How Robert Lambeth, HIFF’s executive director, effortlessly shifted from opera singer to banker to head of the largest film festival in the Pacific.
Text by Kelli Gratz | Image by John Hook
Robert Lambeth, dressed casually in a beige aloha shirt and slacks, moves through the Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF) headquarters like a happy, exuberant character out of a Woody Allen film.
Effortlessly confident, the suave, charismatic dual citizen (he also holds a U.K. passport) always warms the set, and always finds himself in wonderful circumstances. The latest is that of executive director for HIFF.
Even though it has been nearly four years since Lambeth’s appointment, he never forgets that the job is not about him—it’s about the community as a whole. He first came to Hawai‘i for a teaching position at University of Hawai‘i Hilo, during which he became interested in preserving historic theaters, and began doing film programming for Palace Theater and Aloha Theatre.
Then, about 13 years ago, he was hired as HIFF’s neighbor island coordinator, responsible for overseeing events on all major islands.
“It was a different time back then,” he recalls. “We were getting money from everywhere. Now, all of us are responsible for thinking about the financial realities faced with running a nonprofit. Nevertheless, it’s been rewarding watching my team grow—and grow together.”
An only child, Lambeth grew up reading comics and watching films like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Blue Hawaii on his parent’s VHS player. He fell in love with singing and dancing, majored in music and performance at the University of the Pacific in California, and eventually became an opera singer. But the reels of his own life didn’t always turn so smoothly. Lambeth grew up in a military family, moving in and out of cities every four years.
When he came out as gay to his family at the age of 16, his dad tried to convince him to enlist, hoping it would change him. “I remember this one day, all 12 of the gay GIs I had known got arrested,” he recalls. “They had to serve as prisoners, picking up trash in orange uniforms. I was furious. It was strange, because I didn’t understand what they had done wrong.”
Rather than shying away in fear of being rejected, Lambeth embraced who he was. It was as natural to him as his favorite ice cream flavor.
“I am so many things, and I’m gay,” he says. “It never defined who I was or influenced the things I thought I could do.”
Perhaps it was his love for film—and the escapism it provided—that gave him strength during times of hardship. Or, it could be that at 23 years old, he met the love of his life, River Heartsong, a psychotherapist turned celebrity chef turned author, who has supported every decision he’s ever made.
From performing as an opera singer in Switzerland, to living in London as a banker, to heading to Oregon to search for Heartsong’s birth mother, Lambeth’s journey mirrors his infinite sense of creation, drive, and imagination. His choice to move to the islands is the newest, most enduring phase.
And his passionate presence at HIFF has left its mark. Today, HIFF is one of the top 10 festivals in the world, and is spearheading the Ebert’s Young Critics Program, a lab for budding film critics set to launch at the end of 2015. (The late Rodger Ebert was an immense supporter of HIFF.)
Along with the foundation’s accomplishments last year, Lambeth also launched the Courtyard Cinema, a monthly screening event in partnership with The Howard Hughes Corporation at its IBM Building courtyard. He is also working with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize HIFF as one of the sanctioned film festivals through which Oscar-nominated films are determined.
“Part of my job is to constantly think about the future,” Lambeth says. “It’s about challenging the next generation of filmmakers, writers, and critics to reach a new level of potential—one that addresses not only the process of creation, but questions the result of that creation.”
The Hawaii International Film Festival holds two festivals annually, in November and April. The 2015 Fall Festival is slated for November 12–22. For more information, visit hiff.org.
This story was published in issue two of Lei. Get it here.