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Swim-in theater woos fest auds

Imagine the sun settling in its dark blue bed as you let your toes softly push further into the sand. In long sleeves and shorts, you relax and periodically hear calming waves fold and whisper, asking if you’re enjoying the movie.

If it sounds too much of a fantasy, you’ve been watching too many movies on the mainland. This dream comes true every year at “Sunset on the Beach,” the outdoor screening that is one of the main draws of the Hawaii Intl. Film Festival.

From Oct. 19 to Nov. 5, HIFF will offer more than 250 features, short films and documentaries from almost 50 countries on six screens, most notably the historic Hawaii Theater Center, which was brought to life almost 90 years ago and still has that 1920s moviehouse feel to it, thanks to renovations. HIFF executive director Chuck Boller expects more than 70,000 in attendance in this, the festival’s 26th year.

Still, despite all the options, many claim that the absolute place to watch a movie at the festival is “Sunset on the Beach” at Waikiki — for free, no less.

“It’s like being at a drive-in, only you’re on the beach,” says Anderson Le, director of programming for HIFF, adding that “Sunset on the Beach” is so popular, it is even included at the end of some films’ trailers.

Besides the screening by the shore, Le says the main draw for out-of-state attendees is seeing films that are difficult to catch outside of countries such as Korea, Japan and the Philippines — which is not to say that HIFF hasn’t shown American-made films that later became well-recognized, such as 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.”  

The popularity of these screenings can cause HIFF movie lines to grow and grow, but the fest implements a system that consists of four lines for attendees: one for flash passes, one for members, one for single-ticket holders and a standby line for tickets that come available late.

To entertain folks between showings, HIFF prides itself on the atmosphere of the outdoor portion of the festival: tents shading Hawaiian and Asian cuisines for festival attendees, and palm trees dancing to the many sounds of live music.

During the 18-day event, Hawaii’s other five principal islands take part by showing the most popular films seen on the main island, giving HIFF the unique distinction of being the only statewide film festival. However, Boller says the screenings off Oahu are mainly for the locals who can’t make it to Honolulu, and cautions attendees from feeling as if they have to venture off the beaten path.

Of course, when it comes to Hawaii, the temptation to explore may be unavoidable. On the other hand, once you find yourself nestled in the sand, gazing at a 30-foot screen among 5,000 onlookers who can’t help but smile in appreciation of the inviting sunset while simply enjoying a movie, you may never want to leave.

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