From the minute we hop aboard the shuttle bus headed to the Maui Film Festival, it’s immediately clear that this film festival is different from others. As the driver checks off each hotel stops on his route, new movie-goers joins us—lawn chairs in hand—each sun-kissed group more exuberant than the last. “Have you been before,” asks a passenger. We shake our head side-to-side to say “no” and listen as our new friend shares her experiences from festivals past.
By the time we arrive at our final destination—the Wailea Golf Course, where the outdoor Celestial Cinema has been erected—our shuttle bus compadres feel like field trip playmates. Together, we walk and chat along with the buzzing crowd, down towards the green where a theatre size screen stands. Covering the grass before it is a sea of blankets, speckled with people and picnic baskets—families, couples, friends, adults, children, locals and vacationers; every pack is present and accounted for.
Our own seats are up the hill, just past a row of golf carts that have been transformed into luxury seating. Sat in our lawn chairs, with a bag of Maui Kazowie Kettlecorn in one hand and Hawaiian shaved ice in the other (delicious in its root beer float variation), we anticipate the start of the festival’s opening night film, Captain Fantastic.
The brainchild of actor-turned-director Matt Ross (best known as Alby Grant on HBO’s Big Love), the film sees Viggo Mortensen in the role of the family patriarch. Ben is a husband, a father of six and a man of strong principles. Together with his wife, he has carved out an alternative way of life for his family in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where they live free from the vice grip of dominate ideology. When tragedy strikes, the outside world floods the family’s utopia, forcing them out of woods and into an alien urban reality.
Given that the plot of Captain Fantastic rest on exacting a balance between everyday life and the natural universe, a star gazing session led by official festival astronomer, Harriet Wit, seems nothing short of an ideal prologue to the film.
And that’s precisely the point. The line-up at the Maui Film Festival reflects the island’s spirit—vibrant, holistic and at one with nature. Committed to showcasing “compassionate life-affirming stories,” the festival has been home to films that traverse spiritual terrain (such as this year’s screening of The Great Transmission, a documentary examining Buddhism) and features that express Hawaiian living, a lifestyle that is part and parcel with the Pacific Ocean, as seen in festival standout, Mad Dogs: The Conquest of Jaws.
While watching the latter film, it felt almost like the documentary was custom created for the festival. A documentary that tracks the lives of maverick big-wave surfers on a mission to triumph over a death-defying Maui break known as “Jaws”—notably, without the usual tow-in techniques used to catch waves that tower at over 30 feet in height. Where else but beside the ocean, in the open air, under the stars, reclined in a lawn chair among the local surfing community, would audiences want to watch this film? No other location could be more idyllic.
The same can be said for just about every film that screens at the Maui Film Festival. Maui is a place where travelers from around the world come to experience life-affirming moments—to reconnect with nature and enjoy a simpler life, away from the cacophonous urban clamour. Like the island that plays host to it, the Maul Film Festival is a sanctuary for those in search of a holistic retreat. There are no red carpets, no occasion to fuss with cocktail attire and no egos flanked by entourages.
Here, the attending talent—like this year’s guests Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)—come to hangout with local cinephiles at the festival’s opening night party (a culinary extravaganza hosted oceanside at the Grand Wailea’s Molokini Gardens, aptly named A Taste of Summer), along with family members. In this party’s case, proud moms, just happen to be celebrities the likes of Goldie Hawn, who was spotted at the event with son and Rising Star Award honouree, Wyatt Russell.
Together, Maui’s scenery and community—the ocean, the flora, the people—are the fabric of a rare film festival. A ticket to the Maui Film Festival is more than a chance to visit an island paradise, it’s even more than an opportunity to watch an entertaining and enlightening lineup of films; a ticket to the festival is a fully immersive, holistic experience. It is a space in time where you can, as Thoreau would put it, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”