Tuning in to Zoom calls of casually dressed film directors, sharing laughter and conversation with HIFF staff members portrayed these brilliant minds as human, just like us.
The utilization of video-chat in bridging the gap between fiction, documentary, and life as we know it has been a gift in this year’s festival. The mosaic of faces, Airpods in, positioned at medium-close ups behind phones and laptops brought a sense of community in a time of confinement.
Engaging with these films and directors on a scholarly level has been the specialty of the HIFF Film for Thought series in which a scholar is given the opportunity to write a thought-provoking essay on one film prior to holding a Zoom discussion with its director. This year’s five-film category was presented with the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities under the theme “Changemakers”.
Executive Director of the Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities Aiko Yamashiro addressed the power of film as a medium, as well as the challenging topics addressed by each of the five films at this year’s recently concluded festival.
“These films were all trying to hold something burning. And I believe our communities become stronger when we can have these experiences of learning and empathy through film–into hard stuff,” Yamashiro said. “Empathy, feeling moved, feeling connected to something else. This builds our love, I think, and our power to transform.”
Director of LUNANA: A YAK IN A CLASSROOM Pawo Choyning Dorji embodied the relaxed demeanor of these conversations as he casually sipped from his mug while tuning in to chat with Hawaiian Culture teacher Simon Tajiri. It would be hard to mistake him for anything but a Bhutanese, a demographic whose king once coined the phrase “Gross Domestic Happiness”, as Dorji mentions during the call. Throughout the discussion they delved into topics such as the disappearance of the mythical Bhutanese blue-maned snow lion as an allegory for a country pit against modernization.
Having an essay written on each film provided scholars with an angle to direct the discussion, challenging filmmakers to push back on, add to, or reinforce various points being made. In director Loira Limbal’s discussion with UHM Associate Professor of American Studies Elizabeth Colwill, Limbal discussed the implications of her documentary, THROUGH THE NIGHT, a look into the lives of working-class mothers and 24-hour daycare centers. Limbal pointed out how all the mothers in the documentary survived on 3-4 hours of sleep a day. “How is it that sleep, a basic necessity has become a luxury?” she asked during the Q&A session.
Filmmaker Stephanie J. Castillo and UHM Professor Mehana Vaughan both approached their film essays as Kauaʻi natives drawing parallels between the films and their experiences on the island. Castillo provided a homegrown perspective on Anthony Banua-Simon’s CANE FIRE which documents a historically idyllic portrait of Kauaʻi and the effect of this misconception on the island’s landscape, demographic, and people. Vaughan’s essay on Cecilia Aldarondo’s feature LANDFALL, which delves into the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and American colonialism in Puerto Rico, connects the country’s aftermath with the Kahoʻolawe bombing and her Kauaʻi neighborhood’s response to detrimental flooding in 2018.
Filmmaker and journalist Ursula Liang tuned in from New York, discussing her film DOWN A DARK STAIRWELL which surrounds the story of ex-NYPD cop Peter Liang’s (no relation to filmmaker) shooting and killing of Akai Gurley. In her conversation with UHM Assistant Professor of English Danielle Seid, she acknowledged that while she didn’t expect her film to blatantly solve problems, she hoped for it to spark a conversation of common goals between Asian and black communities.
In a year of isolation and one-on-one video-calls, the eleventh annual Film for Thought program successfully continued its impact as a space for scholarly conversation, and critical thinking on the medium of film.
“What I love about our Film For Thought partnership is the belief at the core of it,” Yamashiro said. “It is important we not just watch films, but watch films together, talk about what we are feeling and learning, and go deeper than we possibly can alone.