The Birth of a Gathering: Creating 'Ohina
From The Fringes
In 1947, eight theater groups showed up uninvited to the first Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. They included an ensemble of various community theaters, college organizations, and even a handful of puppeteers, who sought to take advantage of the large crowds that had assembled for the festival, for the purpose of showcasing their own alternative forms of theater.
Performing on the sly and on the “fringe” of the actual festival, this impromptu gathering of performing artists and creatives was an immediate hit. Unlike the traditional fare of the international festival, which showcased the best of traditional opera, dance, classical music, and so forth, this “fringe” event included cabaret, children’s shows, comedy, circus, musicals, spoken word, theater, and more. Today, more than 60 years later, the Edinburgh Festival “Fringe’” has eclipsed the original international event to become the world’s largest arts festival, with more than 3,000 shows from 51 countries, spanning 25 days.
In 1999, the ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase started in a similar way. Filmmakers Jeff Katts and Jason Suapaia, fresh out of college, made local films with a Pacific focus and submitted them to the Hawai‘i International Film Festival (HIFF) for consideration. As inexperienced first-time filmmakers, HIFF passed on their work.
The only other film festival in town, the indie and more subversive Hawai‘i Underground Film Festival (HUFF), closed that same year, leaving no other opportunity for filmmakers to showcase their new movies. But rather than give up or go to the mainland, Katts and Suapaia decided on a new plan: If they couldn’t get into the film festival they wanted to, they would create a film festival of their own. The ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase was born.
The ‘Innovative Artistic Endeavor’
Meaning “the gathering” and “coming together” in Hawaiian, ‘Ohina was meant to be an opportunity for local independent filmmakers to get together and showcase their works of art to the community. In addition to the exposure in front of a wide audience, ‘Ohina represented a chance for local production teams and talent to enjoy the fruits of their labor in a formal setting, and the gathering of so many creatives could lead to future collaboration. The event would be free for all.
Fourteen filmmakers submitted movies that year for the event, all between 10 and 30 minutes in length. Katts and Suapaia coordinated with (what was then called) the Honolulu Academy of Arts to host the event at the Doris Duke Theatre in the rear of the museum, and they reached out to friends, family, the media, and the community to attend the three screenings they planned for Aug. 7, 1999.
“We were just hoping the theater wouldn’t be empty; we had no idea who was going to show up,” recalls Suapaia. “But on the day of the event, the place was packed. All three screenings, every seat was filled. There wasn’t even any standing room left, and there was a line out the door and outside the museum on Kīna‘u Street.”
‘Ohina had arrived. The 280-seat Doris Duke Theatre was filled to the brim at all of the festival screenings that day, with dozens more standing in the aisles, sitting on the floor, and waiting outside to get in. The event attracted local television news crews to cover the flash mob lining up behind the museum, and the press swarmed in droves.
“I commend the organizers of this inaugural event for giving local independent filmmakers an opportunity to display their talents to a diverse audience,” then-Gov. Ben Cayetano wrote in an official statement. “The medium of film has a unique way of bringing us together, no matter how varied our cultures may be. I join with all of you in welcoming this important venue for local filmmakers, artists and production crews to share their talents with the people of our islands and all who appreciate innovative artistic endeavor.”
“Island indie showcase keeps it short and sweet,” The Honolulu Advertiser wrote in a two-page column about the event. ‘Ohina also made the front page of the former Honolulu Weekly, eclipsing coverage of the Hollywood film The Blair Witch Project. Then-Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris proclaimed Aug. 7, 1999, the “Ohina: The Short Film Showcase Day.”
“The response was unbelievable. I had to turn away the pastor of my own church for one of the screenings because we were out of seats, how terrible is that?” Suapaia says with a laugh. “But we were thrilled at the turnout.”
Katts and Suapaia had only intended to host the ‘Ohina event once. But after the last screening, when they were both on stage before the massive crowd, thanking everyone for coming out and all the filmmakers for showcasing their work, someone in the audience yelled out to them.
“So you doing this again next year or what?” a voice in the back asked loudly. The audience cheered.
“We looked at each other on stage and shrugged and said sure, we’d do it next year too, and the crowd cheered again,” recalls Suapaia. “And then we walked off the stage, and the first thing we both said was, ‘How are we gonna do this again?’”
Once, Twice, Three Times A Showcase
True to their word, Katts and Suapaia began planning the second year’s event. They secured the Doris Duke Theatre as a venue again, brought on more creatives and volunteers to collaborate with, including Kinetic Productions’ Ryan Kawamoto, ‘Ōiwi Files’ Jackie Burke, and Edge City Films’ Shawn Hiatt. They assembled movie trailers promoting the upcoming showcase. In ‘Ohina’s first year, Katts and Suapaia received just 14 films to screen. The next year, submissions totaled more than a hundred, and the event sold out again.
And two years of hosting the film showcase turned into three years, then four, and continued. ‘Ohina kept expanding. A single afternoon of screenings developed into an entire weekend of short films, kicked off by an opening gala reception. ‘Ohina went on to win top honors at the American Advertising Federation’s ADDY awards in 2006 for a series of print ads and trailers.
They even connected with the organizers of HIFF (whose rejection was the original reason for launching ‘Ohina) and formed an informal partnership. Their goals after all were the same: supporting film in Hawai‘i. Whereas HIFF had the breadth to celebrate higher budget and longer films, ‘Ohina was able to focus on short films and help carry the load of more and more film submissions to the islands.
The ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase grew bigger and bigger – and organizing the showcase became a full-time, year-round job.
By 2008, Katts and Suapaia needed a break. At this point, they had been managing the event for nine years, and the team was exhausted. The economy had just collapsed, Suapaia had a newborn daughter, and work at their day jobs was piling up. So they called a pause on ‘Ohina, putting the showcase on hold.
Stop and Go
Two years passed. ‘Ohina’s 2007 showcase had been its last to date, and by 2010, Hawai‘i was hungry for more. Filmmaker Gerard Elmore was the first to approach Katts and Suapaia about potentially restarting the showcase.
“I wasn’t sure if they (Katts and Suapaia) wanted to continue with it; I know it was a lot of work, but the showcase was such a great event,” Elmore says. “And by 2010, it seemed that enough time had passed for it to be relaunched without so long that folks had forgotten about it.”
One of Elmore’s films, Who Is Mr. Peeps?, had gotten accepted into HIFF – but not ‘Ohina, which had become more selective of work in later years because of the high number of submissions, especially with those films that had already been screened elsewhere, like HIFF. It was an ironic note considering that ‘Ohina was created as an alternative way to celebrate those movies that HIFF could not. And just as being passed up had inspired Katts and Suapaia a decade ago, it had inspired Elmore in much the same way.
“Gerard called me about ‘Ohina, and I was excited about the idea of bringing it back,” says Suapaia. “But with work and a new family, I knew I wasn’t going to be able and put in as much time as previous years, so there had to be a great team in place.”
Elmore reached out to a friend he had worked with at Shooters Film Production, executive producer Darrin Kaneshiro, about helping coordinate that year’s festival. They also connected with Anthology Marketing Group’s Allan Payne, who served as ‘Ohina’s new creative director, single-handedly creating much of the festival’s collateral and promotional material. The three of them, plus a team of former ‘Ohina regulars and new volunteers, were able to prep everything to be ready to go by that summer.
This time though, things were going to be a little different. The ‘Ohina team reached out to various filmmakers to assemble different trailers for that year’s showcase. They made wider pushes on social media. And in order to help offset mounting operating costs, ‘Ohina decided to charge a small amount for tickets.
“I was worried at first,” says Suapaia. “All this time, the theater had been packed with people who loved what we were doing and who were very excited. But the event was also free; we weren’t sure if we were going to lose audience members because of the new costs.”
In 2010, the ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase once again returned to the Doris Duke Theatre for a sold-out weekend of film screenings. The crowds were back; it was as if nothing had changed. Suapaia, Elmore, and Kaneshiro helped manage the event that year and for the next three years, continuing to connect filmmakers with audiences and to encourage collaboration and film production in Hawai‘i.
“Every year with ‘Ohina begins sort of the same,” Elmore says. “We get together and meet, see who’s interested in being involved, and what they might want to do, whether it’s press or production or event planning. We create a calendar of what happens when and figure out what creative direction are we aiming for with that year.”
“All we’re trying to do is to put on a good show,” says Kaneshiro. “My favorite is the opening night rush, of seeing it all come together, and people’s faces who are stoked at what’s happening, and for the filmmakers to see everyone enjoying their work.”
For Suapaia and Elmore, the high point of ‘Ohina is the same: presenting an opportunity for filmmakers to gain exposure for their work, for young creatives to stand up on stage and feel the rush of an audience who wants to support what they’ve accomplished. That fuel may light a fire that encourages some filmmakers to go to film school or to remain in the arts professionally.
“If I could convey one message to our audience, it’d be this,” Elmore says. “If you like any of the films you see at the showcase, go up and tell the filmmakers what you thought. What you say could help encourage someone to start their career.”
2015: Back In Black
After a break to regroup in 2014, the ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase returns in 2015 with a fresh look, style, and creative director: former Honolulu Magazine design director Erik Ries. No stranger to the film industry, Ries has worked for years behind the scenes in Hollywood, creating original concepts for movie posters, ad campaigns, and more.
“Ries is a creative powerhouse,” says Kaneshiro. “He already works in the industry, thinks outside the box, and we knew it’d be a great collaborative opportunity.”
Ries was excited to help bring ‘Ohina a new look for 2015, inspired by a film noir aesthetic and black trim. In the spirit of good stories well told and in an effort to offer an additional level of storytelling, ‘Ohina partnered with the team at Abstract Magazine to assemble much of the editorial content and collateral elements for the showcase (including this guide you’re currently holding). This year’s event marks 15 years since the first ‘Ohina Short Film Showcase and is the second return of the film festival after a hiatus in 2014. The motto is “Get There.”
“It refers to filmmakers needing to ‘get there,’ to get the movie filmed, edited, then to ‘Ohina. And for the audience, to get to the event in August,” says Ries. “But it’s a cycle because for creatives, the work is never complete. There’s always more to do, always the next project. So ‘getting there’ is never final, it’s always a process. Always striving for refinement, for perfection, for more.”
For more information, visit www.ohina.org.