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Okinawa International Movie Festival: It's a Wrap: Barfi! Wins Main Award


By Liza Foreman

The 5th Okinawa International Movie Festival (April 23-30, 2013) came to a close on Saturday, with scores of Japan’s top comedians and international filmmakers descending on this southern Japanese outpost, courtesy of the festival’s organizer, Yoshimoto.

Hollywood filmmaker Joel Schumacher presided over the jury, and guests this year included the youngest ever Oscar nominee Quevenzhane Wallis who is promoting the Japanese theatrical release of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was filmed when she was six.

“It is different,” said Wallis, now nine, when asked about Japan, when she presented the film at the festival.

“Beasts” played here in competition, alongside an international line up, with favorites emerging as the week went along from Taiwan and Australia both of which won prizes.

The Taiwanese feature “The Happy Life Of Debbie” moved audiences with its take on the Taiwanese phenomenon of foreign spouses. The film tells the story of Debbie, an Indonesian woman who marries an unemployed alcoholic. The Australian film “Mental" was given a special mention by Schumacher's jury.


Winners Saturday included “The Happy Life of Debbie” and Jackie Chan’s film “Chinese Zodiac.”

The main prize of the night went to the Indian film “Barfi!”

“After much thought and discussion we chose a film from India. You do laugh and you do cry and they come to peace at the end and it is a beautiful film,” said Schumacher on stage at the closing ceremony.

“It is an honor to receive this prize. We made the film with the idea that we would like to make people laugh, and with the idea that they should go home with a smile on their face and this has happened not only in India but also at this festival,” said the film's creative director on stage.

Talent from Yoshimoto, the country’s largest agency which manages 6,000 comedians, performed both at a giant open-air screen at the beach side location of the Ginowan Convention Center, the main hub for the festival, and at a special venue situated within a conference hall promoting the latest in Japanese and Asian pop culture.

Some of  company’s the talent could also be seen on the big screen, in a number of new films including “Genge,” in which a young executive from Tokyo is sent to a fishing town to make a film to celebrate his company’s anniversary.

Performers also entertained guests each night at no less than six night-time parties sporting giant buffets serving everything from Okinawan health foods to steak and chips.

There was also a business component to the festival with a series of seminars staged as part of the Contents Bazaar. Hollywood agency CAA, which partners with Yoshimoto on the production of television formats, hosted a reception and seminar and told local filmmakers and producers, “We are very impressed with all of you. We think there is a lot of business to be done between the U.S. and Japan.”

Although Yoshimoto is in the business of comedy – a big business with comedians making as much as $15 million a year here – Yoshimoto is serious about transforming Okinawa into an Asian entertainment hub.

The company is spearheading plans to turn the American bases here into entertainment villages once they are vacated.

One fifth of Okinawa is covered in U.S. bases.

“Okinawa has a very sad history,” said Yoshimoto CEO Hiroshi Osaki who was present for the entire festival mingling with guests and visitors. “When the American troops arrived here, the young women here threw themselves from the cliffs. They have had a difficult history. “We are not sure if the local people appreciate this event but the cab drivers are happy.”

Osaki came up with the idea for the festival in 2007 after a trip to Cannes with one of the company’s top comedians Hitoshi Matsumoto who is also a filmmaker.

After announcing plans to help transform Okinawa into an entertainment hub at last year’s festival, Yoshimoto recently got permission from the local government to begin work on the first stage of the ambitious Ginowan City Entertainment Village project. They have greenlit a summer school for local performers.

The Second City comedy troupe, which has produced many of America’s top comedians, will run courses.

The plan is to establish a permanent entertainment school and facility to be built on land occupied by the U.S. military, once it has been returned to Japan.

Okinawa was returned by America to Japan in 1972.

It was announced in 2012 that around half of the American military stationed here would be moved to Guam, with Japan picking up the cost.

Fittingly,  considering the area's history, the theme of the festival is Laugh and Peace

“Laugh and peace means forgiving each other and by doing so we can create peace. I would like to create peace through laughter,” said Osaki at the opening of the festival. ”Okinawa will be the place to send a message of laugh and peace through this festival.”

This year the festival offered free tickets to events and a bus shuttle service from the capital Naha.

Many screenings were full and a positive atmosphere prevailed at the sunny location where American-style fast food was sold from stalls dotted around the venue. 

“I am very sad that the festival is over,” said Osaki who had audiences in hysterics on closing night. "It is my dream to turn Okinawa into an entertainment hub run by and for Okinawans and not just Yoshimoto. The festival has been improved through having someone like Joel Schumacher on board. This is Okinawa's festival."