Q&A: Halfdan Hussey and the Evolving Creativity of the Film Festival

Halfdan Hussey, Director, CEO and Co-Founder of Cinequest. Photo Credit: Cinequest

A Look at the New Components of the Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

Halfdan Hussey is the Director, CEO and Co-Founder of Cinequest Film Festival. But before all that he is a lover of the arts and technology. For years now, Cinequest Film Festival has pioneered a hybrid of a movie festival with the latest in film and entertainment technology.  A few years ago, the film festival ramped up its tech-centric approach to by adding alongside its core film and shorts component a virtual reality facet which introduced filmgoers to the wonders of VR cinema.

Not willing to just coast on that achievement, Hussey and the team at Cinequest recently unveiled its newest additions and innovations to the film festival this year. It starts with a name change: Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival. With this change comes more opportunities to experience art in many forms. These include a new section on television, webisodes, fashion and live art, while there are even more films as well. It’s not a cutback, but an expansion.

For the following interview, I asked Hussey about these changes and about what sparked this push into independent television, webisodes, and the many other surprises awaiting patrons at the festival this year.

What was your inspiration to add in the components that make Cinequest a creativity festival now as well?

I guess the core story of our organization has always been this blend of Silicon Valley technology with innovation and creativity and the arts. Tech meets arts has really been Cinequest’s “thing”. That’s focused mainly around film and then the technologies that have revolutionized filmmaking, distribution and the internet. But also, that started to expand through time when we started to see that the film wasn’t just about flat screens, it became a few years it became flat screens as well as virtual devices, and immersive cinema. And over this time film has become just as important as ever, but these new art forms emerged. And then we also started to say we have these incredible platforms at Cinequest, where we have a 150,000 people show up, 600 events in beautiful venues. We know that people are interested in film because they show up more and more every year, but they’re also interested in all these powerful art forms. The written word, visual artistry, fashion, dance, music – why not integrate that into the experience to provide more for the audiences as well for creative people and creators. So, we have this platform and this opportunity, so I said, let’s go for it this year and see how it works.

So, now there’ll be some standalone events that are really focused on these creative areas, such as our poet and film events, which is really a lot about poetry, spoken word, poetic performances. And there will be other ways of integrating these other experiences before films. You’ll be watching an Indian film premiere and be seeing Indian dancers, or we have a movie called, “Moving Stories” where the performers will dance afterwards. So, I think this will be an exciting new add to the Cinequest experience for people.

Could you break down a little what these new add-ons will focus on?

So, let’s just say at, 25 to 30 performances of a movie where you’re showing up to a premiere film at the Hammer or the California Theater. And before the movie you’re going to get a surprise, you don’t have to spend more money on it. Then wow, you’re watching an incredible comedian [and] hearing them perform for five minutes. What an additional experience that is. Or see a dance company, or hear somebody read from the written word, or there’s some fashion on display.

So [there’s] one way that we’re doing the creative experience, the integration of the theaters. The second way is we’re doing integrations at parties and other events. You come to the opening night party this year and you’re gonna get some surprises. You’re going to see live artists performing you’re also going to see something that’s very Cinequest, where we have a hyper-reality exhibition, the new wave and the evolution of VR into new spaces. So that will be another way through parties and experiences. And the third will be unique events. Events that are only focused on that particular form. As I mentioned, moving stories, the dance, poets with writing, and other experiences.

So, in all three ways you’ll get different types of experiences. We’ll also do a live art contest this year where in our virtual reality cinema we’ll also have live artists painting to the theme of the festival, which is the unexpected. You will just find these three different ways of having a new creative work demonstrated and experienced at Cinequest. And just as many films as ever, that’s for sure. In fact, more. I think people will absolutely love it.

Is there any of these experiences that you would like to recommend?

Yes, the Brazilian drum crew from the area. We’re trying to also blend in as many San Jose and Bay Area performers as possible. And bring in a few people from national cities such as New York as well. The Brazilian drum company from the area is very, very impactful and will have them perform the battery dance company from Brooklyn. So, it’s a blend of local and national. The comedians are coming from the area and LA.

New to the festival is also the addition of web content and television series to the festival’s lineup. Could you explain that aspect of the festival?

That is another way of expanding the creative formats. In the films media we used to be all about movies, then we became all about films and virtual reality and augmented reality, now we’re about film, VR/AR and television and webisodes because so much of the creative content has been so extraordinary on TV we said, “Why not recognize it?” So, this is our first year doing a section on feature length as well as short length television. So how do you do that? We put on for example, two episodes of a new series or series season and people can experience that for the first time. Webisodes, same thing. I think it’s going to be a really exciting experience for people to dive into. This is the first time for a number of these things at Cinequest, so it’ll be exciting to see how people respond, and if they love it we’ll do more.

Any that you would suggest not missing out?

Well, “M” from Argentina, which is an incredible webisode, it’s a horror-thriller and its Spanish language, it’s fantastic. That’s a must see.

Has this new component been a result of the rise of artists using the internet as their producing medium – by them incorporating internet services in the way they promote and distribute?

It is. I mean the internet has always been a big part of our lives. We were one of the organizations that was absolutely pioneering in the area of driving via content on the internet. People were really laughing at our board members and Cinequest when we were doing that. They said, “This is not gonna work.” It is a very important way for people to access art and to promote art. We’ll probably do with YouTube more because that’s become its own genre as well. It’s exciting because it’s fun for us to see that film hasn’t gone away more that reading has. In fact, people read more now because of the advent of the tablet reader, than they were 20 years ago which is phenomenal.

So, the power of the written word, for whenever people started reading and writing, and film for about 125 years, it isn’t diminishing, it’s as powerful as ever. These new formats are fantastic as well, it’s exciting as well to see new ways for people to create mixed media, virtual reality, augmented reality, webisodes. It’s incredible. Even ten years ago we didn’t have as much of this. And frankly, television used to be thought of as a second-class citizen to film. If you were a fancy director or a famous actor, you stuck to film. Not now, it’s the golden era of television, the content is extraordinary. The production values and the direction and all the artistic participants are as great as film artists. Good to recognize at Cinequest.

For this year’s Cinequest, why was the theme chosen to be “The Unexpected”?

We pick a theme that fits who we are and then adds a certain energy and focus for each live festival, this year it’s “the unexpected”. Why? What does that mean? The positive unexpected in life, be it technology or a work of art, that gives you an opportunity and experience you didn’t see coming. So, what does that mean with technology? Well, before the cell phone we were utilizing other types of phones. We were dialing and had hard wiring. The cell phone and the PDA have made people much more connected, create tremendous opportunities for people to access knowledge in each other, to enhance their lives. So, it was a tool that people didn’t see coming. In fact, one of our leadership council members, it took him forty years to convince people the cell phone should be adopted. I love that story, it always inspires me because these days people sometimes will stick to something for forty days, and he was willing to stick with this idea of the cell phone for forty years. And now how many billions have a cell phone? So, technology is exciting, and again we’re highlighting virtual technology and augmented realities.

People didn’t see that coming, this is a whole new experience for them in life. And then art, I think that most people do not like it when they read a book or watch a movie or see a play and it’s the same old thing. Same characters, same endings, so predictable. But the exciting art is something that takes you on a journey where there are unexpected elements. Hopefully those elements will lift your heart, or expand your mind, or just entertain you.

Any films that you would personally recommend?

The must sees for me in terms of the big events I think that for a really great night on the town, the Bill Nighy event is going to be a super amount of fun. It’s a US premiere of the film, “Sometimes, Never” and he’ll be here and he’s an amazing actor and the film is great. So, there’s so many that it’s hard for me to dive into those things. In terms of the films from Mexico, the Latino lineup, they’re very strong and compelling. “Buy Me A Gun” is a powerful movie about this girl that’s growing up in a very tough neighborhood and it’s a powerhouse. That would be a must see for me. Then, the documentaries at Cinequest, that’s another special thing. There’re many special things about the Cinequest experience compared to watching something at home. Part of it is social, you’re showing up with people. Part of it is you’re seeing a world or united states premiere. Part of it is you have the actors and directors there with you, to talk and elevate the experience. Documentaries are about real people, they’re usually incredibly inspiring, and that’s something that’s very special.

The movie “Clownvets” is a great documentary – it deals with Patch Adams, Robin Williams made a movie of his life, a dramatized movie. This is about his work in taking these incredible people who have served our country and have developed trauma because of it and transferring that pain, transforming it into a positive as artists do. [Adams] will be here, an incredible opportunity to watch this award-winning film, be inspired, hear this great speaker, hear the artist who made the film talk as well.

Another must see is the film called, “The Public” [More on that film on page 10]. Emilio Estevez will be here with that movie and it tells such a poignant story in an inspiring way, sometimes people tell poignant stories in depressing ways. [It’s] about a library and the librarians and how they are able to deal with the crisis of homeless needing shelter and the library needing shelter. But legally, they can’t be in it, it’s an incredible movie. We’re doing a special honor to a local librarian from San Jose who won the Librarian of the Year Award last year. I could keep going for hours, but those are four.

Is there any other item you’d like to discuss regarding the festival?

The part of Cinequest that we don’t put in marketing, the part that has always been the number one element of why it’s great – the people in the community. For Cinequest it’s really a unique community because we love this town, San Jose, that is so spectacular place of real people of immense diversity. At Cinequest the community is very different types of people, age groups, different walks of life, of thinking. It’s people from business, and individuals. It’s volunteers, it’s film lovers, it’s lovers of technology. And its artists that come in, and presenters, to present. It’s something that you have to experience at Cinequest for these words to be real. It gives you a sense of what a lot of people say, “Well, it’s missing in our world. We don’t have neighborhoods, we don’t have communities in our cities anymore.” But at Cinequest you definitely have it. It’s very welcoming. It’s a big event, but everybody is welcome and encouraged to show up and be a part of it.

The Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival will take place from March 5-17, 2019 in Downtown San Jose and Redwood City. More info at cinequest.org.

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