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New Voices: Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts Covers HIFF 2016

Roger and Chaz Ebert had very close ties with the Hawaii International Film Festival, attending together for many years to celebrate the burgeoning diverse cinema of the Pacific Rim. After Roger passed away, HIFF hosted a panel in tribute of Roger's contributions, to both the festival and film criticism in general. Last year was the festival's inaugural Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts. Eight students from Hawaii applied for the program and covered the film festival, mentored by film critic and filmmaker Kevin Lee. The program continued this year, and I was honored to mentor the eight students chosen from throughout Hawaii to participate: Coe Snyder, Ken Reyes, Veerle van Wijk, Josh Lee, Laura Garber, Nicole Lockwood, Kristin Ann Rivera and Ariel Ushijima.

The coordinator for the program was Lydia Kwa Toh and she worked with Executive Director Robert Lambeth and Co-director of Programming Anderson Le to make sure the students had all the access they needed in terms of press passes and PR contacts. I led four workshops with the students over the course of the festival, starting out with Chaz Ebert Skype-ing in during the first workshop to welcome the students and give them a real sense of Roger's legacy, and encouraging them to establish their own and to incorporate empathy, kindness and compassion in whichever fields they explored. Over the course of the week, we had a couple of guest speakers (Justin Lowe from The Hollywood Reporter and Jason Sanders, a writer and research associate with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive). They spoke to the students about the landscape of film criticism and different avenues they could explore in their careers.

The workshops went at a pretty fast and furious pace. We didn't have a lot of time! This was a smart and curious bunch, all of whom came into the class with different entry-ways into film, different areas they wanted to explore. There were a couple of fledgling filmmakers, a couple with a more academic approach—but all had one thing in common: They have a passion for film and storytelling.

But how to watch a film and then translate for an audience the experience of the film, what it was trying to do, and whether or not it was successful? Breaking these things down made up the majority of our workshops. We talked about tropes and genre, we talked a little bit about directorial and editorial choices and how to keep your eyes open for these things, we talked about the importance of asking questions. Watching a film knowing you are going to write about is a different mindset. What are the questions to ask? It's not enough to say, "I didn't like it" or "I did like it." These students were so good at asking questions: Why did this work? How did the director help tell the story? If it didn't work, what was the problem?

The students saw as many films as they could over the course of the week. Since all but one are in college, with full course loads, I was so impressed with their work ethic! Editing their reviews was a great pleasure. All of them came to the table with superb writing and analytical skills. Over the course of one week, I watched as their abilities flowered. Film criticism is a different thing than writing a term paper. It's a different headspace, and the workshop was the definition of the word "intensive." They absorbed the comments they got from me and ran with them. I look forward to seeing what all of these talented people end up doing next.

The festival's slate was impressive, featuring many films from Pacific Islands filmmakers, as well as movies from across Southeast Asia. There were Q&As with visiting filmmakers, along with panel discussions, as part of a rich, diverse list of events the workshop students could attend. The festival volunteers could not have been more helpful, and there was something so wonderful about going to a movie theatre and once again seeing lines out the door for tickets. Hawaii came out in force to check out the festival!

Everyone involved could not have been more friendly and welcoming, from the movie theatre staff to the transportation coordinator, to the various drivers who took all of us back and forth from our hotels to the theatre. Although the Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts is only in its second year, it already feels like it is an integral part of the festival and hopefully it will continue. Roger believed in encouraging new voices coming up. It was one of his trademarks, especially once the internet came into play. These young writers I met at the festival, avid to learn more about film, enthusiastic about the art form itself and adventurous in opening themselves up to films far, far outside the multiplex, give hope for the future of film criticism.

I was proud to mentor them all. You can read all of the reviews written by the students during the Lab on the Hawaii International Film Festival page.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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