Martha's Vineyard Film Festival: An idea realized
The determination and passion of Martha's Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) organizer Thomas Bena has transformed the annual event from a community get-together of local filmmakers into an Island institution.
With its non-profit status, a board of directors drawn from Vineyard philanthropists, and a list of over 200 supporters, the annual festival at the Chilmark Community Center, in its eighth year, has continually expanded its breath and scope. But while far reaching in its collection of talent and selections, it still continues to epitomize the down-home essence of the Vineyard.
Claudia Miller, owner of Edgartown's Point Way, says she joined the board two years ago because of Mr. Bena's intelligence and creativity. "The Festival is unique because of the spirit he brings to it, and the community building it does," she says. "He picks films with issues the community can discuss."
Mr. Bena is quick to extend credit to all those who have become involved, to Cronig's Market owner Steve Bernier, whom Mr. Bena refers to as his mentor, and - offering high praise - to the contributions of first-time guest director Brad Westcott, who worked in marketing for a New York film distributor before coming to the Island in January. With a master's degree in cinema studies, Westcott plays "classical film geek" to Mr. Bena's more visceral approach.
Eight years ago, Mr. Bena was a marketing major at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He then came to the Island and supported himself as a carpenter. He and his Island filmmaking friends, frustrated over the dearth of high-quality films on the Island, put together the first festival.
"In the beginning it was about just playing the films we made," Mr. Bena says. "Now I watch 1,000 films. I attend the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam." Local filmmaker Jeremy Mayhew attended Sundance this year seeking films to show here.
Thanks to various patrons who believe in the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival mission, the program is being expanded to include a children's film festival that is being offered for the first time this year, without charge. Vineyard children will be shown their own set of free films at the Chilmark library Saturday and Sunday afternoons. That way parents can drop their children off to watch their own films while the parents go next door to view the regular selection of films. The children's films selected include everything from classic favorites to new releases.
"I think that people here have a very sophisticated taste," Mr. Bena says. "We've always played international films and social issue documentaries," and he argues that Vineyarders don't tolerate the ridiculous factor prevalent in many commercial Hollywood films. As Martha's Vineyard Film Festival evolved, more fiction films have moved into the mix, the balance rising to 40 percent.
This year, there will be social-issue documentaries, like "Uncounted," about election fraud, and 2008 Oscar winner "Taxi to the Dark Side," about American torture methods in Afghanistan. Also included is actor John Turturro's fiction film "Romance and Cigarettes," starring James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon, and the Russian fantasy film, "Mermaid." All will appear at the 2008 Festival.
A special Sunday program, "Hands in the Land," will address a topic close to many Vineyarders' hearts - organic farming - in a series of short films. This event starts at 11:30 am in the Community Center. Island farmers and their families can attend for free.
Mr. Bena selected one locally made film on a pressing Island topic. Liz Witham's and Ken Wentworth's documentary ,"A Home for Us All," examines the problem of affordable home ownership for Islanders. The 45-minute film will screen at 11 am Saturday, followed by a discussion with the directors.
Food and movie talk have been hallmarks of the Festival from day one, and they will continue to be important components of the Festival this year. Breakfast, snacks, lunch, and dinner will be provided by Danielle Dominick from the Scottish Bakehouse.
"There is something that happens when people come into a space, share a meal together and see a powerful film," Mr. Bena says. "It's magical." He also talks about how on the Vineyard, the lines between performer and audience blur, and Islanders give celebrities room to breathe.
In addition, a free filmmaker panel on Saturday at 5:15 pm will discuss "The Three Questions They Wish the Audience Would Ask."
"It comes from a deep place," Mr. Bena says of his commitment to the Festival. "We provide niche films, and there was a need. The fact that there are four film festivals here is pretty amazing."
Martha's Vineyard Film Festival, Friday, March 14 through Sunday, March 16, Chilmark Community Center, South Rd. Friday: 6 pm-12 am. Saturday: 10:30 am-12 am. Sunday: 11 am-9 pm. Individual tickets: $10; $5 for members. Weekend passes: $100; $50 for members. For more information, visit tmvff.org.