Cinequest Co-founder and CEO Halfdan Hussey talks about the pandemic, beer gardens and his top picks for this year’s festival
Halfdan Hussey Is the Co-founder and CEO of Cinequest. Photo Credit: Cinequest

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

The silver screen is lighting up once again in downtown San Jose this year.

From August 16-29, celebrated film festival Cinequest is back in person after abruptly shutting down in March of 2020 due to what was then referred to as the novel coronavirus. Being one of two organizations in the Bay Area to first close down out of precaution (the other being Stanford), the team behind the festival has had time in the interim to tweak what’s worked best, and added new opportunities for film lovers including an expanded lineup of 220 movies (130 of them World/US premieres) and a beer and wine garden.

Halfdan Hussey Is the Co-founder and CEO of Cinequest and has been involved with the festival since year one. Recently he sat down to talk about this year’s lineup and events, and how the festival intends to be as innovative and welcoming to all after the physical hiatus.

From the comedies and more upbeat movies that were made since the 2020 shutdowns, to the importance of community interactions at the in-person festival, read more about Hussey’s movie highlights, and what can be expected this year in general as Cinequest makes its triumphant return to the streets of downtown San Jose.

More information about Cinequest programming, special events, and individual tickets and passes are available at

We’ll to start off, could talk about your organization’s experience since the sudden closure of the festival in March 2020 due to health and safety concerns? Since then, how did things change with Cinequest and what was that experience like for you?

Well, for us it’s been great. Luckily, I can’t say the same for a lot of people we know. As you remember, in 2020, Cinequest and Stanford were the first California institutes and organizations to do something about the pandemic. I mean, it was breaking 48 hours before we opened that year. It was our 30th anniversary celebration. We go to the opening night and say, where is everybody? We had a sold-out event, but it was only half of the seats that were filled. And I thought it was the election. It wasn’t the election. It was Coronavirus as we called it then, and it was just crazy.

And we had to make some tough decisions because there was a lot of mixed information out there about what to do. And we decided to postpone [and] shut down six days into it. We provided six days of great movies and technology, even did VR and AR in a big way that year and kept people healthy, thank God.

We thought we’d bring it back then and finish up what we started in that summer, but it just didn’t happen. And so we tried in the summer, we tried to bring it back this last March, and because of Omicron, it just didn’t happen.

So finally we’ve been able to do it in person. But in the meantime, we were the first group to do an online film festival in 2005 and 2007, because our partners and board members were doing a lot in the world of Internet delivery of media. And then we said, “okay, let’s revisit that. Let’s not do a streaming service for festival films because that’s going to be boring, but let’s see if we can’t find a way to start to replicate what you get out of live experience online.”

So in addition to having the films, how do we do that? How do we create the workflow of a world premiere event with red carpets and interviews and audience interactions and parties? And so we did three versions called CINEJOY on a new platform and they went really well. Each one got better. And we’re looking to continue that in addition to doing the in person because it provides a unique experience.

Given the unexpected, unprecedented circumstances, did that give you a chance to kind of step back and see if there’s any tweaks to the actual in-person festival that you wanted to implement?

Big time. It allowed us to because it was the 30th anniversary and the founding team were children when we started, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and more complex.

So we said, “okay, when we come back, let’s make it super fun, like it were the first year, and get back to that space of just really having a good time producing it, simplifying it from a production standpoint, but yet providing people with an amazing experience of movies.”

We came up with the beer and wine garden concept, which I think is really fun and youthful, because we want Cinequest to also track a new, younger audience, which it does every year, but we have a lot more comedies in the lineup than ever before, inspiring films, fun films. So the lineup and things like the beer and wine garden, they just really speak to hey, you’re 21 to 34, you’re probably really going to have a great time with Cinequest like never before.

And it’s very welcoming. We’ve always tried to be very welcoming and we were super inclusive both programming wise and through community before that was a mandate. I’ve always been very proud that people from every walk of life show up to Cinequest, I think this one is going to be even more welcoming and extraordinarily diverse and fun. This is not a stuffy film event… that are just like red velvet ropes and you’ve got to put on an outfit and it’s fun, but it’s stuffy. This is not stuffy.

And We have the best community. I mean, I moved out here by choice and not by birth because I really fell in love with it. Part of why I fell in love with was the mix of folks from different cultures and ways of life in San Jose is amazing like that.

And about the move to the summer, is that something that based on this year, you might continue on next year and beyond?

We do have holds on dates for both March and August. So we’re going to see how this goes and see how people respond and we could do one of three things: We could go back to doing it in March. We could say, “wow, we’ll just do it in the summer. That was so much fun.”

Or we could do it both, which would mean we probably would do half of it in March and half of it in the summer and have a different focus. Like, for example, we might focus on VR and AR and a certain type of experience with the films in March and then have more of the fun celebratory outdoor stuff along with the movies like we’re doing now. Again, we got so many comedies and thrillers and Sci-Fi movies. It certainly is an international film festival, but it really is heavy on fun movies, which is great for the summer lineup.

One of my personal favorite things about Cinequest is the chance to hear from creators and to see those lifetime achievement awards, the Maverick Spirit Awards, be given out. I was wondering what’s in store this year in that aspect?

We’re looking forward to it because we have, as you mentioned, the Maverick Spirit for the luminaries. And we have a lot of emerging artists. For example, we have this really cool group of 20-something artists, Patricia Chica, a new movie she directed, and acts in, it’s called Montreal Girls. It’s a very young cast, it’s a Latino, Canadian and Middle Eastern cast. It’s quite a mix of folks, and they’re all coming.

So I can say that for a lot of films that are having their world in US premiere, they’re bringing these wonderful casts. And then we have the Luminaries you mentioned. Our Maverick Spirit Award is our top honor for those who have had a substantial career. And that will be Jim Gaffigan on the 16th. And he is with the new film called Linoleum. Great comedian and actor, so that’s a really great one to start with. And then Alison Brie the next day with the film called Spin Me Around. Both comedies, back to the theme of lots of comedies and it’s hard to find a lot of smart comedies. And you think in the pandemic, I was worried, “okay, are we gonna have a lot of depressing movies, because I don’t want to play a lot of depressing movies coming out of the pandemic.”

But it was just the opposite. People seem to really embrace the funny side of their souls this past couple of years and they made fun movies, so that’s great. So those two for sure. And we’re going to do Jim Gaffigan’s live and in person. And Alison Brie, due to her schedule, we’re going to do a live stream of her presentation and conversation right before the film starts and then after the film.

Are there any other film highlights that you want people to be aware of?

Yeah, I mentioned this world premiere of Montreal Girls. There’s a film, Our Words Collide is one of our favorite artists, Rosario Dawson, she’s executive produced this movie on spoken word poets in LA. This group of youth in their high school year and they followed five youth around that are spoken word poets and dealing with all of the challenges that they face and their aspirations for the future. It’s a very cool movie. That’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

There’s so many movies that I really love. For a fun movie Ghosting Gloria, and that’s a movie that’s in Spanish with English subtitles. It’s a very fun movie. This woman has to try to get in touch with her desires and real relationships.

I’m really high in a film called Dealing With Dad. I think it’s really great when you have American filmmakers that come that are first and second generation. This is a Chinese director. They deal with the very funny movie about this group of siblings dealing with their father’s later stage in life where he all of a sudden becomes very depressed and they’ve tried to get him on medications, and it’s just hilarious.

It’s very much a film that really gets you inside of a culture in a really fun way. That’s another pick that’s high on my list.

But there are so many a film that’s very inspiring to me. If you’re an artistic type of person or you’re a creative person in technology, any kind of creative people, there’s a film called Sonic Fantasy about arguably one of the top three all-time sound engineers who worked with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson and this film really gets into the creation of the album Thriller. It saved the music scene and industry at that time. It was really starting to die after the disco movement, [which] didn’t really work for the music scene. I know now we think the disco is being fun in retro, but it was killing the sales of records – they didn’t know what to do.

Hip hop hadn’t started yet. We didn’t have the new movements coming out with rap and hip hop and they came along with Thriller. And Michael Jackson was very motivated to do a great album that blew everybody’s mind because he was really pissed off that he hadn’t won a bunch of awards for his previous album that he thought should have won the award.

So he was motivated. Quincy Jones was motivated, for the music of it and to save the music industry and then the sound designer and then all the people, the bands that came in. It’s very inspiring about how they came together to make that album and create a sensation. A very inspiring movie.

Is there any other thing you would like people to know about Cinequest this year?

They can expect an experience that’s more than a movie. And I think that a lot of people will show up for the films because we have all these amazing world and US premieres that represent the finest films that are being made. But they’re going to get much more than that. As you mentioned, what you love, they’re going to have, with most of the films, the artists there to talk afterwards. They’re going to meet these artists. They can go to the beer garden, buy an eight-dollar craft beer, and sit down and have a conversation with these people.

They can meet other members of the community. They can bring a friend, or they can come alone and meet a friend. And it’s very welcoming. It’s an incredible celebration of people and humanity around a common interest for film and technology. This particular edition is focusing more on the film and getting people back together and doing it in just a really fun, open-hearted way.

And everything that you might dislike about watching the daily news or politicians or the people that are divisive and don’t bring us together, well, you pretty much count on the opposite at Cinequest. We don’t care what you voted for, how you think, your gender identification, your sexual orientation, your culture, how much money you have or don’t have. It never has been about that. It’s just the opposite. We want all types of people to show up together, and we celebrate these artists and this art and then each other. And that’s what’s really awesome, and it’s welcoming.

Again, if you’re 21 thinking, Should I go to this event? Do I have to put on some outfit and stand in a line? No, you dress as you want. You just come and enjoy, and it’s very cool.

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