When strangers meet at the Hawaii International Film Festival here, anything can happen.

Informal deals are made. Film critics and editors learn about Asian films. In 1984, director John Sayles met cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and three years later, Wexler was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Sayles' film "Matewan."More often than not, cultural gaps are bridged in the communal darkness of a movie theater or through the intellectual and spiritual enlightenment of a symposium.

The perennial theme "When Strangers Meet" will provide inspiration for the eighth annual festival, Nov. 27 through Dec. 3, sponsored by the East-West Center.

Among this year's "strangers" will be filmmakers from Vietnam, France and the United States, in a unique cross-cultural event to discuss the Vietnam War and the films that have risen from its ashes.

"I like to say that it's `Hollywood and Hanoi Look at the Vietnam War,' " said Jeannette Paulson, festival coordinator.

John Charlot, head of the festival's four-member selection committee, visited Vietnam this year and selected four films for the festival:

- "The victory at Dien Bien Phu," a documentary look at one of the war's decisive battles through Vietnamese cameras.

- "The Wild Field - Free Fire Zone," one of the first Vietnamese films to be recognized for excellence internationally.

- "When the Tenth Month Comes . . . ," a look at private grief and reconciliation in the face of war.

- "Brothers and Relations," about the problems of Vietnamese veterans.

The festival will feature 85 films, culled from about 1,000 that the selection committee has seen so far.

Paulson is the first to admit that the Hawaii International Film Festival is not like other film festivals.

She has seen the event grow into an internationally respected showcase for films from and about Asia and the Pacific, yet still maintain its roots to the East-West Center's goal of promoting cultural understanding among the people of Asia, the Pacific and the United States.

Last year, at least 26 programmers scouted films from the Hawaii festival for their own festivals.

"We make a real impact upon film scheduling throughout North America of Asian films," Paulson said, noting that of the 15 Asian films shown at the American Film Institute's most recent festival, 14 had first been shown in the Hawaii festival.

But industry types are not the only ones who show up.

"One of the most exciting things about this festival is that when it's time to pick up the free tickets, there's lines all around the block," Paulson said. "And it's a real chop suey line. There's just people from all colors of the rainbow.

"People really get to know each other through the films. A Ph.D. from Harvard might be talking to a guy who's a custodian from Ewa. And they're united in this film that talks about the history of this region (Asia and the Pacific) that Hawaii shares. It's not your normal festival crowd."

The festival attracts local residents with ties to Asian countries and provides educational opportunities for Hawaii's youth.

The criteria for a film to be selected are simple, according to Paulson:

"It must have artistic worth; it must reflect and help us understand culture; and it must in some way fit our theme: `When Strangers Meet.' "