Triumph and love lead film festival this weekend

Last year's opening film, "Escape Fire," and five others were sold out. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

From Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to rural Vermont to Park City, Utah. From Moscow and the Ukraine to a multi-ehtnic neighborhood in Brooklyn, the 14 films in the 13th annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) cover a wide range, both geographically and topically.

A dozen of the films are documentaries and the unifying theme this year is the power and, in some cases, the resilience of the human spirit.

“Not to sound clichéd, but it’s about the heart and love in a lot of these films, and about standing up for what you believe in,” said Thomas Bena, MVFF founder and executive director. “In past years the films that came our way really reflected the darkness and difficulty of the world. I don’t think there are a lot of polemics in this festival. The overwhelming theme this year is triumph and love.”

Now in its 13th year, MVFF has earned a place among the established film festivals of the U.S. The non-juried screening event now attracts many directors and film subjects who often choose to accompany their award-winning films to tiny Chilmark at the end of the winter.

“We’re sandwiched between Tribeca and South by Southwest,” said Lindsey Scott, director of children’s programs, naming two of the country’s premiere festivals. “Having been to Telluride and Sundance, it’s the ambience you find here that’s been lost in large festivals.” Of the upcoming festival she says, “It’s nice that it’s kept the community feel but it’s still relevant.”

The ambience Ms. Scott refers to is the laid-back cocktail party atmosphere that has become a trademark of the festival. With the availability of plenty of hang-out space, great food, music, and the opportunity to mingle with film lovers, film directors, and festival staff, MVFF has really put the “festive” back into film festival. At this point in the game, the three-day event has become a “destination festival” in Ms. Scott’s words, with movie fans traveling from Boston, the Cape, and beyond for the weekend.

There will also be at least a half a dozen special guests on hand for post-screening talks.

“Now that we have a bigger presence in the industry all of these directors have started approaching us,” said Brian Ditchfield, programming and managing director. “Usually it’s us approaching them.”

Added Mr. Bena, “It’s an easy sell because we have the Harbor View sponsoring us and putting people up and Cape Air providing flight vouchers.”

New this year, a couple of short theatrical performances will precede two of the films and songwriter/musician Dana Edelman will curate the music, which includes performances by a number of local musicians in the outdoor Hay Cafe.

The food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks) will once again be prepared by Beetlebung Farm’s Chris Fischer, using lots of local and organic ingredients. Also returning for the second year is the cafe featuring Chilmark Coffee Company products and sweets from Chilmark Bakers and Not Your Sugar Mamas.

However, it’s the movies that year after year attract sell-out crowds to the Chilmark Community Center. In the lineup this year are a handful of independent films coming straight from screenings at Sundance; award winners from the Maui, Berlin, and Toronto festivals; a new documentary from acclaimed director Ken Burns that has yet to be aired on PBS; a program of short films from all over the world; and a small independent film that is likely to be soon hitting the festival circuit.

The Times asked various MVFF staffers to talk about their favorite films.

Mr. Bena picked, “May I Be Frank,” brought to his attention by Alysse Fischer. The documentary spotlights an overweight, diabetic, former drug addict attempting to resuscitate his lonely life by getting in shape.

“From the first frames of the film I really liked the guy,” Mr. Bena said. “He’s really a Rodney Dangerfield-type character and the last guy you’d expect to see in this context. He’s really irreverent and funny and he has this total epiphany.”

Mr. Bena, who recently went on a 21-day cleanse, continued, “The film really inspired me to look at what I eat and how I live my life.” Frank Ferrante, the film’s subject, will be on hand for a Q&A after the film.

Mr. Ditchfield is particularly excited about the festival opener, which he picked out after attending the Sundance Festival. “Crash Reel” relates the story of champion snowboarder trying to recover from a devastating head injury. “It was my favorite coming out of Sundance.” he said. “It’s a story of hope, and a family uniting, which is something that I think doesn’t get covered enough in film.”

Ms. Scott selected the closing film, “One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das,” which follows spiritual teacher Krishna Das on his journey from the world of an American rock star and crack addict to India and a life dedicated to bringing rhythmic chanting to enthralled stadium crowds.

“I have followed Krishna Das’s music for many years, but never knew his personal story,” said Ms. Scott. “I was taken by the details of his life, and how he has transformed his longing and darkness into such powerful, positive music.”

Molly Coogan, managing director of children’s programs, was particularly impressed with “My Brooklyn,” the story of how billionaire developers forced gentrification on the Fulton Mall area. A former Brooklynite, Ms. Coogan says, “It has so many facets of how the neighborhood fell into disrepair as the result of the declining economy. There is the historical implication of these cultures and communities that have been there for decades and there’s no longer any available place for the people who made this neighborhood.” Ms. Coogan believes the film will resonate with Vineyard audiences considering the parallels to the Island’s housing dilemma.

Anne Evasick, festival programmer and owner of Island Entertainment video store in Vineyard Haven, attended Sundance for the first time this past January and fell in love with a film called “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer.”

“It’s about three Russian girls in prison for attempting to do a performance in a cathedral to protest Putin,” Ms. Evasick elaborated. “It’s the spirit of the girls. They paid a price yet they have stood firm in their beliefs.” Ms. Evasick offers reassurance to wary viewers, “It’s not about punk rock. It’s really the story of these girls — what they believe in and the lengths they’re willing to go to for their convictions.”

Brooke Hardman, Mr. Ditchfield’s wife and a festival consultant, selected “Shepard & Dark,” a film that traces the iconic playwright Sam Shepard and his best friend from their meeting in Greenwich Village in the 1960s to their efforts to collaborate on a book six decades later. Ms. Hardman will direct snippets of a Shepard play before the screening. “Much like the film, these scenes are very much about the relationship between two men,” she said. “I think it will be an illuminating experience.”

Shakespeare for the Masses will present a short scene from “Julius Caesar” to introduce the film “Caesar Must Die.”

“We’re starting to blend the art forms,” Ms. Hardman continued. “We don’t just consider this a collection of film screenings. What makes it an event is that we’re always thinking about what else we can add to the experience.”

For a complete film scheduled, see The Times’ Directory of Information on Page C8, or visit

Tickets are $15; $7 for MVFF members; and add $5 to ticket price for couch seating.