White sands, blue seas, sunshine and film, most would be happy with just one of them but the Okinawan International Movie Festival has all four in abundance. Now in it’s fourth year, the festival run by Japan’s entertainment behemoth Yoshimoto Kogyo is currently running over this week and we have come down to South Japan’s sub-tropical island to check it out…(it’s a hard job but someone has to do it).
“With it’s theme of Laugh and Peace” says the chairman of the organizing committee, “the festival aims to create opportunities for international collaboration of film and cultural exchange”. The festival draws over 3million attendees and features over 100 films from 15 countries all staffed by over 450 local volunteers. However one of the big aims of the whole event according to Yoshimoto’s chairman Osaki is also to promote tourism in the area, “one of the aims of the festival is to bring other Asian tourists to the island, and if we achieve this I feel I have achieved my goal.”
It is clear Osaki is intent on making the festival as popular as possible, Yoshimioto have brought along it’s entire line up of A-list comedians, meaning more than 160 of Japan’s popular Warai Geinin (comedians). Before each screening one or more of the comedians introduce the film to the audience and the open air stage set up on the beach has a constant stream of stand ups pleasing the large crowds. However if he is serious about wanting to expand the festival and attract a more international audience they would do well to feature some non-Japanese acts among the constant parade of Japanese.
A twist on the usual directors commentary option for films it was interesting to see one film screening entertaining the audience through live commentary provided by a number of comedians. Not sure if the constant running gags throughout the film would start to grate after a while but the audience seemed to enjoy it enough, being a subtitled Hollywood film for the Japanese audience probably helped.
The festival is spread out over two locations, the Okinawan Convention Center and the fantastic Sakurazaka Theater in Naha. An independently run cinema, Sakurazaka is an intimate space with plenty of character and perfect for screening some of the more indie style films.
With a small cafe in the foyer furnished with antique looking wooden furniture and serving local delicacies, the space serves as much as a social hub as a cinema. There is also the book shop crammed with various volumes concerned with the history of cinema, Japanese film related texts and other different film literature.
Owned and run by Japanese director Yuji Nakae who has made several films in Okinawa himself Sakurazaka is a real film lovers cinema, something which is rapidly disappearing both in Japan and the rest of the world as the large corporations take over such as Toei Cinemas and Gaga Humax. Peaking into the projectors booth it is clear that those who work in the cinema have a love for film also, as the reels are prepared and checked before each screening.
As dusk falls the outdoor stage, set literally at the blue sea’s edge, is transformed into one of the biggest screens I have ever seen (actually under dispute currently for the world record). Shipped over from Sweden especially for the festival at just under 30m wide and 15m tall the screen projects films nightly to audiences gathered under the stars with the gentle lapping of the waves making for a pretty special scene.
With its temperate climate and tropical beaches Okinawa is a perfect destination for the film festival. I was however disappointed not to see the merchandise such as the T-shirts made locally in Okinawa, especially given other tourist merchandise around town promoted as local produce. It is however only in its fourth year and as it improves, if done correctly it is a great chance to promote Okinawan culture and invest in the economy here. More international films and personalities and a focus on new and talented directors could really put the event on the map.