Social issues reign at M.V. Film Festival

Hanna's Journey is one of the films slated for this summer's MVFF. — Courtesy MVFF

Chilmark’s Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, which has expanded its screenings to five of the Island’s towns, will screen two social action documentaries next week. Director Rory Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” plays Wednesday, July 9, at the Chilmark Community Center, with dinner offered before the film, and the director will answer questions after the film. On Thursday, July 10, “Appropriate Behavior” will screen at Edgartown’s Harbor View Hotel. Across town in Vineyard Haven, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center features a new, re-mastered version of the classic Beatles film, “A Hard Day’s Night” on July 4 and opens “Whitey,” a gripping documentary about Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

Members of the generation that came of age during the early 70s will recall the vivid images of South Vietnamese desperately attempting to reach an evacuation helicopter landing on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The year was 1975, and filmmaker Kennedy’s harrowing film documents the 24-hour period when the U.S. pulled out of South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese Army took over. A preview of “Last Days in Vietnam,” which opened at Sundance, was not available for viewing, but Bob Nelson of Variety praises the film as “a worthy addition to the historical record.”

At the heart of the film is the moral dilemma faced by the American officials ordered by the White House to evacuate only U.S. citizens. Ms. Kennedy mixes archival footage of the U.S. withdrawal with more recent interviews of U.S. officials who were present during the evacuation. Although the late Ambassador Graham Martin has been criticized for not preparing properly for the siege and takeover of Saigon, other government officials defied their orders and shipped out 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees.

Playing on Thursday, July 10, “Appropriate Behavior” is a comedy that addresses the dilemmas of a young, bisexual Iranian-American woman living in Brooklyn. The film is directed by Lena Dunham of “Girls.”

Harrowing documentary on Boston’s legendary crime boss

Not to be missed is the new documentary film about James “Whitey” Bulger, the South Boston gangster and crime boss who wreaked havoc in the city for almost 30 years. Playing this week at the M.V. Film Center, “Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger” tracks the arrest and trial of the ruthless criminal, whose brother, William Bulger, served as President of the Massachusetts Senate and President of the University of Massachusetts.

More gripping than even the best fictional crime stories, “Whitey” reveals how Bulger developed connections with state police, the F.B.I., and the U.S. Department of Justice that allowed him free reign of Boston. Once captured, Whitey was prosecuted for 19 murders, racketeering, money laundering, and conspiracy charges.

Much of the strength of Joe Berlinger’s film comes from the way the director compares testimony from prosecutors and defense lawyers in Whitey’s 2013 trial. The documentary demonstrates the tangled web of corruption that kept FBI agents protecting Bulger instead of tracking him down. Using overhead tracking shots of the South Boston area where Whitey grew up and lived, combined with views of downtown Boston’s federal courthouse, the director often situates the individuals he interviews at the wheel of their cars.

The basic premise of “Whitey” is that while this gangster was willing to cop to murder, racketeering, and other crimes, he refused to admit to being an informant for the FBI. Such an admission would oppose the “good” bad guy ethics that characterized Whitey and other members of Boston’s Irish mafia. Although he did not end up testifying during his trial, Whitney did go on record as believing that federal law enforcement was more corrupt than criminals like himself. In addition, the director argues that the FBI and the Department of Justice were obsessed with tracking down the Italian mafia and ignored the widespread criminal activities of Boston’s Irish gangs, like the Winter Hill mob.

‘Hanna’s Journey’

The 2014 film series of the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute opens on Sunday, July 6, with a 7:30 pm screening of the award-winning romantic comedy, “Hanna’s Journey,” at the M.V. Film Center in Vineyard Haven.

In this 2013 film from director Julia von Heinz, Hanna is a young German woman traveling to Israel to work with mentally handicapped adults and visit a Holocaust survivor. Her journey has been calculated to impress a board considering her for a position at a huge consulting firm, but what she didn’t plan for was Itay, the handsome young Israeli counselor who becomes her mentor. She also didn’t plan on the elderly female survivor who sees through Hanna’s motives and reveals some startling facts about Hanna’s own past. What began as a brief trip to establish credentials for her prospective employers becomes a journey across cultures and into the center of her own heart and mind.

“Hanna’s Journey” is the first of six Sunday night screenings in this year’s series of the Summer Institute, a program of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

-Nis Kildegaard

New version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

In a special July 4 screening, the M.V. Film Center presents a newly re-mastered version of the classic Beatles documentary, “A Hard Day’s Night.” Director Richard Lester’s film follows a day in the life of the famous British musical ensemble and includes many of their most famous songs.

“A Hard Day’s Night,” Friday, July 4, 7:30 pm, and Saturday, July 5, 9:30 pm.

“Hanna’s Journey,” Hebrew Center Summer Institute Film Series at M.V. Film Center, Sunday, July 6, 7:30 pm, $12; $9 Summer Institute sponsors via, and at door.

“Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger,” Monday, July 7, Tuesday, July 8, and Thursday, July 10, 7:30 pm.

“The Last Days of Vietnam,” Wednesday, July 9, 8 pm, The M.V. Film Festival, Chilmark Community Center. For tickets, and information, see

“And So It Goes,” N.Y. Film Critics National Series, with Rob Reiner, Wednesday, July 9, 7:30 pm. Special pricing. All screenings at M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven unless otherwise noted. Tickets, except for special pricing events, $12 (MV Film Society members, $9; 14 and under $7).  For tickets and information, see

“Appropriate Behavior,” Thursday, July 10, 8 pm, The M.V. Film Festival, Harbor View Hotel, North Water St., Edgartown. For tickets and information, see

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that U.S. troops left Saigon in 1975, not 1973.