EmptyTheMaui Film Festival, which this year runs June 13-17, prides itself on its ability to offer most of its attendees the best seats in the house -- under the stars of the Hawaiian sky. Three of its five screening venues are outdoors: the Celestial Cinema in Wailea, the Maui SkyDome atop the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and the SandDance Theater by the ocean. Such romantic locations have helped the festival triple its attendance since its launch eight years ago.
Similarly, the festival's guiding principles are the curatorial equivalent of a warm ocean breeze. Festival founder and director Barry Rivers says Maui looks for movies that "inspire, uplift and energize people. It's a festival that's committed to the notion of life-affirming storytelling."
Those aren't necessarily values that motivate much of Hollywood, and accordingly, this year's first festival honoree is an industry outsider, albeit one with some high-profile friends. The Dalai Lama received the festival's 2007 Visionary Award at a benefactors' lunch during a late-April swing through Maui. "We got a 'yes' because the word has filtered out that we're a festival that's walking the walk," Rivers says.
The festival also will honor actress Claire Danes and other film industry luminaries in June.
Some 8,500 people are expected to descend on Maui to see the nearly 40 feature-length films and 25 (digital and 35mm) shorts culled from 1,250 submissions. The schedule is light on fare that's violent or explicitly sexual, and it includes a generous helping of documentaries, accounting for about half of the feature-length choices. Also well-
represented will be interests dear to Rivers' heart, including extreme sports, environmentalism and spirituality.
Indeed, opening night is scheduled to feature surfing legend Laird Hamilton's as-yet-untitled documentary about stars of the sport. That will be followed by a feature about extreme sports, as well as "In the Shadow of the Moon," ThinkFilm's upcoming docu about surviving astronauts of NASA's Apollo missions. The festival will close with Universal's upcoming "Evan Almighty," starring Steve Carrell and Morgan Freeman, a modern-day take on the Biblical story of Noah and the ark.
And while film is the primary emphasis, events celebrating Hawaiian art and culture are an important part of the MFF. Notable events include the Taste of Wailea, which gathers together the area's world-renowned chefs for one night, and evening sky "tours" by astronomy writer
Harriett Witt, who will augment screenings with talks on Polynesian celestial folklore at the SandDance Theater and the Celestial Cinema.
"We don't need to be the biggest festival, but we want to be highly regarded," Rivers says. "We're trying to do what little we can to move the culture in the direction we feel it needs to go."