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Aloha Spirit Prevails at Maui Film Festival

When Barry Rivers launched the Maui Film Festival two decades ago, he didn’t have a lot going for him. He was a documentary filmmaker whose previous festival experience had been as an attendee, and he didn’t have much money. But he did have one ace in the hole: a tropical island paradise.

The festival hasn’t had trouble attracting top-tier talent over the years, from big names such as Clint Eastwood, Pierce Brosnan, Mike Myers, Bryan Cranston and Woody Harrelson to emerging stars including Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson.

“The aloha spirit of the Maui Film Fest is true to the excellent vibes of the island,” says “Booksmart” director Olivia Wilde, who received the Shining Star Award for her acting in 2011 and is returning to receive its Lights! Camera! Passion! Award on June 16. “Everyone involved is so lovely and kind, the food could not be more delicious, and the entertainment is always fantastic. What could be better than honoring filmmaking in the most beautiful setting on Earth?”

In addition to Wilde, honorees at the 20th edition of MFF will include Paul Rudd (Nova Award), Gina Rodriguez (Navigator Award), Maya Erskine (Rising Star Award), Awkwafina (Shining Star Award) and documentary filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg (Visionary Award), as well as Joe Manganiello, who will be presented the Shooting Star Award by his wife, “Modern Family” star Sofia Vergara, prior to a June 14 screening of his film “Bottom of the 9th,” which he produced, and stars in with Vergara.

MFF’s screenings at the Celestial Cinema, an outdoor theater set up in a natural grass amphitheater on Wailea Golf Club’s Gold and Emerald courses that can accommodate approximately 2,000 people on beach chairs and blankets, have become a big selling point. But back when MFF started, studio executives had their doubts. Rivers secured the DreamWorks animated feature “Chicken Run” as its inaugural opening-night film, only to have the studio pull the film two days before the fest because it wasn’t convinced the venue could deliver quality sound and projection.

So Rivers persuaded the studio to send over a rep to check it out in person.

“He watched about three minutes of the movie and called up [then-DreamWorks chief] Jeffrey Katzenberg and said, ‘We have nothing to worry about,’” recalls Rivers, who is MFF’s director as well as its founder. “And from that point on, people felt comfortable with the venue.”

“Bottom of the 9th” is MFF’s only world premiere, which might give pause to those who use them as a yardstick to measure a fest’s relevance, but Rivers doesn’t care.

“All I want is the strongest program I can get,” he says.

This year’s MFF lineup includes the features SXSW Audience Award winner “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” starring Shia LaBeouf; “Plus One,” starring Erskine; “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina; and the documentaries “Echo in the Canyon,” “Gay Chorus Deep South,” “This Excellent Life,” “Moananuiakea,” “WeRiseUP,” “Becoming Nobody” and Schwartzberg’s “Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us.”

There will also be a Short Film Showcase, free toes-in-the-sand screenings on Wailea Beach and a trio of culinary experiences at local resorts (Taste of Summer, Taste of Chocolate and Taste of Wailea).

While Rivers doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, he says his policy has always been to focus on films that are compassionate and life-affirming. “People come to Maui wanting to forget a lot of their trials and tribulations that they see on their big and small screens 24/7,” says Rivers.

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