Honolulu Pulse

Freestyle: CSI star jumps in at HIFF — October 11, 2013

The 33rd Hawaii International Film Festival started off with a buzz of energy on Thursday, Oct. 10.

A cheery crowd of filmmakers, actors, producers and staunch film fans mixed over stylish small bites, wine and cocktails at an opening night party at the Halekulani in Waikiki, as organizers flitted about and dignitaries, including Mayor Kirk Caldwell, greeted the fest.

The evening was especially fantastic for me, as I was able to sit down for an animated and uplifting talk with Jorja Fox, who plays Sara on “CSI,” one of contemporary televisions most popular and long-running series. The actor, who also appeared on “ER” and in a story arc on “The West Wing,” seems to have a knack for connecting with popular television dramas.

Fox was in Hawaii to promote the documentary “Lion Ark,” along with producers/filmmakers/activists Tim Phillips and Jan Creamer, founders of Animal Defenders International.

The film depicts the rescue of 25 African lions from Bolivian circuses, in the wake of a 2010 law prohibiting the use of animals in traveling shows. Phillips and Creamer, whove made their first full-length film with “Lion Ark,” were right there every step of the way.

The subject matter is dramatic and gripping ” the quest brought the filmmakers into remote parts of Bolivia, and often circuses were not cooperative. In the films opening scenes, a circus operator, waving a knife, slashes their tires to try to prevent a rescue.

It also has a happy ending, as Fox and the filmmakers take pains to point out: All of the lions at risk were airlifted out of Bolivia, finding a home at a sprawling sanctuary in Colorado, where a giant (80-acre) protective enclosure was custom-built for the lions to help them adjust to the colder climate.

“I like to think of it as an action-adventure-dramedy,” Fox said, partially joking. “There are some funny moments in it, but there is epic drama. To get to be a part of it was fantastic.”

Fox was there as the lions were being taken to shelter in Colorado, as is seen in the film.

“To be surrounded by 25 roaring lions ” that real, raw power was an experience Ill never forget,” she said.

Creamer can speak passionately about the mistreatment imposed on animals in traveling circuses, while Phillips emphasizes their work is based on strictly factual findings ” often uncovered by working surreptitiously to gather evidence on the scene, as the filmmakers did for years in Bolivia.

FOX HAS worked with Phillips and Creamer for more than seven years, beginning with a collaboration on the short documentary film, “How I Became an Elephant.” Fox served as producer for that film, which exposes the treatment of elephants as “performers” in traveling shows and in movies.

Fox was involved with “Lion Ark” from the beginning, consulting with the filmmakers on the eye-witness approach and stepping in front of the camera during scenes films when the lions arrive in Colorado.

Shes also supporting the film by appearing at HIFF. Shell be at Dole Cannery on Saturday, Oct. 12, for the screening of “Lion Ark.”

“Ive been passionate about the environment, marine protection and wildlife, all my life,” Fox said, explaining why she got involved. Born in New York City, she lived in Melbourne, Florida with her family as a child. Now based in L.A., shes a surfer.

“I was very familiar with Hawaii, but I wasnt that familiar with the festival until Jan and Tim got invited to come,” Fox confided.

As she spoke, a stylish woman with close-cropped hair leaned over our table to say, “Sorry to interrupt, but we love your show. I just had to come over and tell you that!”

THE SHOW, of course, is “CSI,” which is about to reach a huge milestone: the airing of its 300th episode.

The episode has already been filmed, Fox said.

“Its going to be amazing, thats all I can say,” she said. “We didnt really think it was that big a deal until we started shooting it, and then we started realizing that its pretty rare.

“With the new shows especially, so many of them are doing 13 episodes a season instead of 24 ” its going to take them 26 years to get to 300 episodes! I dont know that that many new shows are going to get there.”

“We tried to enjoy every minute” of filming, she said. Special care was taken in writing the scenes, and some pieces of the episode pay tribute to the series long history, including “faux-back” segments that recreate characters storylines reaching back to the shows first year. Original cast member Marg Helgenberger (Catherine Willows) is also back for the 300th show.

I asked Fox how long the wild ride that has been “CSI” can last, and she responded that its up to viewers.

“I hope my favorite episode is yet to come,” she said. “Its lasted far longer than I ever anticipated. Now, I think Ill do it as long as the fans want us to do it.

“I cant even imagine leaving at this point. It would seem foolish.”

IN THE MEANTIME, Fox is hoping for big audiences and international impact with “Lion Ark.” The film was just awarded the Audience Award at the San Diego Film Festival, where it sold out its screening. Screenings also sold out at Londons Raindance Film Festival, an offshoot of Robert Redfords Sundance Film Festival in Colorado.

Asked what she learned from working on “Lion Ark,” Fox said, “Anything is possible. If you put your heart and soul to it, you can move mountains.”

The Hawaiian Humane Society has teamed up with Animal Defenders International to promote “Lion Ark” at HIFF. For more on efforts to improve conditions for captive or domesticated animals here in Hawaii, go to hawaiianhumane.org.

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