Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Paradox of the Maui Film Festival

What makes the Maui Film Festival so unique, and is perhaps its most distinctive feature is the Celestial Cinema. Watching films on a large screen under the night sky filled with stars.  It is the image that adorns the film festival brochures every summer. It is what my friends rave about.

The paradox is that the Celestial Cinema, this celebrated outdoor theater, is also so challenging… kind of like the 5-star Wailea Golf Course which hosts it. 

The beauty is that the event is outside under the starry Maui sky.
The difficulty is that the event is outside under the starry Maui sky.

The film festival brochure for 2013, graced by a big photo of the Celestial Cinema in Wailea.
Photo I think is by Randy Jay Braun, an outstanding Maui photographer.

The beauty part of the paradox:
The Celestial Cinema is aptly named. The stars shine overhead in clear constellations. Astronomer Harriet Witt, who is perhaps the only official film festival astronomer ever, points out where the star Hokule'a is located, directly overhead. It glows with a peachy gold light. Hawaii is the only place in the world where Hokule'a shines directly above, which made it a perfect star for Hawaiian sea navigation. The audience gasps as a shooting star falls during Harriet’s talk. As the night continues, Harriet is proved right and Hokule'a does move to the west.

The golf course grounds are beautiful. The grass is verdant and bright. The audience chooses where to sit, laying down blankets and towels and sleeping bags, arranging low-backed beach chairs in a line. It is very exciting to be here in the buzz of hundreds or thousands of people, waiting for the event.  The allure is that this is only once a year, when the golf course transforms into an outdoor cinema. I am feeling somehow special to be a part of this experience.

The informal setting makes it easy to talk to the people around us. We talk with the couple behind us and their 7 year old who is so shy, he won’t say his name and averts his eyes.  Another couple to the right, also from Haiku, is having immature fruit problems with their citrus trees.  Of course, I tell them to go the next Maui Farmers Union meeting.  I can see the appeal of the informal set up, how easy it is to talk to people nearby, how easy it is to see people we know.

The difficulty part of the paradox:
Since the Celestial Cinema is located outside, it is subject to the vagaries of Maui weather. It could rain, though I’ve never heard of it raining there. Just in case, we bring rain jackets and umbrellas.

The later the evening goes, the cooler and damper the grass we are sitting on becomes. Although plenty of people are lying on the grass, the ideal would be a waterproof blanket or waterproof sleeping bag and pillows. Other people look comfy on low-backed beach chairs, nestled under thick blankets. The beach chair we brought was too funky to be comfortable. Around 10 pm, I notice my back is damp from laying on the beach sheet and towels. Also my right shoulder which I overworked the day before is getting achy. A tarp would have been helpful. I think there are beach chair rentals on site, but forgot to check them out.

The venue is a golf course, so the ground is not flat. I don’t know why I thought it would be more flat. The photos of the Celestial Cinema show how the ground undulates. It’s not a big deal unless you are particular about the angle. I didn’t know we would be particular about the angle.  

Though we arrived early by my standards, boarding the shuttle bus right at sunset, 7:07 pm, the grass was crowded by the time we made it up to the top of the hill. After meandering, we finally found a spot very close to the screen, with a backward slope, meaning our head is lower than our feet when we stretch out on the sheet. Latecomers end up on the edges, where one friend warned us that the view and sound are not as good.  Another friend urged us to sit closer to an aisle. We do have a fantastic view.

Since it’s outside, the films cannot start until night falls. It has to be dark enough. So the Celestial Cinema starts at 8 pm and is a late night at the movies. It’s a double feature with some short films. We are prepared for a long night, 4 hours of films, but our endurance level wanes somewhere in the middle of Big Sur, the Jack Kerouac flick. I was quite comfortable earlier in the evening, wearing a short sleeved top, but eventually put on a jacket. We are both weary of seeing Jack booze up and pass out yet again, so we leave midway.

So that’s the paradox: the Celestial Cinema is a key highlight of the Maui Film Festival, but is also a challenge. Since it’s outside, it’s subject to the weather and the outside conditions…but that is also what makes it so special and unique.

Overall, I am impressed with how efficiently the film festival is managed.

·        The parking volunteers are organized and direct us where to park. We end up turning on the lower road first by accident, but they tell us to go to the upper road.

·        The shuttle bus staff has a clipboard to count the number of people going on each bus, tells people to put their bulky beach chairs in the baggage area below.

·        Once our bus arrives, volunteers direct us where to go, to the golf clubhouse to pick up tickets bought online. We walk through the golf store, and volunteers stand on both sides with flashlights, to make a clear lighted path in case we are distracted by the lure of after hours shopping.

·        A scrip table is located at the bottom of the hill to encourage early sales and commitment.  This is the only way to buy food. Then up top, of course, another scrip booth.

·        Golf carts to assist the disabled make it up the hill and back down. They are there all evening.

·        Shuttles to the parking lot run all night, even during films, since some people may want to leave early.

·        Every volunteer seems to know what is going on when we ask them anything. There are NO blank stares.

·        The grassy area is well marked with white chalk lines to show the aisles and pathways. There are lights low to the ground along the back path, near the food and sponsor booths.

·        As soon as anyone stands up to walk, a volunteer shines a flashlight to light the nearby grass.

·        There are plenty of food and beverages at the booths, even a massage table for $1/minute. DH winces at my $10 Greek salad, but he can’t help his frugal genes. There is a waffle dessert booth, but I didn’t see anything like standard movie style popcorn, only some kind of candied popcorn in a bag. There were vegetarian options too, not sure about gluten free offerings.

·        There is a decorated stage off to the left side of the screen. I realize if we had gotten there earlier, we could have sat really close to the stage to see the filmmakers being presented in person, but I still have a pretty good view. Arriving early would make a difference for certain nights, like Saturday if one wanted to see actress Jessica Chastain up close.

Though I had wanted to make it for opening night to see the Eddie Aikau documentary on his life and the Hokule'a, I waited too long to buy the tickets. Which meant they were only available at the door, which meant driving all the way to Wailea (1 hour from home), parking, getting there early, shuttle bussing to the clubhouse and possibly finding out that the tickets had sold out.  That is also a conundrum of real life on Maui. It doesn’t seem possible that an event will sell out, but I’ve had it happen at least twice, and it’s never fun. If we lived in Kihei, we might have “chanced ‘um.” 
A brief review of the films we saw:
I Give it a Year. The story of two newlyweds in their first year of marriage. Directed and written by the creator of Borat, it’s funny and raunchy, and we both enjoy ourselves. It’s not a children’s movie and not for sensitive, easily offended people.

Broken Up. A short film of two people who have broken up with other partners, and pretend to be a couple to go to a therapy session together. Some of it was funny, but I didn’t care for the portrayal of the ex-girlfriend, especially her beating up the ex-boyfriend.

El Lago – A short film about a lake and its irresistible attraction to a young woman. Beautiful-sounding Spanish narration. Kind of poetic.

Illusion – A mysterious, short film. Mindbending and a bit disturbing. Not the kind of illusion I’d like to have.

Big Sur – Based on Jack Kerouac’s book. Beautiful cinematography, but moody. I didn’t like seeing Jack Kerouac having a boozy meltdown. I don’t know if he had a spiritual epiphany later on. He was definitely in an artistic crisis.

Sponsorship promos – We see beautifully filmed ads by Hawaiian Air, Cheqbook, Praise Genius and other major sponsors. We see them again before the second feature film. The cool thing is realizing I know some of the people in one of the ads.

Introduction to the filmmakers of Broken Up. They are bright-faced and very excited to be here. 

There was a special tribute planned for Kirsten Dunst, but she had an unexpected death in the family and couldn’t make it. Confession: I have no idea who she is, but my heart goes out to her.

Bottom line? Should you go?
I think it depends on who you are. I can’t really review the other festival events, though I have friends who are raving about the other film festival events, like the Taste of Chocolate – no films there, but lots of chocolate! They are big ravers, so they love a party and grand events. There are also special film maker panels with plenty of time for audience Q and A. 

If you enjoy movies on the big screen, want to experience something unique and novel, and have the time and energy, then yes, but make sure you’re well prepared.

Realize that you may want to leave early, like we did, and may not want to stay up late enough to see both feature films, especially if you have small children. By all means, come better equipped then we did. The single tickets are more than regular movie tickets ($23 w/ a handling fee for a single Celestial Cinema night, but it’s a double feature + a few short films), because you are paying for the ambience and the experience of being at a special event. Film passes are also available, but that would be a deeper time commitment than I can give.

The Film Festival at the Celestial Cinema was a mini bucket list item. Though I have seen several Maui Film Festival flicks at the MACC, it seems strange to think I’ve lived on Maui for 9 years now, and have never gone to the Celestial Cinema, but sometimes that’s how life is.  I would have liked to have taken some photos, but the film flyer says cameras are verboten. 

This review is dedicated to Zen4Zoey, a film enthusiast who also loves Hawaii and freely shares reviews on her film blog. I seriously think she would get a kick out of attending a Maui Film Festival one of these days.

Tonight is the last night of the film festival. Last chance to see the Celestial Cinema! BTW, today is also Father's Day. Happy Father's Day to all you out there!

What do you think? Have you been to Celestial Cinema or other Maui Film Festival events? Do you think the Celestial Cinema experience is a bit of a paradox? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Do you have any tips or advice for making the most of this experience?


  1. Sounds like fun! As someone who has never been to a film festival, going to one in Hawaii as you have described sounds totally awesome!

  2. Yes, if you come to Maui in mid-June, around Father's Day, that's the time..But if you come to Hawaii at anytime, there are lots of fun events to go to....but make sure you get plenty of beach time too!

  3. THis update is really very helpful to me.


Comments are important to me, so mahalo for adding a comment! I will try to follow up when I receive one.