Husband-wife filmmakers Jeanette Paulson and Vilsoni Hereniko are on their way to the Sundance Film Festival.

Hawaii production
headed for Sundance

"The Land Has Eyes"
will premiere at the
renowned film festival

You would think a divine spirit is looking out for a couple of Hawaii filmmakers.

Vilsoni Hereniko and his wife, Jeannette Paulson, learned recently that their film, "The Land Has Eyes," was not only selected to have its world premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January, but that the submission fee has been waived by the selection committee.

Held annually, next year from Jan. 15 to 25 in the ski resort town of Park City, Utah, the festival founded by actor/director Robert Redford continues to be the foremost showcase for independent American films.

Past festivals of this "Cannes in the snow" have charted the recent history of independent cinema: "sex lies and videotape," "Reservoir Dogs," "Hoop Dreams," "Memento," "The Full Monty," "Shine," "The Blair Witch Project," "In the Bedroom," "The Good Girl," "Dogtown and Z-Boys," "American Splendor," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Thirteen" and "The Station Agent."

The festival's programming team views thousands of international films to select 137 features, documentaries and shorts.

Sapeta Taito stars in "The Land Has Eyes," set on Rotuma in Fiji.

So it came as a shock to the Hawaii filmmakers when they found out their film made the final cut.

"Someone told us that just one out of 100 films are accepted," said an ecstatic Paulson, who produced the film. Her husband, Hereniko, a native Fijian, directed and wrote "The Land Has Eyes" through their Hawaii-based Te Maka Productions. The film will be shown in Sundance's Native Forum category with 15 other films.

The forum represents people indigenous to the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. "It is quite an unexpected honor," Hereniko said in the couple's Hahaione area home.

THE 90-MINUTE drama is loosely based on Hereniko's life growing up on Rotuma, a small Fijian island with a population of 2,500 people, about 300 miles north of Vita Levu. It is a narrative drama about Viki (Sapeta Taito), a young woman who redeems her family's name by exposing the secrets of her island's most powerful and important people.

The lush tropical beauty of Rotuma contrasts with Viki's experience with the stifling expectations of island culture after her father is found guilty of a crime he did not commit. Viki is fearless in her search for justice and fulfillment for herself and her island's villagers.

The film will be screened three times at Sundance, with the premiere on Jan. 16, the event's second day. Other screenings will follow Jan. 20 and 24.

The couple is hoping to raise about $5,000 for a celebration at the festival and to create enough publicity -- including postcards and posters -- to attract film distributors to the screenings and post-premiere party.

The filmmakers also hope to raise enough money and sponsors to bring the 17-year-old Taito, who has never been out of Fiji, to Sundance. They have received permission from her parents to let her make the trip.

"She's never seen snow, or even knows who Robert Redford is," says Paulson, founder and director of the Hawai'i International Film Festival from 1981 to '96.

The Herenikos planned to show the film on Rotuma this month, but were unable to get a flight to the island because of the holidays. Instead, they'll show it there next summer.

ALSO TRAVELING to Sundance to attend the world premiere will be Pacific Islanders in Communications executives and members. The organization, a national nonprofit media group established primarily to increase national public broadcast programming by and about indigenous Pacific Islanders, contributed more than $50,000 to the production.

The couple have also invited New Zealand actor Rena Owen, of "Once Were Warriors" fame, as well as Fijians and Rotumans living near Park City, Utah.

Perhaps the biggest irony of the film's acceptance to Sundance is that the Herenikos didn't personally submit it. A filmmaker in New Zealand, where the director was doing post-production work, saw a rough cut and suggested they contact Sundance. Word of the film worked its way through the grapevine to Sundance officials.

"Sundance (programmers) started tracking it," Paulson says.

Now the Berlin Film Festival has asked the filmmakers to submit it.

"It's all going rather fast," Hereniko said.

Paulson hopes that, because of the Sundance screenings, "The Land Has Eyes" will have a better chance of landing a major distributor, thereby helping them recoup some of the money put into the film. The film's budget, less than a million dollars, came from the couple's personal funds, about 20 cash donors and in-kind donations.

The couple is also optimistic because of the critical and financial success of another independent film about indigenous people, last year's "Whale Rider."

"That success will help," Paulson said. "The film's popularity with audiences shows that people want to see films about indigenous cultures and alternative stories."

indigenous filmmaking has dramatically increased worldwide, though some of the same roadblocks exist. "Money and knowledge of the medium," Hereniko said. "Funding is difficult to get for unknown storytellers, writers and directors, and these films are hard to attract stars."

But the digital revolution is allowing budding filmmakers to accomplish their dreams. "The Land Has Eyes" was filmed with a single Sony video camera costing less than $4,000.

Before the recognition from Sundance occurred, the couple had planned to show the film in the Asia/Pacific region, then Europe and finally, with favorable reviews in hand, the U.S. market.

While the unexpected festival invite is the capper to this whole experience, Hereniko said he made his film specifically to deliver an important message and "speak to the Rotuman people."

"The greatest gift I can give to my people is a great story," he says. "Rotumans deserve to have their story on the screen.

"I hope this film inspires other Pacific filmmakers to create their own stories and images."

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