Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival returns with a stacked schedule

A scene from "Holy Hell." —Photo Courtesy of MVFF

Every March, right around the time that many Islanders have reached a catatonic winter stage, the annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival comes to the Island to liven things up.

For 16 years, the MVFF has delivered not only films, but food, music, and art to Chilmark, along with visiting filmmakers, film subjects, and cinephiles from all over the country.

The four-day event gives Islanders the chance to check out a variety of fascinating films — some under the radar, some soon-to-be-released studio-backed films — all while mixing and mingling with the community and representatives of the film industry.

Q & As with visiting filmmakers are a big part of festival’s appeal. This year, 15 films will include talks with directors, film subjects, and experts, giving audience members the chance to dig deeper into these fascinating stories.

Among other treats, this year attendees will have the chance to meet the group of brothers featured in the much-talked-about documentary “The Wolfpack”; view the feature documentary “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru” before it is released on Netflix in July; take part in a Skype Q & A with the directors of the Sundance Grand Jury Prizewinner “Weiner,” a surprisingly candid look at the scandal-plagued ex-congressman; and be among the first to check out the latest film by Werner Herzog, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

While these may be some of the most talked-about highlights of the film festival, there’s a lot to be gained by either attending the entire weekend lineup or checking in at some of the less busy hours of the festival.

“Sometimes the most interesting are the moments in between,” says Dawn Bellante, who has purchased a full festival pass and attended the entire weekend for the past 13 years. “It’s about opening yourself up to something different. Some of the movies that have impacted me the most are ones that I had no expectations about. It’s not always the films we think we would be most interested in. It’s often the ones we watched almost fortuitously.”

Festival programming and managing director Brian Ditchfield finds that the atmosphere is almost as important as the films themselves: “If someone’s never experienced the festival before, they should just come up and hang out. Some of our favorite stuff happens in between the movies. You get a chance to meet and hang out with filmmakers. Because we’re all on one campus, it really allows for a shared experience.”

That experience includes a lot more than just film viewing. The festival features live music, farm-fresh food by Robert Lionette of Morning Glory Farm, kids’ programming, an art installation, and art demos by Ken Vincent and Traeger diPietro.

Once again, the organizers will set up the “Hay Café,” an informal heated space under a tent outside where visitors can enjoy local coffee and treats, sit on hay bales, and listen to live music. It’s generally a happening spot, where filmmakers, film students, and movie lovers can be found exchanging thoughts, ideas for new projects, and sometimes establishing working relationships.

“The space is transformed,” Ms. Bellante says. “There’s incredible food. It’s almost worth going there just to have lunch, sit on hay bales, and enjoy some of the artwork. There’s also the bonus of getting to talk to the filmmakers.”

Of course, the quality and the variety of the films is what leads to such a rich and stimulating atmosphere. Each year, MVFF staff members attend the Sundance and Toronto film festivals in search of new films. Because the festival has earned a great reputation in the industry, the organizers are able to get hold of some very desirable films and attract attendees, including filmmakers and film subjects.

While last year’s selections tended to be more topic-focused, this year many of the films are subject-driven. Popular films from the 2015 festival included “Cartel Land,” about drug trafficking, and “The Hunting Ground,” which shone a spotlight on college date rape. Both films earned Oscar nominations. This year, filmgoers will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with some fascinating people.

Some of Mr. Ditchfield’s personal favorites include “Sonita,” the story of a young female Afghan refugee who dreams of being a rapper; “Presenting Princess Shaw,” about an unlikely online viral sensation; and “Holy Hell,” which documents the filmmaker’s 20 years living in a cult.

Other documentary portraits highlight poet Maya Angelou, mother/son team Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, legendary jockey A.P. McCoy, and Selvi, a young Indian woman in an abusive arranged marriage.

Festival selections will also tackle some timely issues like childhood traumatic stress, new findings on cancer causation, and the fight for reproductive rights. The screening of the film “Heroin: Cape Cod, USA” has been moved to the high school’s Performing Arts Center to accommodate the large number of people interested in this important, locally oriented subject.

Some of the quirkier docs focus on an orchestra in Paraguay whose musicians have created all of their instruments from recycled materials; three transgender people in search of “The Perfect Suit,” and competitive tickling (yes, competitive tickling — and it’s not as fun as it sounds).

Although the festival is, as always, documentary-heavy, there are also a few awardwinning narrative films.

New this year are a couple of free programs, including a Saturday-morning presentation of works in progress by some up-and-coming filmmakers, and weekend-long children’s programming, including activities and films, hosted by Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern.

MVFF founder and executive and creative director Thomas Bena describes how the festival has grown in scope over the years: “It’s a film festival, but in a way it’s really a community festival. There’s a vibrancy there.”

Filmgoers like Ms. Bellante find the festival experience a relief from the the remote nature of the Vineyard off-season. “It really replicates the experience that you find in the city,” Ms. Bellante says. “Having moved here from an urban area, I found it so special to be able to immerse myself in a cultural experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have in the winter on the Island.”

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