WAILEA, MAUI » Now in its 14th season, the Maui Film Festival has many distinctive features, none more so than the open-air amphitheater known as the Celestial Cinema and the woman introduced nightly as "the only film-festival astronomer in the known universe."
Harriet Witt, who holds that title, readily admits she is no film buff. "I don't have a favorite movie or movie star," she said last week. "My television broke during the Watergate hearings." (That's 40 years ago, if you were wondering.) "The sky is my TV, my movie screen, my calendar."
Yet Witt is at no loss to explain the connection between her kind of star-gazing and the metaphorical kind. "In every ancient culture I'm aware of there are myths of people who did wonderful things and as a result went up into the sky and became stars," she said. "Our culture isn't so mythological, but we still have stars in some sense."
Stars like Kirsten Dunst ("Spider-Man," "Melancholia"), singled out this year for the festival's Pathfinder Award that honors "eclectic choices and charismatic performances" that "encourage us all to expand out definition of what it means to be human." (Sorry, folks. On Tuesday, word leaked that Dunst's path this week had taken an unexpected turn, bypassing Maui.) Stars like Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty"), who takes the dais on Saturday to receive the Nova Award for "astonishingly original and seamless performances" that infuse her characters with "insight, humanity and wisdom." (Yes, she's here.)
Witt, though, will be training her eye and the audience's on the planet Saturn, which will be shining over the Maui Film Festival for the first time ever.
Her association with the festival began in the late '90s even before there was a festival. Barry Rivers, the festival's founder,was describing to her the 50-foot screen he planned to put up at the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course. Visualizing the layout, she realized that audiences watching the movies would be facing east.
"And when you're facing east," Witt said, "something very powerful is going on. The Earth is turning eastward at 1,000 miles per hour, and orbiting the sun at more than a million and a half miles a day. Given that you're traveling that fast, wouldn't you want to know? And wouldn't you want to look where you're going? When you're facing east, you're facing the future. The way the festival is set up, when you're watching you feel 5,000 people facing the future. I love to celebrate that."
There are countless ways to participate in the festival. Watch movies until way past your bedtime for five nights running. Take in back-to-back outdoor filmmaker panels at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort on Saturday, then eat till you drop at Taste of Wailea, a gourmet al fresco food court on the golf course. Compete in the Hollywood Sandsculpture Contest on Sunday morning at Wailea Beach below the Grand Wailea.
J.J. Iuorno-Paladino — in his day a heartthrob of telenovelas in his native Buenos Aires and now host of the one-of-a-kind Maui music-and-talk show The Café on Mana'o Radio — likes to take a page from Clint Eastwood's book. Eastwood, a part-time Maui resident, wowed the locals several years ago by parking in the offsite parking lot, then boarding the shuttle with his own lawn chair like everyone else, and picking out a spot under the stars with everyone else.
"I like to have that complete experience at least once every year," Iuorno-Paladino says. "It's always a trip to take the shuttle with that caravan of eclectic revelers to that wondrous, bucolic site."
Short of collecting Nova Awards, Tom and Michelle Sewell of Haiku, Maui, have pretty much done it all. Michelle owns Maui Staging and Interiors, a design firm. Tom, an artist in many media, styles himself a "master of mischief, maker of dreams." Movies loom large in their lives — so much so that they scheduled their honeymoon around the first Maui Film Festival. (London, France and Monte Carlo could wait.) These days, they take a room at one of the Wailea resorts for the duration, making a house party of it with family and friends.
"I've announced movies since the first year," Michelle says, "but mostly I like to go, to participate. Last year we got all-in passes and went to most of the parties and all the films we could. This year, my mom and dad will volunteer up at the Celestial Cinema, and Tom and I will mainly go to the movies." Catching all the shows they want will entail frequent commutes across the central isthmus to the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, the festival's second principal venue.
One title Michelle has starred on her brochure is Joss Whedon's modern-dress, black-and-white "Much Ado About Nothing," after Shakespeare. Another is "The Short Game," a documentary on the world championship for junior golfers.
"Seven-year-old kids on the golf course," Michelle says. "That should be fun to see."
For filmmakers, the festival is a quite different trip. Adam Rodgers, cowriter (with Glenn German) and director of the indie comedy "Middleton," comes to Maui fresh from the Seattle International Film Festival. Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga star as a man and woman who fall in love while shepherding their kids on a college admission tour. "Middleton" plays at the Celestial Cinema on Saturday.
"To me the most wonderful aspect of a festival is getting to see your movie on a big screen as you conceived it, with hundreds of people," Rodgers says. "For smaller films, that experience is increasingly hard to capture." And naturally, he is hoping for good word of mouth.
"Our movie is kind of retro, I guess," Rodgers continues, citing mid-'90s precedents like "Before Sunrise," with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and "One Fine Day," with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer. "We wanted to be a little different. But yes, we're part of that subgenre of love stories that happen in a single day."
A classic formula. Aristotelian, you might say? "I think so," Rodgers answers. "You behave differently when you know the clock is ticking."