Legendary Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn held that films with a message were outside the movie galaxy. “If you have a message,” he opined, ”call Western Union.”
Imagine Mr. Goldwyn’s surprise at the success of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s (MVFF) 17-year run, largely based on documentary and “message” movies that make us think. The 2017 summer film festival runs between June 28 and August 23, mostly at the Chilmark Community Center.
The MVFF begins its summer series at 7 pm on Wednesday, June 28, with “The Discovery,” a film from Charlie McDowell, a filmmaker with Island roots.
Mr. McDowell will attend, and his mother, actor and Island resident Mary Steenburgen, will moderate a Q and A after the screening. The film stars Robert Redford, Jason Segel, and Rooney Mara, and takes place in a reality where the afterlife has been scientifically proven. It is a fascinating recipe of science fiction, drama, comedy, and thriller.
Reached at his home in Los Angeles this week, Mr. McDowell said the Island’s visual mood and setting “were swirling around in my head from the beginning” of “The Discovery.”
Filmed in Newport, R.I., “The Discovery” is a love story, a father-son story, and explores some “what-if” aspects of life. “My writing partner, Justin Lader, came up with the idea: What if the afterlife had been scientifically proven, and we could revisit the biggest events — and mistakes — in our lives?” Mr. McDowell said, adding that the possibility has resonated with audiences.
MVFF’s filmfare relates with audiences in general, evidenced by audience numbers (estimated at 10,000), the number of sellout shows, and the sheer number of films now offered in its winter and summer series. MVFF also works on the filmgoer experience; couch seating, a definite fan favorite in the winter festival, has been added for this summer’s series.
Food offerings at the MVFF also reflect the event’s international flavor. Longtime caterer Jacqueline Foster will present fare from around the world for the double-feature evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays, and ticket prices have been restructured for greater affordability.
“We’re showing more films than we ever have, adding two films on Monday nights as well as on Wednesdays, and we’ve added additional outdoor screenings,” Brian Ditchfield, festival programming and managing director, told The Times this week.
He sees several reasons for the growth in quality filmmaking, Mr. Goldwyn’s admonition notwithstanding. “There is so much good stuff coming our way, it’s harder to say no. [The films] are thought-provoking,” he said.
Mr. Ditchfield said that the accessibility of good, affordable technology has led to more films being made, and that changes in journalism, particularly in TV journalism, have created opportunity for more filmmaking.
“The fast-paced, 24-hour news cycle does not fill the need [for in-depth understanding],” he said, citing the documentary “For Ahkeem,” a MVFF screening, as an example. It’s a documentary filmed over two years, about a 17-year-old St. Louis girl’s climb up from street life, against the backdrop of the Ferguson, Mo., shootings and riots. The title comes from her efforts on behalf of creating a better life for Ahkeem, her infant son.
The festival also features films like “Canaries,” a comic thriller from Peter Stray, shot on the Island and in the U.K. “Canaries” depicts the scary hijinks that ensue when an advance team of aliens crashes a New Year’s Eve party.
Like Mr. McDowell, Mr. Stray was a longtime summer kid here who also trod the boards as an actor at the Vineyard Playhouse. Another film with an Island connection comes from David Henry Gerson, who will offer his Student Academy awardwinning short film, “All These Voices.” Mr. Gerson, son of chef and cookbook author Joan Nathan, is a lifelong Island visitor.
And Bob Nixon, owner of the Home Port restaurant and the Beach Plum Inn in Chilmark, will show his latest documentary, “Sea of Hope.” Mr. Nixon directed the film that follows a team of teenage aquanauts as they burrow under America’s oceanic hotspots to show and call attention to ecosystems beneath the waves.
Mr. Nixon is a veteran documentarian, perhaps best known for his work with Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist,” the subsequent film story of her life, which Mr. Nixon co-produced.
As Mr. Ditchfield explains it, the MVFF is a perfect storm for success, combining Island cachet, a solid base of residents from the film world, a locale that attracts film distributors, and a growing audience of filmgoers.
This summer there will be 36 different films and programs for kids and adults, an ambitious expansion double the size of past programs. Many of the films will include commentary and discussion by Island luminaries such as Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Harvard Law Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
For details on times and dates, visit the MVFF website, tmvff.org.