How Hawaii International Film Festival Executive Director Robert Lambeth has gone from opera singer to banker to film fanatic, all in pursuit of his passions.
The HIFF Spring Showcase takes place April 4 to April 10, 2016. See what is showing here.
Text by Kelli Gratz | Images by Aaron Yoshino
Robert Lambeth, wearing a relaxed beige aloha shirt and slacks, is moving 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 seems to make the set as warm as possible, and always finds himself in wonderful circumstances. The latest circumstance is that of the executive director for HIFF.
Even though it’s been nearly four years since Lambeth’s appointment, he never forgets that the job isn’t about him—it’s about the community as a whole. He first came to Hawai‘i through 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 says. “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 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 officially 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 never hid 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 made. From performing as an opera singer in Switzerland, to living in London as a banker, to heading to Oregon to search for River’s birth mother, Lambeth’s choice to move to the islands was just one of many moves he’s made, emblematic of his infinite sense of creation, drive, and imagination.
And his passionate presence at HIFF has left its mark. Hawaii International Film Festival is in 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 this year. (Late Rodger Ebert was a big supporter at HIFF.) Along with the foundation’s accomplishments, Lambeth launched the Courtyard Cinema a monthly screening event in partnership with The Howard Hughes Corporation, at their IBM Building courtyard last year. He is also working with the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences to make HIFF one of the sanctioned film festivals through which Oscar-nominated films are determined. “Part of my job is to constantly think about the future,” he 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.”
Learn more about Hawaii International Film Festival at hiff.org.