Back to IndieWire

Disparate Cultures Converge in Hawaii

Disparate Cultures Converge in Hawaii

Disparate Cultures Converge in Hawaii

by Andrea Meyer

“This is heaven,” says Jule Gilfillian, whose first film “Restless
premiered at the 18th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival. “Heaven
is the beach, the turquoise ocean, and movies any time you want.”
Audience members grinned and rubbed on more sunscreen, and filmmakers
seemed the happiest of all. “It’s been absolutely wonderful,” added

The Hawaiian International Film Festival (HIFF) is the only state-wide
film festival in the United States and the only one in the world whose
arena is a chain of islands. After the week-long cinematic extravaganza
wrapped on Oahu on November 13, the movies began a second week tour of
the other islands — the Big Island, Kauai, Maui, Lanai, and Molokai.

With a loose focus on films from the Pacific Rim, the HIFF brings
together people from disparate cultures with cinema as the unifying
link. Gilfillian felt that “Restless,” which explores cultural
differences through the eyes of a young American woman in Beijing,
should have its world premiere here. “Hawaii was perfect for us, because
the focus is communication between people from the East and West, and
the film works at that particular goal.”

Cross-cultural issues were explored in a variety of forums. Roger Ebert
gave a shot-by-shot analysis of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1951 classic “Early
” about a progressive young woman in post-WWII Japan. A panel
including actor Garrett Wong (TV’s “Star Trek: Voyager”), writer/actor
Amy Hill (“All American Girl”), and MPRM Public Relations VP and HIFF
jury member Laura Kim, discussed Asian American images in US film and
television. Moderator Jacqueline Kong, Executive Creative Director of
Asian-American Media Development (AAMD), stressed a need for new
Asian-American voices in the arts. “We’re defined by someone outside of
our community. We need to tell our own stories.”

Above all, it is the film program that focused attention on cultural
diversity, by providing a window on to a variety of Eastern cultures.
In the Navel of the Sea,” by renowned Philippine filmmaker and 1998
HIFF jury member, Marilou Diaz-Abaya (“Milagros”), takes viewers to a
poor fishing village in the Philippines, where Pepito, the fatherless
son of a midwife, struggles to understand the mysteries of life, love,
and fate. Diaz-Abaya’s Philippines is adorned with the traditions of
Catholicism and voodoo, love for the homeland and longing to escape its
impoverished, small town grasp. The director believes that her film,
which was theatrically released with moderate success in her country,
“captures the essence of life among the majority of people in the

Another small village, this time in Korea during the Korean War, is
mined for emotional wealth in Kwang Mo Lee’s “Spring in my Hometown.”
Winner of an International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Award at the Pusan
International Film Festival in South Korea and a selection in the
Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes, Lee’s touching film explores
the horror of war through the eyes of two children–one whose family
benefits from the war, the other whose family is devastated. While
certain directorial choices lead to a sometimes confusing narrative, it
is a powerful story with compelling performances.

Spring in My Hometown” won the Golden Maile Award for the narrative
feature that “best promotes cultural understanding among the peoples of
Asia, the Pacific and North America.” The jury bravely announced that
they did not consider the films in competition especially strong, but
felt that, of the ten nominated (five dramatic & five documentary),
Lee’s film best adhered to the competition’s dictates. The Golden Maile
for best documentary went to Japanese filmmaker Seiichi Motohashi’s
“Nadya’s Village” about the inhabitants of Dudichi village in the
Republic of Belarus near Chernobyl, where life goes on despite the
massive evacuation that followed the 1987 disaster. The Audience Award
went to Japanese director Takashi Miike’s “The Bird People in China,” a
slapstick road flick that predictably becomes a bizarre spiritual

Many of the better films were overlooked for competition, with the most
publicized case being Paul Wagner’s “Windhorse,” about Tibetan life
under Chinese rule, including the brutal torture of a nun. [Last month,
the film was withdrawn from the festival by the director, due to a
dispute with HIFF officials which in part involved the People’s Republic
of China (PRC). The director subsequently decided to reinstate the film
in the festival. See the links following this story for more information
on last month’s events surrounding “Windhorse.”-Ed.] At his screening,
Wagner explained, “Unfortunately, because of their policies in Tibet and
their policies regarding the freedom of expression, the PRC does exert
considerable influence.” Wagner continued, “That in my mind was more
important to address than merely getting into a head butting contest
with the Hawaii Film Festival.”

Festival Director Christian Gaines made a statement explaining that he
had a difficult decision to make — one that could have kept six films
out of the festival: “I was thinking about filmmakers and not about
governments and not about politics. That was my judgment at the time. On
reflection, I think that I made a mistake.”

In the end, both the HIFF and Mr. Wagner were pleased to screen this
important film, which reveals the brutal acts of the Chinese government
against the Tibetans. Wagner says, “The US is on the road to entering
into a relationship with the PRC. It would be unfortunate to enter into
that relationship with them thinking we’re okay with their policies.”
The first feature ever shot in the Tibetan language, “Windhorse” is a
must-see despite its flaws. It was shot in Nepal and in Tibet with the
cast (non-actors who in many cases withheld their names) and small crew
masquerading as tourists with a handicam. They dispersed immediately
when anyone suspected they were making a movie and, as a precautionary
measure, sent their tapes out of the country right after the shoot. The
film will be released in the United States by Shadow Distribution. East
and West coast premieres are scheduled for February 1999.

While distributors do attend, the festival is not known for attracting
the industry. Gaines concedes, “Putting on a festival that will be
attractive to the American industry is not my priority. It’s a great
fringe benefit. My first commitment is to put on a really, really,
really good program.” Filmmakers, other visitors, and especially the
locals love the result. The proof is in the crowds. For a decade, the
event was free, but when government funding was recently cut back,
organizers were forced to start charging admission. The HIFF staff
breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief when the hordes kept coming. The
Hawaii Theater, one of seven participating theaters in Oahu, filled its
1400 seats for the evening shows and had admirable crowds in the
afternoon. Gaines can now confidently say, “People aren’t just showing
up for the comfortable seats and air conditioning.”

Locals lavished on the opportunities to hear Robert Ebert speak or party
with Quentin Tarantino (who presented midnight screenings of “Mighty
Peking Man
” and “Switchblade Sisters” and represented Sarah Kelly’s doc,
Full Tilt Boogie“). And visitors were treated to quite a show, from
greetings at the airport with a fragrant lei, to grand parties at the
governor’s mansion and with Thailand’s cinematic elite. At the closing
night ceremony, the 1997 Miss Universe Brook Mahealani Lee performed a
hula to beloved local crooner Henry Kapono’s rendition of “Pretty
.” In between the major events, all were offered 80 degree
sunshine, fresh pineapple, tremendous surf in the North and calm ripples
in Waikiki. There’s snorkeling and scuba diving, flash showers mean
rainbows almost every day. and the tropical greenery recalls the rural
landscapes from the Asian films on display. What better way for
disparate worlds to come together than in this magical setting.


(Nov 17, 1998) Ft. Lauderdale, Hawaii, and Shorts International Winners

(Nov 03, 1998) AFI Fest Winners, Thessaloniki Lineup, “Windhorse”Returns

(Oct 30, 1998) “Windhorse” Yanked From Hawaii Fest By Director

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Festivals and tagged