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June 20, 2003 2:00 AM
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"Whale Rider" and "Step into Liquid" Impress Growing Crowds at Maui Film Fest

"Whale Rider" and "Step into Liquid" Impress Growing Crowds at Maui Film Fest

by Christian Gaines



The outdoor screening of award winner "Whale Rider" at the 2003 Maui Film Festival. Photo courtesy of tadcraigphotography.com


It was a big year for the Maui Film Festival, which ran June 11-15. Attendance topped an all-time high of 17,500 (up 75 percent from 2002) -- including more than 3,000 eager viewers for the magical outdoor Celestial Cinema's presentation of the surfing documentary "Step into Liquid" with director Dana Brown in attendance. Not surprisingly, "Step into Liquid" stepped away from the festival carrying the audience award for best doc.

Also in terms of programming, this seemed to be the Maui Film Festival's year, with audience award for best feature presented to "Whale Rider," represented in Maui by the utterly charming stars Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawira Paratene. Audience award for best short went to Sundance favorite "Most."

Additionally, the Maui Film Festival screened several prestige titles likely to see an theatrical release relatively soon in the Hawaiian islands, including festival-favorites "The Dancer Upstairs," "Together," "Shaolin Soccer," "Only The Strong Survive," and "A Decade Under The Influence." On hand to introduce their films were director Gil Cates with "A Midsummer Nights Rave" and Catherine Hardwicke with "Thirteen."

The 2004 edition boasted a parade of stars -- Greg Kinnear (receiving the Navigator Award), Geena Davis (receiving the inaugural Stella Award, named after the festival directors' wife), Bai Ling, and Kelly Hu. Rob Reiner was also on hand on opening night to introduce his newest film "Alex & Emma." Even Adrien Brody was a good sport and graciously stepped in for Anthony Hopkins, originally scheduled to receive the Silversword Award but forced to cancel for personal reasons. Brody ably participated in an onstage Q&A with film critic Emanuel Levy. Audience members took the disappointment in stride, thanks to Levy's charming summary of Hopkins' career. The audience instead got to see two masterful clip reels of Oscar-winning actors and enjoyed Brody's laid-back and candid observations of life as a working actor and his experiences making "The Pianist."



Surfing doc "Step into Liquid" captured the audience documentary prize at the Maui Film Festival. © 2003 Top Secret Productions LLC.


The national press is also taking notice, with the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, the LA Times, E!, Entertainment Tonight, and Vanity Fair all reporting on its goings-on, from the nightly Celestial Cinema screenings -- a 50-foot outdoor screen featuring Dolby Digital sound, Hawaiian music and chanting, and even a resident astronomer offering tours of a constellation-filled night sky before the screenings begin -- to special events like the glorious Taste of Wailea and a mellow father's day concert.

These are all considerable achievements for founder and festival director Barry Rivers, who began this festival four short years ago. The Maui Film Festival has been growing as fast as it possibly can, shrewdly stewarded by Rivers to maintain his vision as a "jewel-box" festival -- able to handle anything without becoming unwieldy or impersonal. Indeed, the event appears almost flawlessly planned, with shuttle busses frequently gliding to a halt in front of all of the major resorts in Wailea -- the regional headquarters of the Maui Film Festival -- to whisk locals and visitors (coolers, blankets and lawn chairs in tow ) -- to one of three outdoor venues, each featuring first-rate picture and sound.

Rivers seems to have struck a perfect balance between the needs of Maui's visitor industry, Hollywood film industry and, critically, Maui locals themselves. Clearly, islanders know that they are on to a good thing as evidenced by the local hotels, businesses, and airlines who see the return from their support in the throngs of people attending films, as well as the army of volunteers, smartly dressed in T-Shirts bearing the slogan "Aloha and Welcome." This is a community clearly invested in the potential of the Maui Film Festival, so watch for even greater things to come.

[Christian Gaines is director of festivals at the American Film Institute.]

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