At 10 o’clock last Saturday night, Main Street in Vineyard Haven looked more like July 4th weekend than a chilly September evening.
One of Tisbury’s finest, flashlight in hand, managed vehicular traffic and shepherded several hundred exiting filmgoers from “The Trial” at the Capawock Theatre while a 60-yard queue waited for admission to “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” the final film of the evening.
“The Trial” screening began late as Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival (MVIFF) director Richard Paradise shoehorned another sellout audience into the theater’s 220 seats. “More sellouts and near sellouts than we’ve ever had,” he said as he counted unfilled seats, then waved waiting customers to them.
“I mean, ‘Babies’ sold out and it was on at two in the afternoon,” he said. During film festival week, Mr. Paradise creates his own separate energy field. But the 2010 edition was a lot, even for him. He seemed to understand something different was going on. Perhaps MVIFF’s designation by Moviemaker magazine as a top 25 U.S. film festival venue helped.
In fact, this film festival does seem to have a new persona, a new sense of place in the movie world. The festival added two new fillips this year. A humanitarian award, which went to Matthew Modine, an actor who made his bones in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” in 1987. In a nice touch, Island sculptor Barney Zeitz created a “Tree Angel” metal sculpture presented to Mr. Modine before the screening of “The Trial.”
Also, the MVIFF sponsored a juried show of international short films. More than 200 films were entered from around the world. The 10 best were screened and “God of Love,” a U.S. made film from the youngest contestant, film student Luke Matheny, won the $500 prize. Both the judges and the MVIFF audience voted “God of Love” their favorite.
In-between the glam pre-opening cocktail party on Thursday night at the Mansion House and before the last bluegrass strains from Ballywho at the closing night reception at Vineyard Haven Marina, film fans had about 30 hours of cinematic treats from more than a dozen countries from which to choose. In all, 90 percent of the 24 feature films and 30 short films shown were foreign-made, from almost 20 countries.
So why does it work? For one thing, the films represent purposeful entertainment. They have transformational power that helps viewers believe the good guys are still out there and that we can do more, in line with MVIFF’s festival theme.
Only one car chase and no exploding universes were on the bill this weekend. But if you’ve ever loved a friend or family member with Alzheimer’s, then “The Isle of Capri,” filmmaker Dawn Young’s adaptation of home video into a short film tribute to her mom, will remind you of the pain, love, and grace involved.
“Isle” is a purposeful work that brings tears and some peace to the viewer. Ms. Young provides contact information about Alzheimer organizations in the credits. Her voiceover of Alzheimer’s patients singing “The Isle of Capri” is a poignant reminder of this frustrating, mysterious disease.
“They may not remember what they had for lunch an hour ago, or their own names, but they remember all the words to an old song,” she says. She notes that Alzheimer’s annual cost in the U.S. is $184 billion a year, not including the heartbreak.
Several entries dealt with immigrants and immigration in these troubled times, assimilation as a worldwide issue. “Welcome” is a French film about illegal immigrants, particularly mid-Eastern immigrants and how they are treated in that country.
Closer to home, ACE M.V. founder Lynn Ditchfield has created a short film, “Neighbors and Dreams,” featuring five immigrant women who recount the joys and problems of Island assimilation. Their stories run counter to the stereotype of immigrants as social panhandlers.
“We watch movies and TV, not for entertainment, but to learn the language. I have to learn the language. This is not my country. The very least I can do is learn the language,” says one woman. A courageous film, “Neighbors and Friends” ought to be required viewing for Islanders.
The Chamber of Commerce might want to check out Chilmarker Jeremy Mayhew’s Oceanscape Arts short. Filmed in color and black and white, this may be the best ever footage of the real Martha’s Vineyard. Every stress-reduction center in the world would book a week instantly. Island residents may want to view it in July and August when we tend to forget why we live here.
Filmed without dialog, dozens of nature scenes merge with a Bach violin concerto and a faint heartbeat background that morphs at one point into Native American chanting and Wampanoag drumming while yellow-headed wildflowers sway in perfect cadence to the beat.
There was more, a lot more. “Babies,” for example, may have been a sellout because of the subject matter and scope. Filmmaker Thomas Balmes directed a work that tracked the lives of four babies from Namibia, Japan, Mongolia, and the U.S., from birth to first steps. A great counterpoint to “Resident Aliens,” last week’s top-grossing U.S. movie.
MVIFF also provides accessibility to the filmmaking. We’re enthralled by movies. Not so much the “making of…” footage that accompanies many film DVDs and ruins the magic, but the sometimes-fantastic background stuff of moviemaking. The MVIFF forums and question and answer sessions with filmmakers provide that accessibility.
The Saturday night audience learned that director Ron Howard’s dad played the judge in “The Trial.” “Ron told me his father said I was a good man. It’s nice when Opie’s dad thinks you’re a good man,” Mr. Modine said.
The Q&A with “The Trial” producer and screenwriter Mark Freiburger was similarly entertaining. An audience question about how Mr. Modine came to work on the film produced a long and hilarious answer from Mr. Freiburger.
“We had Matthew signed up, based on a commitment from our lead investor, well, our only investor, really. We got startup money, then it stopped coming. A friend called me one day:
Friend: Isn’t “XYZ” Corp. invested in your movie?
Mr. Freiburger: Yeah.
Friend: Then you better turn on your TV.
Mr. Freiburger: Which channel?
Friend: All of them.
Turns out the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was in the process of raiding the offices of the corporation invested in the film. Bye-bye funding. Six months later, Mr. Freiburger had new funding, the movie was made, premiered in North Carolina last weekend to record box office and now the cable networks are knocking on the door. Magic.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Paradise did a quick summary of MVIFF 2010 and the future. “We had 2,400 attendees last year. We certainly sold more tickets and had more (eight) sellouts, particularly in the Capawock. Most films drew half to two-thirds capacity. Being the fifth year, we were very intent on adding films with more pizzazz and legitimacy. Adding awards was also important. Our award is a little different. We didn’t recognize film work, though Matthew certainly qualifies on that score, but on humanitarian work. That represents the festival theme and the strong sense of community on the Island.
“The jury award was important as well. We’d like to continue to expand with help from the community. Also, a big part of festival buzz is to bring in directors and filmmakers from around the world. But it’s expensive,” he said.
“Sponsorship is difficult. The Island is not a big market like Boston, New York, and San Francisco. So we’re hoping for grants and donations for the 2011 festival.”