Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s summer of film, food, and an elephant

"Knuckleball" with special guest Tim Wakefield will be shown on July 11 at the Chilmark Community Center and on July 12 at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.
Photo courtesy of MVFF

"Knuckleball" with special guest Tim Wakefield will be shown on July 11 at the Chilmark Community Center and on July 12 at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown.

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) has continued to expand and evolve throughout its 11 years of bringing quality films to Island audiences.

This past March, the winter festival attracted more people and screened more sell-out films than ever before. Now, as the organization prepares to launch its summer series on June 27, the hope is that with more films, additional screenings at new venues, and an expanded family entertainment program, MVFF will continue its trend of attracting an ever-wider audience base.

“Hopefully we’ll take that energy and roll into the summer,” said Thomas Bena, MVFF founder and director, commenting on the record success of the March festival. Mr. Bena noted that the festival now employs a small army of people — three full-time employees, four part-timers, nine interns, and about 20 others who participate as volunteers or as performers for Cinema Circus. “I can’t believe how it’s grown,” he continued. “It’s amazing.”

As a matter of fact, the festival, which started out in 2001 with a handful of films screened at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, has experienced so much growth that it has now outgrown its venue. To accommodate the increased audiences, the summer festival will branch out from the 250-seat Chilmark Community Center to some satellite locations in other towns. Of the 11 feature films included in the summer series, five will have a second screening at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown and one film will screen twice at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

“We’d like to have a home of our own some day,” Mr. Bena said. “But right now we’re sort of a gypsy caravan. A roving team of people and films.”

The screenings at the Harbor View will take place in one of the hotel’s banquet rooms, which will be set up to accommodate 75 people in small clusters of comfortable chairs and tables.

As always, screenings at the Chilmark Community Center will include a pre-screening dinner hour in the lounge area and on the adjacent grounds. This year, Beetlebung Farm and the Scottish Bakehouse will provide the food for the shows. They will combine efforts to create greens, grains, and grilled food.

“Food and drink have become part of the movie experience,” said managing director Brian Ditchfield. “I think that’s what makes it different — part of that relaxed vibe.”

The films this year are a mix of documentaries and narrative films. Mr. Bena, who tends to favor socially conscious films, said, “Our whole mission is to spark conversations. There are always some diversionary films in there as palate cleansers, but not too many, and even the comedies have bigger themes.”

A few films that made a splash at the March festival will return for the summer series, including the first two, “Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present” about a daring performance artist, and “Under African Skies,” which looks back at the making of Paul Simon’s Graceland album during the days of apartheid in South Africa. For the latter, the festival was able to secure the film’s director this time around. For the former, the producer will be on hand.

“Escape Fire,” an indictment of the healthcare system in America, was an audience eye-opener this past March. It will play again in August with the director in attendance once again. Mr. Bena believes that a new film, “Chasing Ice,” to be shown in July, will similarly jumpstart local conversations — this time about global warming.

MVFF has scored a couple of coups with film guests. Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield will be on hand for the screenings of “Knuckleball,” a new documentary of which he is one of the featured subjects. Emmy award-winning director Rory Kennedy will visit in July for a one night screening of her new film about her mother, Ethel Kennedy.

Mr. Bena and Mr. Ditchfield are able to bring some of the biggest film festival hits and yet-to-be-released movies to the festival, thanks to the connections they have made during the festival’s decade-plus history, and the reputation of the festival.

“The major companies like Fox Searchlight and Weinstein Company are now coming to us,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “They see us as an opportunity to get their films out there to a sophisticated, intelligent audience. Some of it is just luck of the community where we’re based.”

And a lot of it is also hard work. Mr. Ditchfield travels to the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals every year, taking in as many films as possible. One of his summer series favorites is the Sundance 2012 Grand Jury Prize winner, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

“Fox Searchlight has given us the film for a free member screening,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “It will be a great chance for Vineyarders to see this film before it comes out in theaters.”

Lindsey Scott, MVFF Director of Children’s Programs, also scours the festivals every winter for the Cinema Circus lineup. Before every Chilmark main feature screening, the festival hosts a kids movie, as well as a mini family carnival complete with a big top show. This summer, the entertainment portion has expanded to incorporate new acts, including a two-man water-squirting elephant.

The education component of the programming will be enhanced with a new character called Professor Projector (aka Hugh Phear) who will present live lessons and short films intended to illuminate filmmaking techniques and, according to Ms. Scott, “help the audience to learn to be more observant filmgoers.”

This year, the MVFF has brought on board Molly Coogan to serve as managing director of children’s programming and tapped Audrey van der Krogt from within the organization to lead the pre-film art activities. The festival also recently established a Cinema Circus advisory board made up of educators and parents.

“This summer we’re focusing more than we ever have on promoting film literacy in our audiences,” Ms. Scott said. “We want to prompt kids to really engage in the experience of being a film viewer and let our audience connect to all of the dimensions we have to offer.”

MVFF’s summer schedule starts Wednesday, June 27, with “Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present,” at the Chilmark Community Center at 8 pm. The film plays again on June 28, at 8 pm, at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown. For the full schedule or for more information, visit tmvff.org.