Film groups find Vineyard a haven for cinema

Within the past decade, the Vineyard has seen much change. Some Island comforts we hold dear have disappeared, some unwanted seasonal annoyances have grown into other annoyances, and everyone you know has something to say about it. But there is growth happening on the Vineyard that not all are aware of.

Believe it or not, the Island has grown into what is a hotbed for film communities, and film festivals. Sure, we are no strangers to iconicity, standing in line at the store next to some famous face; but now the Island can claim itself among the ranks of destination venues for unique and substantial film festivals.

To date, Martha’s Vineyard is home to three separate film festivals, all of which offer a unique and welcoming experience for anyone who wishes to partake. Between Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, and Run&Shoot Filmworks: Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, there are plenty of cinematic happenings to enjoy.

Thomas Bena founded Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) in the winter of 2001. Seeking an alternative to the films playing at the neighborhood theaters, he got the idea to bring independent, intriguing films, along with food and good conversation, together in one place. Since its conception, MVFF has grown into a communal and expansive film festival woven into the Vineyard fabric with an assorted array of programs. From the Winter Festival in March, to the Summer Film Series and Cinema Circus throughout peak seasonal months, communal and family-oriented film activities are the heart of the operation.

MVFF is looking to create not just a viewing experience, but also an engaging outing for the whole family. “I feel our events make our audience members not just consumers of a film, but participants in a happening,” says Anna Merhalski, acting production and office manager. Local food, music, and theater can be found at MVFF events.

Richard Paradise founded the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) in 2002, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to screen quality films of all types year-round. In 2006, MVFS expanded its operation to include the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, which runs for four days in September. The festival focuses on exhibiting films from all over the world to create diverse viewpoints on universal issues. About 90 percent of films screened at the festival are non-US films. During the festival, no more than two films can be from a single country, as diversity is the goal. The 27 films recently screened at the festival had been made in 20 different countries.

“The community is driven and volunteerism is integral,” Mr. Paradise said. More than 50 volunteers put their time and effort in to keep the reels rolling during the annual festival. MVFS credits their flagship film festival in bringing much attention to their cause. Through the festival, the film community exposes its desire for international art and perspective.

Floyd Rance and his wife, Stephanie Tavares-Rance, founded the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) in 2002. Since that time the festival has become one of the fastest growing film festivals in the country. ” It took a labor of love to get it started,” Mr. Rance said. The festival, which takes place annually in August, exhibits between 55 to 60 films. The films range from shorts, feature lengths, documentaries, and feature documentaries.

The MVAAFF is approaching its 10th anniversary this coming summer. “Let it grow and prune it, keep it new,” is Mr. Rance’s managing tactic to keep the festival emergent and keep people coming back. This motto is working well, and MVAAFF has grown healthily on the Island.

“Why do festivals thrive, and co-exist on the Vineyard?” When I posed this question to founders, directors, managers, and team members, a similar answer came from all. There is an understanding that the Island is an incubator for the arts, film being another medium that can thrive in the community, for both Islanders and visitors. “All of my friends are artists in someway,” Mr. Bena said.

All three festivals have plans for growth and expansion in the future, and all three have something unique to offer that their counterparts don’t. For Islanders and visitors, it is worth looking closely into each of the film festivals here, and exploring each festival individually.

Ben Stiller, of Vineyard Haven, is a 2006 graduate of M.V. Regional High School and a 2010 graduate of Clark University in Worcester.