Just when we thought the coronavirus pandemic would ruin everything this summer, Island nonprofits the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival and the YMCA found a way to entertain us after all — they brought back the drive-in movie experience. Now they plan to host the annual film festival that was supposed to happen in March; it’s scheduled for Oct. 8 through 12, over Indigenous Peoples’ Day Weekend.
While we’re used to seeing at least a couple dozen films at the usual March festival, this year there are six films offered: “The Way I See It,” “The Dark Divide,” “Best Summer Ever,” “Somewhere With No Bridges,” “The Boy from Medellin,” and “I Am Greta.” They may be fewer in number but they’re just as powerful as ever, and nearly all of them have some connection to the Island. “The Way I See It” is a documentary from Vineyard resident Dawn Porter, whose film “John Lewis: Good Trouble” screened at the summer drive-in. “Best Summer Ever,” a film with more than half the crew with disabilities, is a new take on the teen musical. Executive producer Ila Halby grew up on the Vineyard and worked at Camp Jabberwocky, eventually settling in Vermont with her husband where they created Zeno Mountain Farm, a place where people with disabilities and other marginalized folks can have a camp experience and other events. “Somewhere With No Bridges,” a documentary by Charles Frank and his Voyager production company, is about the late Richie Madeiras, an Island native and former shellfish constable for Oak Bluffs who drowned off East Chop in 1999. “The Boy From Medellin,” a portrait of the Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin as he prepares for a homecoming concert in the middle of tense political turmoil, is directed by Vineyard summer resident Matthew Heineman. The community vibe that is a hallmark of the annual film festival continues through this special event.
Brian Ditchfield, programming director of the MVFF, explained that they had to rethink their programming once the pandemic restrictions were put in place.
“I think the biggest difference came very early on when we had to make our pivot after we had to delay our festival in March, and when we transitioned into doing the drive-in with the YMCA,” Ditchfield said. “Once we made that change, and it was such a roaring success, we wanted to figure out a way to do the festival.”
The successful summer collaboration was just as welcome for the folks at the YMCA as it was for film lovers. Jill Robie-Axtel, executive director of the Y, said the collaboration was “very synergistic.”
“After the YMCA closed in March, we were really concerned about how we were going to stay relevant through the summer,” Robie-Axtel said. “How do we still stay in contact with our families, our children, our elders?”
While the MVFF staff was trying to figure out how to screen summer films during a pandemic, Robie-Axtel had a conversation with her daughter about an article she had read about drive-in movies. “We looked at the side of the ice arena and thought that’s a great place to put a screen, and it all sort of melded together.” So two nonprofits whose fundraising efforts would be on hold this year, came together in a way that would share proceeds with other nonprofits. “Over the course of the summer it became apparent that what we were doing was so much bigger than the YMCA and the Film Festival. We were getting our Y families here and seasonal residents coming in their convertibles; it was an event that spanned all demographics and we were thrilled, and we do hope we can continue the drive-in.”
The summer drive-in was nearly always sold out, and WMVY Radio came into the mix and added music by local talent performed before the films. It became a way for people to come together even though they practiced social distancing. Kids with sleeping bags in the way-back of their parents’ cars, elders with folding chairs, and teens with cell phones all enjoyed the drive-in. They had found a way to bring everyone together after all.
For MVFF founder Thomas Bena, that sense of community is what makes the festival such a success.
“I will miss sitting on the couches or in the hay cafe with our community and having great conversations and music and food, kids running around, and seasonal and year-rounders all together,” Bena said. “Surprisingly enough, humans make do, and the drive-in has become very communal, even though it’s not the same. I miss the hugging, the high fives, the handshakes.”
For documentary filmmaker Charles Frank, the Island community is where he came to make a film a few years ago. He’d spent summers here with his extended family for much of his life and he had the idea to make a film about Martha’s Vineyard. He just wasn’t completely sure of how to narrow his focus. He met with Bena before he began shooting “Somewhere With No Bridges,” asking for advice.
“I told him I have this desire to make this film on the Island and I’m not quite sure what it is,” Frank said in a phone interview with The Times. “His advice to me was ‘Just start. Don’t think about it too much.’ I took that advice and we came to the Island without a huge plan. We had a camera and a place to stay and it all sort of evolved.”
Frank is second cousin to the late Richie Madeiras, the subject of his film. His father, Richie’s cousin Dale Frank, grew up with Richie on Martha’s Vineyard. His father eventually went away to college and never returned to the Island full-time. Charles Frank says in the film, which he narrates as well, that his first real memory is of the day Richie died.
“When I was 4, about to turn 5,” Frank says in the documentary, “I remember my father pulling into the driveway. He stepped out of the car and collapsed into my mother’s arms . . . it was the first time I sensed something was wrong, and it was the first time I saw him cry.”
The film is filled with familiar Island scenes, from beaches and fishing boats to the Flying Horses and the SSA ferries. It is sprinkled throughout with home movies of the Madeiras family — Richie’s wife Susan, and his two children, Elyse and Ben. We see Richie, a strong, muscular fun-loving family man and fisherman, and we hear about his escapades with friends Mark Landers, Mike Mazza, and Rick Karney, among many others. We get the feel of how much the ocean and the Island meant to the former Oak Bluffs shellfish constable. He lived and breathed fishing, it seems. That’s why when he went overboard on a seasonably warm October day in 1999, friends and family were shocked. He definitely knew his way around a boat, and yet he drowned that day. In the beginning of “Somewhere With No Bridges,” Richie’s neighbor Ed Ben David Sr., says, “Oh my God, I loved that boy . . . that day, it was awful … for the whole Island . . . that was a tragedy.” Watching Richie’s friends and family relive the pain of that day isn’t always easy to watch, but it does illustrate what he meant to everyone.
Frank said making the documentary was a difficult process at times, with the filmmaker discovering parts of his own connection to the events of his childhood and his father’s loss, and it brought him closer to his family. He’s working on a documentary about a community radio station in Portland, Ore., right now. “I moved here right in the midst of fires and protests,” he added. Frank said COVID-19 will keep him from being on the Island for the film’s premiere here, but he’s happy it’s part of the MVFF.
Each member of the team at MVFF has their own favorite film at this year’s festival, and asking them to choose one is like asking them who their favorite child is, Ditchfield explained.
For MVFF executive director Hilary Dreyer, Matthew Heineman’s “The Boy from Medellin” is the film to see. “It’s a really intense film. This one is an interesting combination of a concert in a hometown and incredible artists and people who are taking to the streets.”
Robie-Axtel admits she doesn’t have a favorite pick, but that she’s learned a lot about films since collaborating with the MVFF. “I’m not as educated in the film area,” she laughed, “but I am actually looking forward to all of them. It’s been an education for me in learning about the film industry and all the tremendous people with ties to the Island. It’s a way for the Y to get more involved in the arts and entertainment area.”
Though the festival is on this year afterall, Bena says they’re always looking for ways to reach the community and they’re open to new ideas.
“We really remain open to community ideas for ways we can continue to pivot,” Bena said. “We went from talking about furloughing employees to ‘we’ve got to think of something.’ Hilary and Brian and I are still shaking our heads that this all came together. The screen went up literally two days before opening. It’s just magic and makes us wonder what other ideas are out there that we haven’t imagined yet.”
The 20th Annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival takes place at the drive-in at the YMCA from Oct. 8 to Oct. 13. For ticket information and more information about what’s playing, visit tmvff.org.