A growing Island trade: The art of filmmaking

Thomas Bena, founder of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival, is a filmmaker himself. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard is home to all sorts of art forms, from photography to music, painting to poetry. Over the past decade another art scene has increasingly shown its face across the Island, one that allows for the world to be brought here and vice versa: Filmmaking.

To learn about the lives and works of some of the filmmakers who were raised here or washed ashore later on, The Times interviewed several of the Island’s well-known filmmakers. Stay tuned for Part II in the August Arts issue, to be published August 2.

Taylor Toole

Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard and now living in New York as an independent freelance filmmaker is director/writer/videographer Taylor Toole, known best for his films “Mow Crew” and “Standing Up,” both of which were shot on the Island.

“People tell you that one thing you need for a good story or film is conflict, which the Island has so much of,” said Mr. Toole. “There are people who want to preserve the Island or expand their business, there are summer people and year-round people…With so much going on in one place, the Island is like a microcosm of the whole country.”

Mr. Toole’s interest in filmmaking sparked in grade school (at the Oak Bluffs Elementary School) when he experimented with shooting action films for fun. After graduating with a film degree from Emerson College he returned to the Island, where he made his first substantial film, an 18-minute short called “Standing Up.” The film was featured at the Boston Independent Film Festival and in Island theaters.

Despite the excitement of New York, Mr. Toole returns to the Island to make his films. “It’s where I grew up so it’s what I know. Besides, anywhere you point a camera on Martha’s Vineyard you’ll have something beautiful to shoot,” he said.

In 2008, Mr. Toole shot his first feature-length film, “Mow Crew,” about a fictional Island couple who get discovered playing music together at a local venue and have to say good-bye to Martha’s Vineyard before pursuing fame in a big city. The movie tells the story of their last day on the Island and follows the woman, for whom the opportunity is a dream come true, and the man, who is pained to part with his home. Said Mr. Toole, “I identify with both [characters].”

The poignant film was shown at multiple film festivals such as the Boston Independent Film Festival where it won the Indie Spirit Award, the Woods Hole Film Festival where it won the Audience Award, Connecticut’s Kent Film Festival at which it won Best Feature, and at various local theatres. “Mow Crew” is available at Island Entertainment and Above Ground Records.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have people like Benjamin Hall [Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven], Thomas Bena [Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival], and Richard Paradise [Martha’s Vineyard Film Society] show my movies, and to have the opportunity to see how audiences respond to the them,” said Mr. Toole. “Having people want to come out and see them gives me a lot of confidence.”

These days Mr. Toole drifts toward genre films, aiming to shoot a whodunit thriller on the Island throughout the summer. “Hopefully, it’s going to be a really scary and fun film about the risks present whenever you go on vacation, whether it’s M.V. or anywhere,” he said.

Brooklyn-based during the rest of the year, Mr. Toole does documentary shorts for musicians and tattoo artists, one of the most recent being a profile of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for hip hop band The Roots.

“I’ve lived in New York for eight years, but I’ve almost found it easier to collaborate with other people on the Vineyard than in the city. There is some really cool filmmaking on the Island, even though there isn’t as much as in New York,” said Mr. Toole. “I keep coming back because when you’re an artist, the Island makes you feel special.”

Visit taylortoole.com for information about Mr. Toole’s past and upcoming projects.

Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham

After having lived in China and California, Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham – the couple that makes up Film-Truth Productions (film-truth.com) – migrated back to the East Coast to create a company that aspires to bring important social issues to the forefront of society.

The two returned to the Island in 2003 to begin their independent documentary film company, and soon after they were hired by the Aronie family of Chilmark to document the progression of their son Dan’s multiple sclerosis (MS). The film, called “A Certain Kind of Beauty,” won an American Film Institute (AFI) SilverDocs award, raised money for the MS community, and helped to define the mission of Film-Truth.

“Our mission is to capture ‘truth,’ which is an elusive thing,” said Ms. Witham. “The stories that we cover are things we think are important for a better understanding of the world.”

Ms. Witham and Mr. Wentworth concentrate on global issues such as health, criminal justice, and sustainability, yet, being based on the Island, much of their inspiration comes directly from home.

“There are many issues on the Island that have inspired projects. They are personal to us here, but they are also meaningful to the larger worldwide community,” Ms. Witham said.

Some of their subjects include affordable housing on the Island (“A Home for us All”), overcoming struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, and incarceration (SAMSHA People’s Voice Award-winner “The Legacy of the Harp”), and, most currently, sustainability both on the Island and throughout the world (“The Greening of Eden”). They also do a variety of media for organizations, businesses, and individuals.

Film-Truth productions has worked with nonprofits on the Island such as Island Affordable Housing, Island Grown Schools, Living Local, ACE MV, Sense of Wonder, Windemere, and the YMCA, as well as educational institutes on the mainland. As stated on their website, “We partner with organizations that can use our films to affect social change.”

They have recently concentrated on Island arts through an episodic video project called DocuTunes (docutunes.ning.com), in which they feature local musicians such as Ben Taylor, Nina Violet, and Colin Ruel.

“The Island is great for arts in general. It’s a very nurturing environment where you have time and space to think about things,” Ms. Witham said. “There is no hustle and bustle the way there is in places like New York City. You can take a breath here.”

Their films can be found at the Island’s public libraries.

Thomas Bena

Thomas Bena had little connection to Martha’s Vineyard before moving here in 1997 with a passion to help develop and contribute to the growing film scene.

Mr. Bena grew up in Middleboro and graduated with a degree in marketing from UMass Amherst but, realizing that he preferred film to the business world, moved to the Island where he worked as a carpenter and helped with local film projects on the side.

One of the first projects he assisted with was local filmmaker Brian Ditchfield’s film “Marlboro Patch.” Now the two work together at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF), which Mr. Bena founded in 2001.

“When Brian came I was so excited to be helping with his film. Being around filmmaker energy was great. But then he left, and filling that hole was what started the Film Fest,” said Mr. Bena.

In addition to bringing films to the Island and working with other filmmakers at the festival, Mr. Bena is currently wrapping up his nights and weekends work of the past 10 years, a documentary that explores the idea of “home” on the Island.

“The documentary asks questions about how we design our communities and whether or not the way we do it now really serves us in the long run,” said Mr. Bena. Watch the trailer at thomasbena.com.

The idea sprung from his years as a carpenter building large trophy homes that remained empty for the majority of the year. “Many of [the carpenters] felt like we were actually harming the Island. It was a waste of resources in the era of global warming, and it just felt wrong,” he said.

Mr. Bena focuses on some of the Island’s century-old homes like the Allen Farm, summer homes, the perspective of workers who build the mansions, and that of his own family.

“The mission of the Film Festival is to spark discussion, debate, and action, and with my film, it’s the same thing. The motivation comes from the desire to get together with people and talk about the things that are hard to talk about,” he said.

Mr. Bena has received assistance from local organizations such as MVTV, from whom he learned to edit and from where he rented equipment. He is also supported greatly by the local filmmaking community, with footage shot by himself, Mr. Ditchfield, and other local filmmakers such as Jeremy Mayhew, Sarah Nesson, Bob Morrison, and Kate Davis. The film is currently being edited by Jim Cricchi and will likely be finished this winter.

Of the Island filmmakers, Mr. Bena said, “If one of us needs something we’ll all help. There’s a real tribe here.”