‘One Big Home’ documentary asks: Is bigger better?

Thomas Bena at the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival —Ralph Stewart

Updated 9:30 am, Friday, July 29

Thomas Bena’s new film, “One Big Home,” raises questions about the costs of living in a community of trophy houses. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival founder’s documentary plays on Friday, July 29, and again on Monday, August 8, at the Chilmark Community Center.

Mr. Bena discussed the project, 12 years in the making, in an MV Times interview earlier this week. “It’s my first feature-length documentary,” he said. Mr. Bena has made film shorts about surfing, and one about the late Wampanoag medicine man Luther Madison that played at the Woods Hole Film Festival. “One Big Home” premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April, and will play at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Monday, August 1. Earlier Island screenings have sold out, and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival is considering additional showings to accommodate the interest.

“One Big Home” started as an indictment, according to Mr. Bena, then turned into a more nuanced exploration. “As I met people with big houses, I realized they weren’t bad people,” Mr. Bena said. He described the ways his life changed over the years as he married and became a father, how that influenced his approach to the issue of big houses. His wife Mollie Doyle pushed him to pursue the real story and go deeper. Also inspirational was mindfulness training coach and former Buddhist monk Jake Davis. The filmmaker said Mr. Davis asked him, “Why don’t you try to understand the perspectives of the people you’re interviewing, and not be so judgmental?” Three editors, Liz Witham, Jim Cricchi, and James Holland, helped shape the 260-plus hours of footage into the finished film. As it developed, “One Big Home” expanded beyond its cinematic boundaries.

“I decided we should try to effect change in the community,” Mr. Bena said. “That added two years to the project.” In 2013, Chilmark passed by a two-thirds vote its current bylaw restricting house size to 3,500 square feet. Leadership by the late Daniel Greenbaum and other members of the planning board guided the size limit into law. “They did the yeomen’s work,” Mr. Bena said. According to him, the average size of new houses in Chilmark has decreased by 40 percent, although some pressure to subdivide — building two houses in place of a single large one — has developed. “This is just one small step,” the filmmaker said. It is an example of what Chilmark resident Chris Murphy says in the film: “a community gets to decide its own destiny”

The support of the seasonal community was important, and some even changed their legal residence so they could vote for the bylaw. Because Mr. Bena worked for six years as a carpenter, the issue of how size limits affected construction workers was a sensitive one. The film has interviews with many Islanders, including Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill, who calls the proliferation of trophy houses “a rupture in the fabric of the community,” and urges that Islanders pay attention to the Vineyard’s sense of place. Repeated interviews with Peter Breese, an architect who designs large houses, remained respectful and informative. Mr. Bena will join film editor Liz Witham and film subjects Peter Breese and Chris Murphy with screenwriter Misan Sagay for a postscreening discussion on July 29. On August 8, editor James Holland, Tobias Vanderhoop, and David Silverman will join the discussion. For information and tickets, visit tmvff.org.