Cinequest

Halfdan Hussey and Kathleen Powell, 25 years of Film Festivals Together

Congratulations, 25 years working closely together. Longer than some marriages. How have you navigated this partnership?

Halfdan Hussey: The best thing is that we have similar visions and the desire to help people. We love art and creativity. What has been great is that we have carved out very different areas of ownership. We’re both very strong, driven people. So having space where we each can run our own areas has been key. And yet, we help each other out. Having things that are ours alone allows us to be great partners, and remain friends through all of this.

Kathleen Powell: It didn’t come easy, it came over time. We figured it out, there wasn’t a book or teacher. Having the different areas has really benefited us, but just as important is that we have the same fundamental values.

We took the Cinequest staff four years ago through a process where we asked about their values, about what was important to each person, and then created a list of what we wanted people to think about. Things like: who do I want to work with, what values do I have that I want the person sitting next to me to have? From that, we developed these pillars that are key to our organization. Integrity, which is one of my top priorities. Caring for people. High energy, don’t want someone low energy or dreary. And then, world-class excellence. We’re not talking about perfection, but about having excellence, doing work we are proud of.

We all come with different backgrounds, but these fundamentals are key to us.

Do you step on each other’s toes?

Halfdan: We are both strong people, so we had to talk about who is taking the lead on different projects…

Kathleen: Choose your battles. And know what and why something is important to you. If I’m aware that Halfdan is extremely passionate about something or a direction is really important for him, then I am willing and want him to have that.

You have to see what is important and who is better at what. So you learn about it over time. Vision, getting people excited, getting volunteers and getting a staff to move in a direction, and the vision of the company—that’s all Halfdan.

Halfdan: One part I am really good at is making the vision real. I can execute. You give it to me, I’m going to make that real. Kathleen is amazing at getting the resources to make something real. All the financial components Kathleen manages. She works diligently to ensure that what we raise and earn is handled well, she oversees our stewardship of the resources. She has kept us in black every year. That’s extraordinary. If it wasn’t for Kathleen, it might be the other way. It isn’t because of me [laugh]; I am good at not spending, but Kathleen ensures all the fiscal aspects of the organization.

What have you learned from doing Cinequest?

Halfdan: A huge lesson I’ve learned from the film festival, that at first it was sort of “Kathleen’s and my Cinequest thing” that we’re giving to San Jose and the world. But after a while, I realized it was the community that made Cinequest. A community of thousands of people, people that had been there from the beginning. They are very connected to it and it matters to them. Cinequest taught me what community means and the importance of community.

I remember during the challenging years as we were building, I had lunch at Chris Esparza’s club—Fuel—and he told me, “Cinequest means so much, we look forward to this every year.” I thought, really? I didn’t know people cared this much. It really inspired me. And it really helped me carry on, seeing that this could bring people together. And to be part of these people’s lives was rewarding. Cinequest taught me what community is.

Kathleen: When you see it happen, it becomes so special. When people change from just going out to see a movie, or going out on a date, to being a part of the community, then they feel part of the community, and they plan for it, work for it, get excited about it. Such an incredible feeling, when others feel they own it.

Doing the “Picture the Possibilities” with youth, was it part of the original Cinequest plan?

Halfdan: A great movie can impact and transform a life—even if just for a day—like any work of art can. Art completely changed my life. So, the original idea was to pass on the experience Kathleen and I had with our independent film to other artists, giving them a chance to showcase their work and connect with audiences. It was about healing and giving back.

But dealing with youth, that wasn’t something I originally thought about. I hated being a teenager. [laughter] You’re not going to find in our original papers and vision…“we love teenagers.” [laughter] But we’re gaining opportunities for mentoring teenagers and college students. We found out a few years ago that when we shared our abilities to create and processes for creating, it would help them.

I was playing around with an idea for The Seven Powers of Creating—I shared it with the teens and people I was mentoring. I was exploring with it, since it was a process of taking a picture and making it real. But I thought it was boring them. Then I got a letter from someone who had been in a talk. He said he had been really miserable, 18 years old, overweight, drug addicted, abused, and ready to check out and commit suicide. But there was something about the Picture the Possibilities thing—he noticed that I hadn’t come from any sort of special place—and he thought maybe he could do this too. He started to work on his health, got out of his abusive situation, and was interested in film and working in Japan. I then realized this thing that I thought was boring people is important. It was valuable to just share ways to create.

Then Kathleen and I and some partners wanted to do something global that would utilize film as one of the ways to create. We started a program to show youth how films could transform their situation. To show them, whatever challenges they might be facing, that they could utilize creativity to not only change their lives, but to create what is inside of them and what they are excited about. So we give them tools and the technology to help them have the confidence to do that. We’ve been doing that for three and a half years now. It is just as impactful as the film festival.

Kathleen: It’s hugely rewarding work that we do. It’s global, year round we can see the change in the youth we are doing the work with. It’s just as important as the work we are doing with the film festival, because if we can inspire the youth to not give up, to not settle to whatever environment they might find themselves in now, what an incredible thing.

Halfdan: The thing about teens is—it was my least favorite group of people in the world—but now it’s my favorite group. The minute I started working with teens, I fell in love with it. I didn’t have a good teenage life, and they don’t either, but people are amazing at that age. Now I have become a person who loves that age.

What do you sense for the film industry—what’s the next change for the storytelling film industry?

Kathleen: I think a couple of things are going to happen. At this year’s Cinequest we are going to showcase new technology that’s going to change your film-going experience in the movie theater. It’s by a company called Barco Escape.

It’s where there are three screens that the filmmaker has the ability to work with. You may have your film showing on the main screen straight ahead, while on a screen to the right you might have what’s going on in that person’s mind. And maybe an expansion of that scene on the left. So now with three pallets to work with, it’s possible to tell a story in a much different way that is more than just making the screen wide, though it could be. This technology then changes the viewing experience, and will change how stories are told.

Halfdan: I sense the traditional industry that’s been holding on for years will radically change. Technology and innovation have been opening up global channels and democratized opportunities and that is growing. But we haven’t finished the job.

We haven’t seen, since the ’70s, a lot of real creativity and innovation in filmmaking. We have seen innovative technologies to make films, to get film seen on different screens from mobile to 3D. But what we haven’t seen is artists becoming more innovative in the way to tell a story, like we had in the ’60s and ’70s, through global and American directors who really looked at innovative forms.

We haven’t seen another era of wow, like Coppola or Kurosawa. But the technology gives opportunities to new filmmakers, who will be in new form or the studio, and who will be global, with different types of movies. Different types of stories and new ways to connect with audiences. We are going to see different types of movies. Animation has been the most innovative area because you can create new worlds. But as virtual reality starts to intersect with the real world, and with technology like Kathleen mentioned with the three screens, then you begin to change the space of a film artist’s mind. Then we will see different ways of making a film or telling a story. And, even, a different story.

I just think you are going to see all of a sudden an incredible era of filmmaking. It’s not today, but it’s coming very soon.

Interview and images by Daniel Garcia

Article originally appeared in Reveal Issue 7.0

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