Eighteen years ago, Island carpenter Thomas Bena and a handful of friends decided they wanted to show the film shorts they’d made, so they put together a small one-day festival for the community. They screened the films at the Grange Hall and offered audience participation; Bena’s mother baked brownies, his friends made curry, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves.
“I remember walking out into the parking lot when it was over and seeing all the animated people, and in that moment, realizing people wanted it,” Bena said in a telephone interview from Hawaii, where he’s showing his 2016 film, “One Big Home.”
In those days there were no film festivals on the Island. Today there are the International Film Festival, the African American Film Festival, and the M.V. Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute series in conjunction with the Boston Jewish Film Festival. And Bena’s little one-day event at the Grange Hall has grown into the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF). The MVFF now has a board of directors, an advisory board, and more than a dozen employees, not to mention all the volunteers who help with the events surrounding both the March festival and the summerlong festival. The films are shown at the Chilmark Community Center, outdoors at Menemsha Beach and Owen Park, at schools and other locations around the Island, and when a film calls for a larger venue, they’re shown at the Performing Arts Center at the high school. Then there’s also the Cinema Circus for kids in the summer, and the year-round afterschool programs the MVFF is building at Island schools.
Last year the MVFF decided to add filmmaking into the mix, and hired more staff. Founder Bena named two longtime staffers to different roles — Brian Ditchfield is the artistic director, and Hilary Dreyer is the managing director. Ben Durrell, who was hired on an interim basis, now continues as the director of children’s programs. The group received a grant enabling them to delve into local filmmaking, so early this year they nabbed filmmakers Danielle Mulcahy and Ollie Becker, who will head up the filmmaking division, along with Noavakay Knight, who was hired as the development and marketing coordinator. The MVFF office above the Chilmark Tavern buzzes with activity now; you can practically feel the current of creativity among the staff.
The March 15 to 18 film festival kicks off soon, and Islanders won’t want to miss opening night with the screening of “Chappaquiddick,” a film that hits close to home. Actor Jason Clarke, who plays Sen. Ted Kennedy in the film, and the director, John Curran, will discuss the film afterward. The screening takes place at Edgartown Cinemas at 7 pm on Thursday, March 15. Portions of the movie were filmed on-Island, and it will screen again on March 17 at 2:15 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.
The Times sat down with MVFF staff for a chat last week, and they told us a little bit about their jobs, how they pull the festivals together, and what they hope to do in the future.
It’s all connected
Brian Ditchfield came to the MVFF 10 years ago, when the entire festival was run by a tight group of three: Bena, Ditchfield, and Lindsey Scott.
“There was no hat you didn’t wear, and that’s definitely changed,” Ditchfield said. “Lindsey Scott grew the children’s programming into a full-time position in an area of huge growth, and we’ve done more and more. And now we just started this filmmaking division.”
Ditchfield called the new filmmaking endeavor “a bold idea whose time has come.”
“Me and Thomas and Hilary were talking one afternoon about what exciting ideas we had for the upcoming year, and one of us brought up this idea and we started riffing on it. Before the meeting was done, we had the idea of the filming division. We found funders to back the idea,” Ditchfield explained.
“It seemed like a natural fit,” Dreyer said.
“We’re working on mostly locally based documentary films right now,” Ditchfield said. “We’re working with Island nonprofits, promoting their work. We’re working on profiles of interesting Islanders, and we’re working with the education department on children’s programming, and we’re including some of our own internal marketing. There’s no shortage of things to make movies about these days.”
Dreyer said she’s excited about the new people they’ve hired to help launch the filmmaking division: “I’m excited to see these projects exist; there’s so many stories to be told on the Island.”
When we met, filmmaker Ollie Becker had just arrived for his first day of work. He moved back to Martha’s Vineyard from Los Angeles, where he wrote and produced reality series for CBS, History Channel, and Discovery. He’s an Island kid from West Tisbury, born and raised here, and happy to move back with his wife and child.
Bena said he remembers when Becker read a poem aloud at a festival when he was in high school.
“It was hip-hop poetry,” Bena said. “He was really shy, and read his poetry and came alive as he read it. My dad jumped to his feet and was the first one to give him a standing ovation.”
Becker explained how he went off to college, worked in L.A. for 10 years, and “just got back yesterday.”
“Brian did that same thing,” Becker said, nodding to Ditchfield. “My mom reminded me you played Mr. Toad in ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ and I was in that as an extra.”
“We’re all theater nerds,” Ditchfield laughed.
Bena said it’s incredibly thrilling to have people like Molly Purves, who handles the box office and ad sales, his longtime collaborator Ditchfield, and all the others involved in the MVFF. “There’s this whole team that’s grown around the festival, and there’s this youthful exuberance injected into it,” Bena said. “I just turned 50, and it’s so amazing to have these young people involved.”
Becker will work closely with filmmaker Mulcahy, an artist who recently returned to the Island from a lengthy journey across the country with her fiancé, Walker Roman. The two have their own project, Barnyard Saints Art. They wrote about their cross-country adventures for the MV Times Calendar section. Mulcahy’s an accomplished solo videographer and director, and has collaborated with farmers, children, dancers, and musicians, as well as other filmmakers.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working freelance on my own, and I so far I’m enjoying the collaboration,” Mulcahy said. “This is a great team of incredibly passionate human beings, and I love being here. I love the ideas that are always percolating and how we’re constantly bouncing ideas off one another and the community … I feel like I’m growing as an artist, and my goal is to keep working toward projects that move people in emotional ways.”
Ben Durrell is hard at work these days, designing film programs for young people and developing physical space where kids can learn while they’re having fun. He’s been working with the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to create a children’s space at its new Vineyard Haven location. He’s looking forward to the workshops and films coming up in a couple of weeks.
“We’ll lead participants through exercises in designing the space for kids’ play,” Durrell said. “Whether you’re an educator or a parent or a museum professional, it’s the same opportunity … how to facilitate or create the space for kids to play in a constructive scaffolding, learning environment. It could be at the beach, the classroom, or your living room at home. It could be anywhere; some of these tools are the same no matter where you are with kids. It also affirms the value of play.”
In the current environment, where children are very much plugged into devices, the MVFF hopes to turn their young viewing experience into a more active one. “Our mission, especially with the screen and digital natives we’re raising, is how important it is to us that they’re content creators as opposed to content consumers,” Durrell said.
What’s in the lineup
There’s a film Dreyer is looking forward to, “Unveiled,” about a young woman in Pakistan who disguised herself as a boy for the first 16 years of her life so that she could participate in sports in her country, something that’s illegal for women there. The subject, Maria Toorpakai, will be at the festival to discuss the film afterward. “The film is about her life, and follows her now as she continues to get threats from the Taliban while fighting for equal rights,” Dreyer explained.
Much of Dreyer’s time is spent organizing the festivals and bringing the film subjects or the filmmakers to the Vineyard, so that they can engage with the festivalgoers. “What makes it so special is that you haven’t heard of many of these people, but by the end of the film — after you’ve been brought into their world — you can’t believe they’re there to talk to you,” Dreyer said.
A film about Islander Allen Whiting, “A Painter Who Farms,” by directors Barbarella and David Fokos, will screen with an opportunity to talk to the film’s subject and the directors. “The Devil We Know,” a documentary that unravels a huge environmental scandal about a group of citizens in West Virginia that take on the DuPont corporation after they discover the company has knowingly dumped toxic chemicals in the drinking water. “Crime + Punishment” takes a look at discriminatory police practices. “Keep the Change” is a love story between two autistic adults, and “Our New President” pulls the covers off what Russian reporters tell their viewers about our politics.
“In some of these movies, we want to highlight people who take bold and courageous action, people who are taking action against larger issues,” Ditchfield said.
Staff travel to the Sundance Film Festival every year, sometimes selecting films to bring to the Island. They solicit film entries every fall, and carefully curate which films they screen in the March and summer lineup. They have committees they share the films with who weigh in on the selection. They whittle them down to form the program, and they add visiting artists, subjects of the films, and create myriad opportunities for young people to encounter the craft of filmmaking, educating the community all the while. “We’ve got great family activities to engage kids and parents,” Dreyer said.
Many of the films this time around were selected based on the message that interested the staff, and there will be more shorts than in previous years, including Vineyard shorts.
“We have a program with some politically themed short films,” Ditchfield said. “One deals with undocumented immigrant workers, one takes on gun violence in schools, and when we developed the program we didn’t know how relevant it would be. We have a film of a young man who becomes politically active, then we have a comedy shorts program we’re really looking forward to. We’ve talked about and wanted to do comedy for a while. There are some really laugh-out-louds in the mix. You can dive in and make your own experience at the festival.”
The website offers a complete list of festival activities and films, and you can now pick up all your MVFF merchandise on the website as well, a project Knight completed. An artist who’s experienced with nonprofits, Knight is relishing her new role at the MVFF.
“I think it’s great to have more than one perspective and to get a lot of input,” she said. “You have to grow from that, and there’s been a lot of growing.”
Visit tmvff.org for all the information you’ll need to choose which films, workshops, and special events you want to attend. You may decide to do it all.