-turned-first-time-filmmaker Heather Hudson, who was on hand. "I wanted to give recognition to the women, famous or not, who have paved the way for other women to surf. Each generation has made it easier for the next to get out in the water."
Maui's doc slate is always super strong with fiction offerings skewing more studio than indie. This year, though, a few indie narratives screened that fit Maui's "movies with a positive message" vibe. "Splinterheads," directed by Brant Sersen ("Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story"), was a big crowd-pleaser. Some may compare the indie romantic comedy to "Adventureland" on logline: its plot centers around a carnival with a 20-something protagonist (played by newcomer Thomas Middleditch) coming-of-age through the pains of love (he's crushed out on a carnie con artist played by Rachael Taylor). Noteworthy are the slew of zany supporting characters, including Jason Mantzoukas as "The Amazing Steve."
Festival founder/director Barry Rivers seems to pluck all the Sundance films that aren't filled with self-destructive characters and over-indulgent angst for his slate. This year, Maui screened "Adam," Max Mayer's learning to love with Asperger's story starring Hugh Dancy, the charming-delightful "Paper Heart" directed by Nicholas Jasenovec, and "500 Days of Summer," a winning atypical love story, directed by Marc Webb and starring Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel was on hand (with toes in the sand at the SandDance Theater on Wailea Beach) to receive the festival's Nova Award; local celeb Willie Nelson received this year's Navigator Award.
Maui's environmental documentaries drew big crowds. This makes sense on an island with strained resources: a majority of the electricity on Maui is generated by petroleum shipped in on tankers; land and water are battlegrounds between locals and golf course and resort developers. Offering a global perspective on the water plight was "Blue Gold: World Water Wars" by Sam Bozzo, a wake-up call about the state of H2O from toxicity to corporate control to what you can do about it (including boycotting Nestle). Of the land, filmmakers Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow create a compelling reason why we need to pay better attention to the earth under our feet in "DIRT! The Movie." (Stick with this doc; it's prescriptive on the uptake, but it works itself out in the end). Barry Rivers' investment in the environment goes beyond simply programming green films. This year, the festival was solar powered and saved "the equivalent of a 50 foot tree" by using Ebooks for festival programs.
A different kind of "green" film also had its world premiere at Maui: "Cash Crop," Adam Ross' exploration—road-trip style—into the world of pot harvesting in California. Noteworthy is the changing economic landscape of medical marijuana. And about marijuana, if you think that's what defines "hippies," you'll want to drop into "Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie" for a new perspective. Director Michelle Esrick's portrait of the 60s icon who has a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor named after him is perfectly executed and hugely entertaining. Saint's overall message? The times may have changed, but you can still make a positive difference in the world, and have fun doing it.
"Rock Prophecies," John Chester's ode to photographer Robert Knight that previously nabbed several audience awards, rocked Maui on the outdoor Celestial Cinema's Dolby sound system. This doc has all the elements of great filmmaking: a compelling subject, a terrifically-crafted story, a superlative look, a killer soundtrack, and loads of heart. Another music-related doc, screening as a work-in-progress, was Art Officially Favored by Martin Yernazian, about ethereal Berkeley cymbalom master Michael Masley. "We experienced first hand the constructive feedback that Mauians readily offered," said the Argentinean-born Yernazian, "It gave us a crucial new perspective on our film."
Filmmakers exploring monetization strategies in the internet age take note: two Maui pics have noteworthy small screen lives. "Blue Gold"'s director Sam Bozzo capitulated to piracy and worked with BitTorrent. "I decided to embrace the situation and contact the person who uploaded the film, asking him to put a message out with the Torrent to the internet community, inviting them to download the film but asking for a small donation if they like the film." "Sita Sings the Blues," an animated interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayan by Nina Paley, is a case study in embracing change. Paley's been sharing her film for free online (using the Creative Commons Share Alike License), with loads of copyright commentary, and to date has raised 38% of the $50,000 she needs "to get out of copyright jail," based in donations. If you Googled "new media strategies" searching for ideas for your dissertation, and found this article, consider Sita and director Nina Paley. (Check out her website for more on the paradigm shift.)
Finally, two standout pics journeyed around the planet in search of a better world. In the world premiere of the super-refreshing "One Peace at a Time," actor/writer/filmmaker Turk Pipkin continent-hops to look at solutions to the worst problems he can find. "I want people to see they really can make a difference—one child. one village, one ‘peace' at a time," says Pipkin, "Pick an issue. Take the first step." If you're a fan of One Giant Leap, Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman's consciousness-raising world-beat extravaganza, you'll love their follow up, "What About Me?" This time the musician/filmmakers celebrate humanity with a bricolage of music, dance and spiritual commentary. Check out the website (www.whataboutme.tv) if you want a quick hit of their high-vibe soundtrack.
I've been covering Maui for three years and never devoted cyber-ink to Harriet Witt, whom Barry Rivers calls "the only official film festival astronomer in the known universe." Harriet's nightly pre-film stargazing shows embody the off-screen magic of the Maui Film Festival. Of course, Maui is about the movies; Rivers was into programming "enlightened entertainment" way before it was a trend. But Maui is also about an experience very much rooted in its community, and proves that even in challenging economic times, when you have your heart in the right place, film festival magic still happens.
Harriette Yahr is a writer and filmmaker (who loves warm climates). More at www.yahrfilms.com, www.miamifilmworkshops.com and www.how-to-write-screenplays.com. Join on Twitter (Miami Film Workshops, Harriette Yahr), LinkedIn, and Facebook.