“This Is Our Island” back on the big screen

Richard Paradise addressed the sold-out crowd last Wednesday for "This Is Our Island."
Photo by Michelle Gross

Richard Paradise addressed the sold-out crowd last Wednesday for "This Is Our Island."

It was a full house at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center Wednesday night for a screening of the 1971 documentary, “This is Our Island.”

“You’d think we were at the World Series,” director of the Film Center Richard Paradise said as he welcomed an unprecedented number of movie-goers. Indeed, there was not a single seat left, not including five directors chairs that were set aside for a few lucky people on the waitlist that had more than 35 names on it, this reporter included.

Still, before the doors closed and the lights dimmed, people waited restlessly in the wings, hoping for a chance to see the beloved film.

Produced by Nancy Hamilton and her partner Katharine Cornell in 1971, the 84-minute documentary holds a special place in the hearts of Islanders and examines issues prevalent at the time: land development, industrialization, zoning issues, and the difficulties of sustaining a year-round economy.

“There are many parallels to what’s going on today,” author and historian Tom Dunlop said. “Today it represents a passage of time and a change in technology. We are better equipped to deal with some of these issues now, but back then it was a different story.”

The documentary, shot entirely on 16mm, also includes an array of silent films from home movies donated by more than 30 Islanders, Mr. Dunlop said.

Regarded as one of the greatest stage actresses of the 20th century, the film opens with Ms. Cornell breaking an invisible barrier known as the fourth-wall, posing a seemingly simple question to the audience. “Who are we?” she asks solemnly, as the camera continues to pan across a wind-blown dune.

From here the viewer is transported back to 1970 through a series of aerial shots. Starting with Vineyard Haven harbor, it continued all the way up to the Coast Guard station in Menemsha. All the while, a variety of voices, like ghosts of the Island’s past, tell their own personal anecdotes with the Island and its inhabitants.

After a few minutes of standing in the aisle to catch a sneak peak, Mr. Dunlop sat down with The Times to discuss the film and its importance to the Island community.

“This is more than a cult following,” Mr. Dunlop said in response to a question about the evening’s turnout. “This is an entire cross-section of Island residents. Some of the people here tonight were around when the film was first released. People continue to connect with it.”

But why now, after all this time, does it continue to resonate?

“People love history,” Mr. Dunlop said. “And this is history coming to life with a story playing out in real time.”

Hopefully, the film will be shown again so that everyone will get to experience history in the making.