HIFF Over 40 Years: When Strangers Meet

By Nathan Lim | December 6, 2020

A night out at the movies might precede dinner, dessert, and a walk through the mall or maybe a trip back home to relax. After an intensive visual and auditory experience, sometimes you just need the space to unwind. 

For audience members at the inaugural Hawaii International Film Festival, that space came in the form of post-screening discussions and seminars led by film directors and critics at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and The East West Center.

In its early stages, HIFF was an academic affair. With The East West Center’s diplomatic vision of fostering understanding and relations between people of the United States and regions of Asia and the Pacific, a colorful festival displaying motion pictures from around the world wasn’t exactly in line with its scholarly nature.

Nonetheless, the Center’s Community Relations Officer at the time, and founder of HIFF, Jeannette Paulson held true to her idea of accomplishing the EWC’s vision through cinema.

“People really wanted to hear stories from the roots, and that just wasn’t happening, it just wasn’t available,” Paulson said in a recent interview with current HIFF Executive Director Beckie Stocchetti.

A photo from a fundraiser for the first HIFF in 1981 held at Sea Life Park.
The Consolidated Varsity Twins was the home of HIFF for the first half of the Festival’s existence (photo taken in 1987).

In November of 1981 under the slogan “When Strangers Meet”, HIFF premiered a free screening of director Tizuka Yamasaki’s Brazilian drama GAIJIN: ROADS TO FREEDOM, at the Varsity Theater in Mo’ili’ili. Six more films followed through the week, drawing a crowd of over 3,500 people. The festival’s opening year was a success. 

The following year, Paulson spoke on the distinctiveness of HIFF as compared to other budding festivals around the world such as Sundance which was only in its fourth year, as well as Toronto and Hong Kong in their sixth years.

“We honor film makers, not the stars, but the filmmakers, the producers, and the writers who write about issues that are important to the human race,” Paulson said. “Especially issues that involve cross-cultural communication. We think Hawaii is the perfect place for our theme ‘When Strangers Meet’.”

Through its next twelve years under the EWC, HIFF would continue to serve as an annual springboard for filmmakers from Asia and the Pacific, while also creating a space for film creators, critics, and enthusiasts to converge and engage in a cultural discussion around cinema.

In the Asian film magazine Cinemaya, Indian film critic and author Aruna Vasudev recalled her experience at the 1984 festival.

“Suddenly I found myself comparing notes with Hammy Sotto from the Philippines, with Boonrak Boonyaketmala from Thailand, with Stephen Teo from Hong Kong, with speakers from China, Korea, and Indonesia, along with Asian scholars from the West,” Vasudev wrote. “Seeing films from so many of these countries at the film festival, I suddenly found so many worlds to discover. So diverse yet so connected, so different yet familiar.”

Chinese actor Sun Daolin, Cinemaya publisher and eventual NETPAC founder Aruna Vasudev, and film critic Roger Ebert (1984).

Among notable regulars was the late renowned film-critic Roger Ebert, who along with his wife Chaz were annual attendees of the festival, and genuine lovers of Hawaii. In gratitude for Ebert’s writing contributions, yearly film picks, and lasting friendship, he was bestowed the Vision in Film award at his final HIFF appearance in 2010. 

Moving into its fifth year, HIFF made history with its premiere of Director Dang Nhat Minh’s WHEN THE TENTH MONTH COMES, the first Vietnamese feature film ever shown in the U.S. This paved the way for a collaboration between HIFF, American film institutions, and the Vietnam Cinema Department called The Vietnam Film Project. In the project’s effort to print and subtitle Vietnamese features and documentaries, five of the department’s films were presented at HIFF in 1988, followed by a mainland tour. These films were crucial to America’s understanding of Vietnam’s war history through the eyes of Vietnamese nationals.

Vietnamese director Dang Nhat Minh with Vietnamese government delegation at Gala Fundraiser Dinner with Jeannette Paulson (1986)
HIFF Symposium on “Film and Social Change” held at the East West Center (1985).

Jury member Nagisa Ôshima, Japan and EWC’s Maile Award nominees – Barry Barclay, New Zealand; Chidananda Das Gupta (Chitu), India; John Sayles, USA; Kei Kumai, Japan; Zhang Yimou, China
Paulson with TAMPOPO director Juzo Itami and lead actress (and his wife) Nobuko Miyamoto
Maui County Mayor Hannibal Tavares; legendary documentarian Fredrick Weisman and Mary Bitterman (at the time, the head of the EWC Institute for Culture and Communication) in Maui (c. 1986)
American author, literary theorist, Susan Sontag and renown film critic, Donald Richie, HIFF 1986.
Famed musician and filmmaker Eddie Kamae accepting the Best Documentary Award for LIʻA LEGACY OF A HAWAIIAN MAN in 1988.
1990 HIFF Jury: Paulson; Australian film critic Peter Thompson; filmmaker Vilsoni Hereniko from Fiji; Indian director Buddhadeb Dasgupta; TO SLEEP WITH ANGER director Charles Burnett; and Japanese cinema film critic Donald Richie

Also present at the fifth festival was a young Chinese cinematographer named Zhang Yimou, who was enjoying his first time overseas. In a year of new experiences for Zhang, he would also take home his first film festival accolade, the Cinematography Award, for his work in YELLOW EARTH. Zhang’s film career would flourish from then on to international acclaim as director of revered classics RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS and SHADOW, with HIFF hosting more of his U.S. premieres and presenting him with the Vision in Film award in 1995, and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. 

In the following years HIFF would continue to hold notable festival premieres including director Ang Lee’s debut feature PUSHING HANDS in 1992, and eventually his critically acclaimed films CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON in 2000 and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005. Lee was also the recipient of The Vision in Film Award in 1997, which was only awarded three times through HIFF’s seventeen year history up to that point. 

By 1990 HIFF left the EWC and began its tenure as an independent nonprofit organization. Continuing on, the festival would receive most of its support from the state, and corporate sponsors.

Through its first fifteen years under Paulson, HIFF focused on outreach, placing a large emphasis on travelling to all Neighbor Islands with films, filmmakers, and seminars. A strong educational program was also created with the DOE, through which students were bused to the Varsity Theater at 10am every day, even for the first year. By the end of Paulson’s tenure, HIFF had an attendance of 60,000 statewide while still managing to keep everything but the Gala Award Dinner free of charge.  

Paulson with DANCES WITH WOLVES lead actress Mary McDonnell and Jason Scott Lee at the Consolidated Koko Marina Twins for the opening of Lee’s MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART (1993).
Quentin Tarantino and Roger Ebert “talking shop” in Hilo for re-opening of the Palace Theater (1997).
Australian actor David Wenham, film critic Emanuel Levi and Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung at the Hawaii Film Festival press conference at the Moana Surfrider Hotel in Waikiki, 2014.
Samuel L. Jackson receiving his Achievement in Acting Award at HIFF Awards Gala, 2005.

Paulson’s departure to California in 1996, where she began her role as USC’s Director of the Asia Pacific Media Center, marked the beginning of  former Sundance Programmer Christian Gaines’ time as festival director and director of programming. Gaines assisted HIFF by making a crucial shift towards monetized ticket sales, which resulted in several immediate sold out screenings during the 1997 festival. Under his tenure, he brought major talent like Quentin Tarantino in 1997 and along with Roger Ebert, the two cinematic luminaries would travel to Hilo to attend the re-opening of the Palace Theater.

As the festival built upon its reputation as a stronghold of Asian representation, it also continued to create relationships with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander filmmakers. Under the direction of executive director Chuck Boller, the 2000 festival premiered its first Hawaiian language film KA’ILILAUOKEKOA, based on the ancient Hawaiian legend of a Kauai Chiefess’ love for the bird keeper Kauakahiali’i. Another Pacific Islander milestone was achieved in 2008 as HIFF premiered its first film from filmmakers of Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Wong Kar Wai says a few opening remarks with HIFF executive director Beckie Stocchetti at the HIFF Awards Gala in 2018.
HIFF37 honorees Simon Baker and Taika Waititi at the HIFF Awards Gala presented by Halekulani (2017).
Stocchetti with Maverick Honoree Awkwafina at the HIFF38 Awards Gala presented by Halekulani, 2018.
HIFF39 honorees Elisabeth Moss and Randall Park at the HIFF Awards Gala presented by Halekulani (2019).

Star wattage has increased at the Festival under current executive director Beckie Stocchetti. From hosting Hong Kong’s most revered director Wong Kar Wai, to stalwart character actors like Simon Baker, Bill Pullman and Elisabeth Moss,  Awkwafina and Randall Park, Stocchetti has raised the bar with the annual HIFF Awards Gala, a who’s who of Honolulu’s glitziest celebrating international cinema at an annual event held at the Halekulani.

Furthering its recognition of local filmmakers and a refocus on Pacific Islander perspectives, Stocchetti re-introduced the Made in Hawaii category in 2017, after being dormant for a few years. This is a selection of films that are either created by local filmmakers, or based upon local stories. During the annual Awards Gala at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki, a special jury handpicks the best feature, short, and animation from the category, while also recognizing achievements in acting and cinematography. Stocchetti also strengthened ties with partners like Pacific Islanders in Communications to launch the PIC Trailblazer Award, honoring Pacifika artists. Recipients included eventual Oscar winner Taika Waititi (BOY, THOR: RAGNAROK, JOJO RABBIT), Stan Grant, Merata Mita, and in 2020, Keala Settle. 

Under this year’s Made in Hawaii category, WAIKIKI, the first feature film directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker, Christopher Kahunahana. HAWAIIAN SOUL, based on the life of George Helm, took honors for best short, and the ancient legend of the four stones KAPAEMAHU was recognized as best animation. To see this year’s HIFF Awards Presentation, head over to the Festival’s Facebook page

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, HIFF powered through the social limitations of a worldwide pandemic by presenting over 200 films from 45 countries. The screenings were held online, in theaters, and through drive-in cinemas held at Ala Moana, Windward Mall, and a familiar lot beside Varsity Building in Mo’ili’ili. 

Although the internationally recognized HIFF has evolved quite drastically from its academic roots, perhaps the spirit of those early symposiums at the Hyatt Regency have encouraged today’s conversation. While scholarly seminars were emphasized in the past, HIFF continues to play a large academic role in the community through its educational initiatives, scholarly discussions, and Q&A sessions which were all a vital part of this year’s online festival. 

In a recent interview with Stocchetti, Paulson spoke on her continuing love and support for HIFF.

“You know what the technologies are, you know what the boundaries are, and you can push just a certain way to make it happen, for this great goal of letting people come closer together through stories and through understanding the other through film,” Paulson said.