Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival sparked imagination, conversation

Film subject Yusef Salaam from "The Central Park Five" at the Q&A.
Photo by Adrianne Ryan Photography

Film subject Yusef Salaam from "The Central Park Five" at the Q&A.

Last weekend, the town of Chilmark, normally quiet and sparsely populated this time of year, was transformed into a thriving community of movie lovers. The 13th annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF) brought together droves of people from all six Island towns, off-Island visitors, and filmmakers from around the country.

This year, record numbers of attendees made parking challenging and sold-out films inevitable. In order to accommodate the crowds, MVFF staff even commandeered the Chilmark School at the last minute to add an additional screening for three overflow films.

From Friday evening to the closing party on Sunday night, the films sparked lively conversation.

Whether seated on blanket-covered hay bales in the outdoor café, enjoying a meal in the lobby, waiting in line outside on a mild March night, or sitting on plush couches in the auditorium with plates of food balanced on their knees, people talked movies. Among the 14 films screened, a dozen were documentaries, providing plenty of fodder for discussion.

The topics explored included personal triumph over physical disability (“Crash Reel”), spiritual awakening (“One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das”), a major lifestyle change (“May I Be Frank”), and the search for meaning in life by a gay former governor (“Fall to Grace”). All had strong positive messages on the resilience of the human spirit.

Frank Ferrante, the subject of “May I Be Frank,” was around all weekend chatting, joking, and giving advice and encouragement (as well as hugs) to people who found inspiration in his physical and emotional transformation. The charming and energetic Mr. Ferrante even donned an apron at one point and jumped into the kitchen to help serve some of the healthy cuisine offered by Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farms.

Mr. Ferrante, who says that his film has played all over the world to audiences ranging from five to 1,500 people, noted in an interview, “In a way we’re developing a grass roots following. I think it [the film]speaks to people’s need for redemption.”

Screenings of a couple of the more heavy hitting films also featured Q&A’s with guests. Director Kelly Anderson (“My Brooklyn”) and film subject Yusef Salaam and his mother (“The Central Park Five”) were on hand in an effort to raise awareness to issues in their respective films. MIT historian Craig Wilder, who was featured in both films, also handled audience questions after the “My Brooklyn” screening.

Ms. Anderson’s film takes a hard, critical look at gentrification and the displacement of long-standing communities and cultures. After her film screened, she shared some thoughts on her Vineyard experience. Ms. Anderson, whose film was concurrently showing to sell-out crowds in Brooklyn and has screened at festivals all over the world, was impressed with the Martha’s Vineyard crowd. “I’ve never been to a festival like this where every film is packed,” she said. “The audience is amazing. They’re very engaged, smart filmgoers. I’ve had lot of great conversations.”

Ms. Anderson was pleased to have been invited to the Vineyard by the festival’s executive director, Thomas Bena. “Sometimes you feel that if you didn’t get sanctioned by the top five festivals, you’re done,” she said. “It’s nice to know that there’s room to be a little film made with not a lot of money.

“I am going to take this film as far as it can go. I’m not just focused on exhibition but in making change.”

She noted that she’s been inundated with screening requests from activist groups and others. “I’m interested in how it can be used to really activate communities around the country.” The film is very smart, entertaining, and focused on the human side of land use issues.

Mr. Salaam was one of five teenagers wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger that dominated national media for months in the late 1980s. The film, “The Central Park Five,” directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, features interviews with the five victims of the legal system, as well as others involved in the trials and coverage. During the Q&A, Mr. Salaam asked how many in the audience knew before they watched the film that the five had been exonerated. Only a small percentage of those in attendance raised their hands, proving his point that the eventual release of the Central Park Five received very little attention in comparison to the media blitz at the time of the crime.

He hopes that the film will raise awareness of issues like police intimidation of suspects and media responsibility in reporting on crimes. Mr. Salaam proved to be an eloquent, poetic, and powerful advocate for the rights of the accused. His mother’s impassioned plea for justice showed her to be a powerhouse of an inspirational speaker. With a combination of strength and grace, she addressed things like racism and the treatment of young people in the legal system. The audience was clearly moved by both speakers.

Mr. Salaam encouraged people to sign a petition to Mayor Bloomberg to help move along the Central Park Five’s stalled civil suit. Some in attendance pulled out iPads and passed them along for signatures. You can find the petition on change.org. Click on “browse” and search for Yusef Salaam.

After the screening, a line formed to shake hands with Mr. Salaam in the lobby. A thoughtful, quiet, yet determined man, he spoke to his mission in traveling with the film. “The more people know about this, the less possible it is for another Central Park Five to happen,” he said.

At the closing party, Mr. Bena said he was pleased with the response that guests like Mr. Salaam got from festival audiences.

“I would love us to be known as this storefront for real conversations, thoughtful dialogue, and exploring things that may not be comfortable for people to talk about,” he said. “If we become the place for that then I feel like, ‘mission accomplished.’”