Aloha, Pac Rim

arts-leadhoustonsWhy we miss the Pacific Rim Film Festival

For the past several months I have been thumbing through the archives—movie posters and film programs, promotional photos and newspaper articles—of the Pacific Rim Film Festival, which was founded here in Santa Cruz in the spring of 1988. This nostalgic journey has brought back many rich and colorful memories, and, quite candidly, a certain tinge of sadness.

After more than a remarkable quarter-century run, the Pacific Rim Film Festival is no more. Pa’u. And while its demise will create a significant vacuum, the festival also leaves a profound and lasting cultural legacy.

The roots of this unique festival stretch back to the early 1980s, when writers Jim and Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston began a collaboration with the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, and more specifically, with Jeanette Paulson, the dynamic founder of the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) in Honolulu.

Jim and Jeanne returned to Santa Cruz, sharing the excitement of their artistic discoveries and experiences with Paulson. In the fall of 1984, a small delegation of filmmakers and film aficionados from Santa Cruz attended the HIFF and encountered the magic of the festival and the cinematic fare being offered—for free—not only in Honolulu and Oahu, but throughout the “outer” islands.

A short time later, Jim and Jeanne’s daughter, Cori Houston, served as an intern in Honolulu for the HIFF’s traveling film tour, and then as the coordinator for the first Pacific Rim Film Festival (PRFF) held in Santa Cruz. Like hot molten lava giving birth to new land along the Pacific Rim’s ring of fire, a cultural institution that helped to inspire and define the local community was born. The goddess Pele smiled down upon us.

A committee and advisory board were formed, a bridge was built to UCSC’s Division of the Arts for structure and funding, and the heavy lifting of turning ideas into reality fell upon Cori, who served as the festival’s centrifugal force for years to come. George Ow Jr. and the Ow Family Businesses stepped up as the festival’s financial angel by providing additional funding and logistical support for nearly thirty years.

The theme of both the Hawaii and Pacific Rim festivals was “When Strangers Meet,” and the tensions around cross-cultural, social and economic encounters in the region provided a common motif for the varied films that were scheduled in the festival.

One of the very first works that was screened at what I would call the “old” Del Mar Theatre was Chen Kaige’s breathtaking film, Yellow Earth, set in 1939 in a small, rural village located deep in the interior of the People’s Republic of China. With breathtaking cinematography by Zhang Yimou (who became a significant director in the so-called “Fifth Generation” of Chinese filmmakers), the film explored the complex relationships between unyielding Chinese traditions, the growing influence of the Communist Party and the life challenges of a teenage girl caught between those historic forces.

In 1997, the PRFF screened a Russian-made film at Cabrillo College entitled Close to Eden, which had been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Eden chronicles an encounter between a multi-generation shepherding family living in a yurt on the steppes of Inner Mongolia. Their lives are dramatically altered by the arrival of a coarse Russian truck driver who introduces them to modernity. The after-film discussion for Eden was a real donnybrook, focusing on the costs and benefits of technology as humanity races toward the New Millennia. (Anyone with a memory of this particular discussion, please write to me c/o Good Times).

The festival also became an important mainland venue for the films of Eddie and Myrna Kamae, working in collaboration with Jim Houston, documenting the native music of the Hawaiian Islands. The screenings of their films often involved performances in Santa Cruz by Eddie with the Sons of Hawaii, along with luaus and talking story with the crackling of a beach fire in the background. They were all glorious events steeped with the aloha and mana that defined the festival.

After Jim Houston’s death in April of 2009, we carried on the tradition with his spirit guiding us. Jim delighted in the magic of the festivals, the East-West synergy, the music, the dialogue. I can still see him smiling that big smile of his, dressed in his trademark white suit, looking out over the festivities. In certain respects, keeping our work focused on the festival kept us closer to Jim’s spirit. It was yet another gift.

The changing economics of mainstream film distribution, however, finally took its toll. For the last several years, the festival had found a home at the Del Mar, but when market demands necessitated a change in city policies around public screenings at the theatre, the challenges of finding a new home proved, well, a bit too challenging for our collective old bones. It was difficult enough to stage, fund and manage a free festival annually as it was. The times had changed. A quarter-century was a good run.


Geoffrey Dunn was a founding Steering Committee member of the PRFF.

AMBASSADORS TO PARADISE Pacific Rim Film Festival founders Jim and Jeanne Houston on their wedding day, Waikiki Beach, 1957. PHOTO: HOUSTON FAMILY ARCHIVE

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