Indie Fête

Martha's Vineyard Independent Film Festival at the Chilmark Community Center: Photo by Ralph Stewart
Miles of film decorated the Chilmark Community Center and film buffs made themselves comfortable on the floor, enjoying the food, the films, and the company. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Julian Wise - March 23, 2006

It's Friday night at the 6th annual Martha's Vineyard Independent Film Festival and the screening room is filled with a standing-room-only audience to watch "Her Name is Zelda," a documentary about Zelda Kaplan, an octogenarian New York City club habitué and human rights activist who turns traditional concepts of aging upside down. Her documentary has shown on the HBO and TriBeCa film festivals and she's appeared with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show alongside rapper Snoop Dog. At the end of the film, Ms. Kaplan herself stands in front of the audience to answer questions about women's rights in Africa and her experience being the subject of a controversial photo by button-pushing Manhattan photographer Andre Serrano. Railing against patriarchal laws in the African villages she's worked in, Ms. Kaplan fumes, "in some countries, the inheritance always goes to a _____," using a colloquial word for a phallic implement that draws applause and howls of laughter from the audience.

After the presentation, Ms. Kaplan joins audience members in the lobby for a latin-themed dance party. "I'm a lucky, lucky lady," she says about her experience being part of the film festival. "I was so surprised. I didn't even know there was a film festival on Martha's Vineyard. I would love it even without my film. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the films."

The film festival weekend was a buzzing, delightfully crowded affair, with scores of Islanders coming together to reconnect and enjoy thought-provoking films. From the searing sociology portrait of "Boys of Baraka," which chronicles at-risk African-American youth in Baltimore traveling to an experimental school in Kenya, to the provocative portrait of gender confusion explored in Neil Jordan's fictional "Life on Pluto," the festival continued to match founder Thomas Bena's goal of bringing people together to enjoy the power of story. "Fisher Poets," a poetic exploration of the maritime life, drew a standing- room-only crowd that gave the film a standing ovation at its completion. The open atmosphere of the event encouraged people to mingle with filmmakers, producers, and members of their own community they're often too busy to stop and talk to.

Audience member Amy Padalino says she was impressed how filmmakers and audience members interacted throughout the festival. "I was really impressed that the writer of [short film] "Papou and Yaya" said it was the actual story of his family," she says. "It's much more meaningful to have this kind of experience."

Nevette Previd, who's attended Sundance, called the Park City festival "over-branded" and said the Vineyard Festival has a more homegrown feel. "It's really fun and community oriented, a sense that everyone is discovering something together," she said.

Natasha London-Thompson, a graduate student at Harvard who came down to attend the festival, stopped a moment en route to a screening to say, "I brought three friends from Boston to be here for this."

Michael and Lynn Ditchfield of Edgartown said one of the best perks of the festival was reconnecting with their fellow Islanders during the festival. "I think that's a big part of the event, seeing all the people you know," Mr. Ditchfield said.

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.