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.
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.
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.”
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.