Maui Connections

A funny thing happened at the Maui Film Festival at Wailea on Thursday.

I was 10 minutes into interviewing Rising Star Nick Robinson in a Celestial Cinema tribute when a few voices rang out of the audience. They were yelling the name of Andy Irons, the iconic champion surfer who died at age 32 in 2010.

“Andy Irons: Kissed by God,” a documentary film of the triumphs and tragedy of his short life, was set to play on the 50-foot outdoor Celestial Cinema screen behind us, as soon as our interview ended. Because the bright lights shining into the eyes of anyone onstage make it impossible to see the crowd in the darkness, it wasn’t clear what the hubbub was about. It seemed as though they were yelling to stop the interview, and just play the movie.

The ruckus didn’t go down too well from where we were sitting, or backstage where charismatic actor Colin Farrell had to be convinced not to head out into the audience to settle the matter. The yelling died down, we finished the interview, but the voices in the darkness resumed again after astronomer Harriett Witt began leading the audience on her tour of the night sky, a festival tradition.

The matter was still angrily on our minds the next evening, although I heard young star Robinson had taken it as a sign of acceptance that the audience of surfers were just being themselves in his presence.

Luckily there was nothing but love coming from Friday night’s audience as Shining Star Amber Heard lit up the crowd with her passion, her wit and her energy. It wasn’t until the Taste of Chocolate party later that evening at the Four Seasons Resort that I got reminded of the night before.

Edmon Sembrano was telling me how much he enjoyed the Nick Robinson interview, when I asked what he thought about the hecklers. (Full disclosure, “hecklers” wasn’t the word I used.)

They weren’t hecklers, he corrected. He had been sitting close to them in the crowd.

Apparently, at a certain moment in the interview, a shooting star streaked across the sky over the screen. Another followed during the astronomy talk. Some audience members saw them as signs that the great surfer’s spirit was among us. They were calling out his name in tribute.

It all goes to show . . . Sometimes first impressions don’t get it right. Quite often, actually.

For metaphor junkies like myself, Harriett or festival founding director Barry Rivers, symbols like that, whether real or imagined, of how high our spirits can soar have always been intertwined with the movies themselves in defining what the festival is all about.

But in the decompression that always follows the festival weekend, the signs are more elusive this year when things seemed to be downsizing — fewer honorees, fewer screenings, one less screen at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, smaller crowds . . .

None of this kept the Celestial Cinema from casting its magic spell, or kept this year’s luminaries from making the crowds fall in love with them. Attendance at Saturday morning’s filmmakers panels was actually up, and first-time visitors to the festival I spoke to were enthusiastic about the experience. Maui itself is a co-star of this show, as sultry and seductive as ever.

People always ask me what were the good movies this year, and I have to admit I never see many movies at the festival. I’m too busy working . . . if you want to call it that. Moderating filmmakers’ panels as impassioned artists share their labors of love, or sitting on stage with Amber Heard, making our own little movie on the big Celestial screen, can make a fella lose his journalistic objectivity.

But despite my personal belief that less is more, this year’s festival has some of us wondering whether it signals a blip, or a trend.

My guess is the latter. Movies aren’t larger than life anymore when you can watch them in the palm of your hand. The thrill of going to the movies is losing ground to the convenience of having the movies come to you. Internet purveyors like Amazon or Netflix are today’s movie studios. It’s hard to find the line where storytelling ends and marketing begins. People like me who grew up believing that movies were mythology cringe when hearing them now referred to as “product” or “content.”

What does that mean for the festival’s future? We’ll see.

Maui Film Festival exists in the eye of the beholder. There are as many versions of what it’s all about as there are people attending.

For me, it’s a love story. Always has been, and always will be.

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at