Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival: A community effort

The first film, "Escape Fire," and five others were sold out. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

It started with a sold out show about health care in America and ended with another sellout – a film that touched on apartheid in South Africa.

Over three days of cinema, talks, music, and food at the Chilmark Community Center, almost half of the 14 films at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival drew capacity crowds. All played to packed houses, and a number of the selections focused on political and social issues.

The Vineyard audience’s interest in educating themselves on topics such as health care reform, non-violent revolution, bullying, and animal extinction was obvious, not only in the number of attendees at films centering on these problems but in the audience engagement in Q&As following the screenings.

The 12th annual festival was the most successful to date: six of 14 films played to capacity crowds, and food, merchandise, and membership sales reached record numbers. The Community Center was a hive of activity during all three days of the festival, even during the traditionally slower morning and early afternoon screenings.

And it was truly a community-fueled event. A roster of all the 603 people participating –— staff, volunteers and members — was posted prominently in the Community Center and was referred to often by Thomas Bena, the festival’s founder, producer, and creative director.

The opening flick, “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare,” was sold out by late Friday morning, prompting the festival organizers to add a second screening for 8 am on Sunday. The film’s director Matthew Heineman addressed audience questions and concerns after the initial screening, along with one of the experts featured in the film, Dr. Don Berwick. Mr. Heineman previously worked as a volunteer at the festival. Dr. Berwick was once a seasonal emergency room doctor here.

A very different sort of film — a comedy about a semi-pro hockey player — followed the festival opener on Friday night. The author and the subject of the book on which the film was based fielded questions after the flick.

All told, five of the films were accompanied by question and answer sessions. One director, one film editor, and a handful of film subjects were on hand to enlighten audiences on a variety of topics. The Q&As were very well attended and made it obvious that audience members were engaged — and often inspired — by the topics. A woman at the opening screening spontaneously initiated a sign-up for those interested in improving our local health care system.

The expert invitees were impressed with the festival, which despite its small scale has become well known and respected in the film world. Though they have turned down a number of film festival invitations, two members of the Albert Einstein Institute accompanied the film, “How to Start a Revolution” about Nobel Prize nominee Gene Sharp.

In an interview prior to the screening, non-violent strategy expert Col. Robert Helvey said, “Though it’s small, it’s serious. It’s very well organized, very warm.” The retired U.S. Army colonel was also impressed with the Vineyard crowd. “This has been really special. This is a very committed community of dedicated people.”

As always, the Chilmark Community Center was completely transformed for the festival. A hay bale-filled tent that housed a bar and a coffee and dessert station was added this year to accommodate the yearly increase in crowds. The heated outdoor space was the scene of a closing night party and proved a popular hang-out spot in between films.

This year for the first time, the coveted couch seating in the screening room could be reserved for an additional fee. Local chef and Beetlebung Farm owner Chris Fischer provided food service all day, offering dishes that highlighted local meat and organic vegetables.

The festival has become, increasingly, a local-centric production. This year’s offerings included coffee by Chilmark Coffee Company, baked goods by Chilmark Cottage Bakers, and candy by Not Your Sugar Mamas. Photos by Charter School student Eli Dagostino, the festival’s official photographer for the second year in a row, decorated the indoor lounge area.

Local musicians were recruited to provide pre-show entertainment in the screening room and background music in the “Hay Café.” Jeremy Berlin chose cinematic tunes and jazz standards for a performance preceding a Saturday night screening and Island newcomer Dana Edelman did an impressive job rendering songs from Paul Simon’s Graceland before a film based on the controversy surrounding the making of that album.

The majority of the 2012 selections were documentaries. As Mr. Bena explained, “We have a hard time finding narrative films that we love. They get grabbed up by distributors at the big festivals.” In the ongoing search for new independent film releases, managing director Brian Ditchfield, along with his wife Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, attended both the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival last year. He explains what the festival staff values in a film. “We always look for what we call in the office ‘the ride.’ An experience that carries you and promotes conversation afterwards.”

Mr. Bena tends to favor films that inspire. “I like to show examples of people doing great things in their own life and in the world,” he said. “Films that people can sink their teeth into — that propel people.”

He commented on the power of a community screening when he noted that he was far more affected watching “The Lost Bird Project” (a film about extinction) at the festival than he was while previewing it at home. “Watching it here today with my daughter on my lap and my wife, I was crying. Sharing that with my community, I’m amazed how connected we are. I live to show films that demonstrate that.”

Gwyn McAllister of Oak Bluffs is a regular contributor to The Times.