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Thomas Bena

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The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival brings international talent and topics to the Island.

An audience takes in a film at the Chilmark Community Center. – Photo by Maria Thibodeau

From the scene inside a tent hanging off the side of a 20,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas to the midst of a smoke-filled gunfight between Mexican drug cartel gangs, some of the country’s hottest independent filmmakers brought audiences at the 15th annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival to places very few will ever witness firsthand.

The range of movies presented at last weekend’s four-day festival represented some of the most daring — both physically and professionally — work to be found in the documentary arena today. Among the selections were the aforementioned, Meru and Cartel Land respectively, along with the story of a British journalist who spent 118 days as a political prisoner in Iran, an indictment of the administrations of universities from Harvard to Notre Dame to Florida State University on their handling of sexual-abuse cases, to an exposé on the Church of Scientology that piles up one startling revelation after another.

Not all of the selections dealt with weighty subjects. The documentary-heavy lineup also featured uplifting human-interest stories, like a profile of concert pianist Seymour Bernstein, and the story of a young man who took on the challenge of a solo nonstop sail around the Americas, as well as a handful of narrative films, including a few comedies.

But if a theme had to be extrapolated from this year’s festival, it would be human endurance. Many of the selections proved that with passion and determination, a committed individual can overcome all obstacles.

From left to right: Diana Whitten (director of Vessel), Miriam Hawley and Vilunya Diskin (co-founders of Our Bodies Ourselves), Andrea Pino and Annie Clark (film subjects of The Hunting Ground), and documentarian and MVFF board member Dawn Porter. – Photo by Maria Thibodeau


One of the best things about the festival was that, as always, many of these brave individuals, both filmmakers and film subjects, were on hand to add further insight to their films and to field audience questions. More than half of the festival’s 22 featured films were followed by live or live-video Q & A sessions. Skype technology, new to the festival this year, was employed very effectively for postscreening discussions with, among others, Emmy and Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney and the subject of Jon Stewart’s film Rosewater.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman, whose film Cartel Land was honored with Best Director and Best Cinematography awards at Sundance, was on hand for discussions after both screenings of his film.

Cartel Land, which will be released theatrically around the country in July, was offered as a special “sneak peek” screening at the Film Festival. Mr. Heinemann was happy to share his remarkable film with Island audiences, partly because he has a long history with the Vineyard, as well as a connection to the Film Festival. The filmmaker has been visiting his family’s home here since he was a child. As a teenager, he spent a couple of years working as a volunteer for the festival. Two years ago he was on hand for a Film Festival screening of his previous film, Escape Fire, which focuses on the state of the American health care industry.

“I have screened all my films here,” said Mr. Heinemann. “I’ve spent my entire life coming here. I love the community. It’s always interesting to hear what people here have to say. It’s a pretty opinionated group. You always get questions you don’t get elsewhere. I love being challenged and hearing other points of view.”

Mr. Heinemann said that Cartel Land is the film that is most “deeply personal” to him. “I was embedded with these groups for over a year,” he said, referring to the armed citizen defense groups that he profiles, along with American vigilantes, in his amazingly up-close and personal look at violence in Mexico.

Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, subjects from the film The Hunting Ground, participated in an extensive audience discussion on Saturday night. The two young women who have turned their experiences as rape victims into a full-time crusade to change legislation in this country, were rewarded here for their efforts when festival founder and executive director Thomas Bena passed around a donation basket on their behalf to raise money for their organization, End Rape on Campus (endrapeoncampus.org). Both women stuck around all weekend, taking advantage of the socializing nature of the festival to raise awareness for their cause.

Children participated in festival activities at the Chilmark library. – Photo by Maria Thibodeau
Children participated in festival activities at the Chilmark library. – Photo by Maria Thibodeau

The festival sprawled across the area, encompassing a number of facilities in Chilmark. Screenings took place at the Chilmark Community Center and the Chilmark School. Children’s films and activities took place at the Chilmark library, and in a makeshift art shack. The Hay Cafe, a heated tent furnished with hay bales and picnic tables, served as an entryway and gathering space. Between screenings, attendees dined communally at long wooden tables, enjoyed entertainment provided by a laundry list of local musicians, perused the collection of paintings by local artists, and mingled with filmmakers, film subjects, and fellow spectators.

The food this year was provided by Robert Lionette of Morning Glory Farms, who prepared a different farm-to-table entrée and salad each day. In the Hay Cafe filmgoers could purchase Chilmark Coffee Company coffee, Not Your Sugar Mamas chocolate, Morning Glory Farm popcorn, cookies, and wine and beer.

The scene, as always, was a lively and convivial one. The festival attracts a wide range of movie fans representing all ages and all walks of life, and both visitors and locals. It’s a special treat for attendees to get the chance to interact with the filmmakers, and the filmmakers themselves find that the festival allows for a welcome exchange of both ideas and resources.

“Finish funds have been raised for movies here in the past,” said programming/managing director Brian Ditchfield. “At least one filmmaker hired an editor that he met here.”

Brian Ditchfield, Programming/Managing Director of the Film Festival, congratulates his sister, Miriam Ditchfield, skyping in after the showing of her short, "Day 90." – Photo by Maria Thibodeau
Brian Ditchfield, Programming/Managing Director of the Film Festival, congratulates his sister, Miriam Ditchfield, skyping in after the showing of her short, “Day 90.” – Photo by Maria Thibodeau

Actor/writer/filmmaker Peter Stray, whose short film You Were Great in This Scene was part of the Vineyard Shorts screening, has found that the festival provides many opportunities. “It’s a great way to get audience response,” he said. “I can also network as an actor as well as being here for my film. Making connections like this beats mailing out 100 résumés and head shots.”

While the festival here is far less of a celebrity schmoozefest than many of the larger film festivals, it has quickly earned a reputation among the film industry. “This year we had more submissions than ever from filmmakers and distributors,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “For the first time, I came out of all of this thinking that we could have a weeklong festival.”

While gaining national attention and attracting filmmakers from all over the country is flattering to Mr. Bena, what he was most pleased about was the hyperlocal nature of the festival.

Speaking of the Saturday morning film and breakfast event that featured The Future of Farming: Five Short Films, which brought together people involved in local agriculture, Mr. Bena said, “When we played the farming shorts here, there was this feeling that something happened. The visions were more realized than before.

“This is not a movie theater we’re building. It’s a gathering place and an arena for discussion. To have this level of industry success is amazing. But to realize community success on the same level is just as great,” said Mr. Bena.

Seems like the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival team is doing something right. Not only did sales increase from last year by 800 additional tickets sold, but three patrons made very generous contributions to the cause of some of the film subjects.

“That’s the sort of thing Brian and I are most proud of. Our mission is to produce community events, educational programs, and films that spark discussion, debate, and action,” said Mr. Bena.

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Prior to the Sunday night screening of "Maidentrip," festival-goers were treated to a documentary made by Cinema Circus children over the weekend. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s annual March festival saw strong attendance from last Thursday through Sunday as many ventured up Island or to Edgartown to enjoy movies, music, and Q&A sessions at the Chilmark Community Center, Chilmark School, Chilmark Library, and Entertainment Cinemas.

The celebration peaked on the last day, Sunday, March 16, with “Burt’s Buzz” and second showings of “North of the Sun” and “WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” completely selling out. The most special portion of that Sunday, if not the four day event overall, was Cinema Circus children’s programming. Cinema Circus kids had worked with adults to make their own short films over the course of the festival. Sunday was the day those kids got to see their handiwork.

Children worked hard all weekend, with instructors such as Reece Robinson, center, to make their own movies.
Children worked hard all weekend, with instructors such as Reece Robinson, center, to make their own movies.

As the sun set Sunday, musician and Vineyard Shorts participant Dana Edelman and West Tisbury Poet Laureate Justen Ahern entertained folks under the Hay Café tent with acoustic guitar and song. As 6 pm approached, parents and children gathered in the Chilmark Library with festival director Thomas Bena, managing director Brian Ditchfield, children’s program director Alexandra London-Thompson, and instructors from Cinema Circus to watch three shorts that festival staffers Elina Street and Reece Robinson had worked deep into the previous night to edit in time for the showing. The shorts constituted the combined efforts of dozens of junior filmmakers who had participated in Cinema Circus activities over the weekend. The results on the screen were: “The Book that the Cinema Circus Kids Wrote” (brought to life with sound effects and animation), a stop animation short featuring children, and a children’s documentary about the festival.

Violet Cabot, a sixth grader at the West Tisbury School, helped to make the documentary. “I thought making the documentary was a fun and new experience for me to contribute to,” Violet said. “It was exciting to learn about the process of making a documentary and I now will appreciate the thought and time put into them. I enjoyed the group and hope they do it again next year.”

Nicole Cabot, Violet’s mother, added: “Violet took part in the film class at her school this year, which got her excited about the festival. The MVFF led a six-week class for sixth through eighth graders about documentary filmmaking. As a parent, I feel these collaborations are what make our schools so strong and our children so fortunate.”

Thirteen-year-old Jack Iannotti enjoyed donning different hats during the production process. “It was a unique experience,” he said. “It was a lot of fun trying every part of filmmaking. My favorite was learning about different people, where they come from, and why they were at the festival.”

Festival founder Thomas Bena introducing "Maidentrip."
Festival founder Thomas Bena introducing “Maidentrip.”

Eleven-year-old Bryce Clark really enjoyed working with audio. “My favorite part of the whole workshop was monitoring the sound,” he said. “I wore headphones and had to make sure the audio was loud enough. We even interviewed someone in Puerto Rico through Skype on an iPad. I was at the film festival because my mom made a film for the shorts series. While we were there for that, I got to do the workshop and make a film with our awesome instructor, Marcus, and our team, the Marshmallow Pies from Space. We premiered our film on Sunday night and I was proud to see it all come together. Our group was awesome. The younger group made an illustrated book with sounds and it really made me laugh.”

Many of those sounds came from versatile kindergartener Cassidy Kirschenbaum. “Cassidy!” exclaimed Cinema Circus instructor Hanna MacDougall. “Yes, he did provide not only the memorable ‘Meow’ [‘Cat Bus’ from ‘The Book that Cinema Circus Kids Wrote’] but also the subtle harmonica sound for the mouse as well as the powerful drum for the volcano. He was certainly a crucial part to the success of the short film. He also played the role of ‘Eel’ in a short skit they created earlier. He truly committed to his role with facial features and all.”

When asked what he thought when he heard his voice in the film Cassidy said, “I could tell it was me!”

Twelve-year-old Dash Christy did extensive camera work for Cinema Circus projects. “I thought it was a great experience. I love making movies, especially stop animation. I’ve always wanted to be an animator.”

Families watched the fruits of their children's labor.
Families watched the fruits of their children’s labor.

“Dash is such an exceptional and mature young man,” Ms. MacDougall said. “He was a big help and ensured that each kid got a turn in the making of the documentary. He was very knowledgeable and provided guidance to many of the younger kids. The other kids really looked up to him and certainly listened to him when he spoke or made suggestions.”

Isaac Silber-Parr, a third grader at the Edgartown School, needed a little convincing to participate in Cinema Circus. After he dove in, he not only found himself enjoying the experience but also  found his technical prowess was very much appreciated. “This was his first year participating in the Cinema Circus events so he hadn’t known what to expect,” said Laura Silber, Isaac’s mother. “He had been hesitant to go but it turned out that he really enjoyed it.  He is very proficient on the computer and the iPad, and is very interested in cartooning — he draws his own comic books and flip books — so I had a feeling that this introduction to stopmotion was going to be really intriguing for him. He came prepared with his own Lego figures to use and an idea for a story. The workshop was really hands-on, with the kids broken up into small groups for the film-making component. We’ll definitely participate in more of the kids events next year.”

“Isaac was so much fun to work with,” Ms. MacDougall said. “He did indeed help out with some technological difficulties that I was having and saved the day. He, along with his friend Sam [Fetters] came prepared with their own props [Star Wars Legos] and ideas for a stop motion film. They were so excited and really came up with some great ideas. Their group created an epic fight scene between their Lego Star Wars characters. Isaac enthusiastically provided the background music by singing and recording the Star Wars theme song music. Their excitement and enthusiasm during this program was contagious and certainly captured the essence of what this program was designed to do.”

“I liked that you could actually make a movie with stop animation,” Isaac said. “I helped them with their iPad. They couldn’t get the sound on. I noticed this hatch that happened to be on my iPad too, and I knew what to do.”

After the selection of children’s productions were screened in the library, attendees poured into the Chilmark Community Center for “Maidentrip,” the final film of the festival. Before the lights dimmed, musician Nina Violet sang and played guitar for the audience. What hit the screen first wasn’t “Maidentrip,” however. Because they found it so well made, Mr. Ditchfield and Mr. Bena chose to run the children’s documentary on the big screen as an extra so as many festival goers as possible could see the kids’ filmcraft. Applause, cheers, and laughter rose repeatedly during the screening.

Mara Ditchfield, sister of Brian Ditchfield, summed up the festival by explaining what she loved about it. “There are two parts of the festival that I love, the community and the indulgence,”she said. “I love that it’s supported by the community for the community. I love the fact that you can be eating Chris Fischer’s cooking, drinking Chilmark Coffee, and watching a movie sponsored by Tilton Tents next to someone you haven’t seen since November all while a group of children are learning how to make a documentary right next door. All that coupled by watching a movie we might not get an opportunity to see otherwise, on a couch. The couch is pretty key. I mean there are two ways to truly watch a film, in the theater, or from the comfort of a couch. This is the amalgamation of both. I love it.”

Also a presenter in the Vineyard Shorts category, she added: “It’s was really wonderful to get to the opportunity to screen something in my hometown, surrounded by my community and my family.”

To watch the children’s film, visit http://vimeo.com/89353222.

For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, visit tmvff.org.