If the ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase is a barometer for the current state of Hawaiʻi’s independent film community, this year’s collection was notable for the number of women directors (four) and especially for showing that our local filmmakers can shoot, edit, stage fight scenes, spoof movie genres, and do pretty impressive animation. These are good skills to have, and all of the filmmakers represented in the festival are to be commended for their creativity and fluency. But what seems to be lacking is the ability to direct actors into giving believable, subtle, complex performances. It’s the toughest moviemaking skill to develop. But without it, the Hawaiʻi independent film movement is destined to remain a fledgling one.
Aspiring filmmakers must realize that, as the director, your primary role on the set is to direct the actors. The combination of an experienced director of photography and a good art director will usually ensure that the “look” you’re trying to achieve will be accomplished. But the actors’ performances–the film’s human elements–are in your hands alone.
Quite a few films in this year’s festival came from the University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media (ACM). The program seems to be doing a good job of teaching filmmaking basics. But if you look at their current catalog, there is only one course offered on directing the actor. (At least there is one at all. I hope it’s a degree requirement.)
If I were ACM, I’d put the DVD box set of films by John Cassavetes in the hands of aspiring directors. The set includes a wonderful documentary about the man credited as being the father of American independent films, mainly due to his revolutionary approach to working with actors.
Meanwhile, one film in this year’s ‘Ohina deserves close study for its ability to present three-dimensional characters: Kae, written and directed by ACM student Lana Dang, is the simple story of a somewhat inept father who tries to bond with his young son and daughter by taking them fishing. The kids give the best performances, probably because they haven’t yet developed the inhibitions that prevent adults from simply “being” in front of the camera. The actor who plays the father starts out stiff and mannered, but loosens up when interacting with the children–probably because he didn’t have time to overthink. (Many great film actors like Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck have said that the most important part of the process is listening and reacting to the other actors in the scene.)
Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from Dang’s film lies in her decision to present a single-location drama, whose fourth character is a rival fisherman who encroaches on the father’s regular fishing spot. Trapping characters together in one setting always creates possibilities for spontaneous human interaction. As Dang skillfully lets her micro-drama play out in a natural, unforced way, nothing earth-shattering happens, yet all of the characters undergo changes that resonate as true. As a result, this very compact film succeeds in saying a lot about the complex relationships between fathers and their children.
Hawaiʻi filmmakers should consider thinking “small” the way Ms. Dang did in making Kae. They’ll find it opens up opportunities to create real-life characters on the screen, still the best way to an audience’s heart.
If you missed Kae at the ‘Ohina, you’ll get a chance to see it soon: Kae is one of the ACM films selected to screen in this October’s Hawaiʻi International Film Festival.