Story by Liza Simon
Illustration courtesy HIFF
The Hawaii International Film Festival turns thirty this year with a lot to celebrate. Over the last three decades the world’s premier showcase of Asian and Pacific cinema has brought thousands of films to the Islands that would otherwise never have been seen here. To understand the festival’s distinctiveness, flash back to 1981 to the halls of the East-West Center, where Jeannette Hereniko is asked to submit ideas for a community outreach project. She suggests a film festival, though she has never been to one. But who has? The hottest movie venues at the time are VHS rental stores popping up in Isle strip malls. Noticeably absent from these stores, and from Isle theatres, are films from the Pacific Rim and the Pacific islands—films Hereniko wants people to see. A matinée fan since her childhood, she believes passionately in the power of movies to “open up the windows of the world and bring more people from distant places together.” Others share her belief: A theater operator kicks in free use of his venue; a hotelier offers rooms; Jack Lord of Five-0 fame writes a generous check.
With support in place, Hereniko looks for films to screen, determined to spotlight the art of moviemaking, not the flash of stardom. Her approach draws an acclaimed Japanese producer from Brazil, film critic Roger Ebert and other filmmakers and scholars. In its first year the festival—subtitled “When Strangers Meet”—is an SRO happening on all four major Hawaiian islands.
In the years since, HIFF has continued to bring audiences and film artists together, drawing the most noted names in Asia-Pacific filmmaking: Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, Rena Owen, dozens more. In all, HIFF has debuted films from more than thirty Asian and Pacific nations and handed out tens of thousands of tickets. The festival, now helmed by Chuck Boller, continues to weave seminars and encounters in with the screenings every year, events that can evoke emotions as powerfully as the movies themselves. One year, Hereniko remembers, two producers of films on the Vietnam War—one Vietnamese, the other American—emerged from simultaneous showing of their works and cried on each other’s shoulders. This year HIFF happens from Oct. 14 to 24.