Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The stars will shine bright in the Aloha State from Nov. 7 to 17 with the annual arrival of the Hawaii International Film Festival.

The festival launched in 1981 as a project of the University of Hawaii's East-West Center,  hosting fewer than a dozen films. For the 39th edition in 2019, there will be more than 200 films representing 31 countries shown on four islands.

The festival includes a series of special events, presentations and awards in addition to film screenings. The event promotes cultural exchange throughout the Pacific, focusing on regional filmmakers and talent in addition to hosting the Hawaii premieres of numerous favorites and winners from the international festival circuit.

"The festival still has a similar mission to when it was first founded: to be the epicenter of cultural exchange between Asia and the United States through the medium of film," said HIFF executive director Beckie Stocchetti. "In the last few years or so we've focused a lot more on the entire Pacific region in addition to honoring Asian filmmakers. The landscape has changed, and as Asian cinema has become much more prominent, we've looked to promote Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific islands and our own talented community in Hawaii, as well."

This year the festival will open with a screening of "Jojo Rabbit" and host a Q&A session with Kiwi director Taika Waititi, and the closing night features "Weathering With You," a new film from award-winning Japanese anime director Makoto Shinkai, best known for the 2016 film "Your Name."  

Among the films on the schedule that have garnered attention this year at other major festivals is "Just Mercy," a movie directed by Maui native Destin Cretton that tells the true story of a young defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), who appeals the murder conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). Other buzzed-about movies showing include "The Irishman," "Marriage Story," "Seberg" and "A Hidden Life."

This year the festival's annual Spotlight on Hong Kong honors John Woo. As part of the program, Woo's "The KIller" will be screened followed by a discussion with the director, who is also well known in the United States for the 1997 film "Face/Off."  

As part of the New American Perspective program spotlighting immigrant filmmakers, acclaimed Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour will give a keynote presentation. The festival also has a special free, public program this year showing projects related to the ongoing protests over the Thirty Meter Telescope project on the Island of Hawaii's Mauna Kea.

"The festival has always been a neutral space in terms of political agenda but also a place for people to come and talk about current issues," Stocchetti said. "The first session sold out so fast we added another one, so there are events in Hilo and Oahu. ... I think the democratization of equipment has enabled us to do this in a way that was never possible before. It used to be that it could take a year for a documentary to come out, but with new technology short films can be produced much more quickly."

In 2018 HIFF debuted a popular virtual reality lounge and this year will expand the program to include two VR sites and more presentations, all in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kakaako.

"Last year was the first year and we didn't know how it would be received so we took a little bit of a gamble by supporting something so new," Stocchetti said. "We had an amazing response, and this year we've tripled the amount of programming."

One of the experiences is a VR dinner produced by Studio ATAO, where participants learn about the ingredients and how their food is made in a virtual reality presentation before getting to taste the finished product.

The festival works year-round to foster the arts among Hawaii's youth, and also partners with the Daniel K. Inouye Institute for a young filmmakers short movie program each year. This year actor and Hawaii native Jacob Batalon ("Spider-Man Far From Home") will participate and join the Future Filmmakers Luncheon.

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