Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival: ‘Best of the best’

Circuit Arts' 24th annual festival has a strong lineup.


Minah Oh, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, couldn’t be more excited: “This is the strongest lineup, because it is the best of the best. I can wholeheartedly say that every single film, whether a documentary or a narrative, is phenomenal. And one of the many strengths is that many of the films have some kind of local tie.” This year’s festival, produced by Circuit Arts, runs March 20 to 24, with film screenings happening all day, every day, at various locations.

With three short programs, one live show, six narratives, and 11 documentaries, it was nearly impossible to get Oh to pick just a few to highlight: “I want everybody to see each one. They will make you feel like a human again. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

One of the documentaries is “The Body Politic,” about Baltimore’s Mayor Brandon Scott and community activists addressing chronic violence. Oh comments, “As gun violence is an epidemic in our entire country, it speaks volumes to what good leadership and what a community has to do if we want to see lives changed.” Two of the activists will join the director-producer in a post-screening discussion.

“I’m really excited about the many post-screening discussions. It’s not only the directors, producers, or writers, but it’s the film subjects of the documentaries who become the stars of the festival, and they are whom we want to meet after seeing a film about their life or work,” Circuit Arts executive director Brian Ditchfield says.

We will have the chance to hear from the film’s subjects, along with the director, from “Interpreters Wanted,” which is about Afghan brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, who were interpreters for the U.S. military. They form a lasting bond with American soldier Robert Ham. Still, when his deployment in Afghanistan ends, they remain, facing increasing threats from the Taliban, and enduring years of perilous waiting for approval to come to the U.S. “To have two of the men who served our country and helped save us come and speak is incredible,” Oh says.

Executive producer Robert Sennott and Steven Callahan, the subject of the film himself, will be speaking after “76 Days.” This film recounts Callahan’s life-altering experience when, just days into a solo voyage across the Atlantic, he was forced to abandon ship without food or water, and spent more than two and a half months drifting over 1,800 miles in an inflatable raft. “He survived in such an elegant way,” Oh says. “Our oceans will literally take your life away or protect you, and just re-emphasizes why, as Vineyarders, we have to love our waters.”

Seasonal resident Dawn Porter will discuss her film “Luther: Never Too Much,” which celebrates the life and work of American soul and R&B singer, songwriter, and record producer Luther Vandross, revealing his struggles.

“Ibelin” is the tale of Mats Steen, a young Norwegian gamer who died from a degenerative muscular disease at age 25. His parents mourned what they thought had been a lonely, isolated life — until they started receiving messages from his global network of online friends. Through a blend of reconstructed animated gameplay and interviews, director Benjamin Ree creates a vivid portrait of Ibelin, Steen’s avatar within the World of Warcraft community, illustrating how Steen was able to transcend the limits of the physical world. Ditchfield says about “Ibelin” and “Name Me Lawand,” which is about a young Kurdish boy who is born deaf and his journey learning British sign language at the Royal School for the Deaf, “They really shine a light on the disability community in an amazing way. They are both hopeful and engaging documentaries.”

There is also Circuit Films’ second in its Great Ponds docuseries. Ditchfield explains, “The first one presented the problem in an eloquent way. ‘Finding a Better Balance’ starts to get into some of the solutions being worked on by the people behind them.”

Oh adds, “It’s a huge collaboration with our conservation groups, our community, and our Vineyard ecosystem. When Circuit Arts talks about supporting our environment and creating content for our community, I’m so happy that we’re not only helping other arts organizations with their content, but we are building content that we’re proud of.”

Ditchfield and Oh also rave about their secret screening, which will feature a high-profile film from a director who has connections to the Island and has shown work here in the past. Oh can’t give anything away, but explains that one of the screeners called her while watching it, saying, “Minah, it’s really exciting and nerve-wracking and thrilling.” Oh reassured her, “Trust me, you can handle it, you will enjoy it. It’s emotional, it’s a love story, and political.”

Ditchfield says about “Tuesday”: “It’s a drama that I was really swept up in that tackles a serious subject, but in a very beautiful way, with some stunning performances.” The film is about a terminally ill teen (Lola Petticrew) who is bedridden in London, attended mainly by a nurse because her single mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is off in the park, avoiding reality. But when death finally comes calling, in the form of a shapeshifting, talking parrot, it leads them on a wild, strange adventure.

New this year will be a trailblazing live performance, “Forgotten Kingdom,” at the Performing Arts Center. This multimedia production blends memoir, poetry, and a riveting musical score reframing an Ottoman Jewish mother’s letter to her daughter that brings to life the vibrant Mediterranean world that existed before wars splintered the Ottoman Empire.

Circuit Arts is not just increasing its reach in terms of art forms, but in emphasizing its mission to expand accessibility to the community, the festival is also adding the Strand movie house in Oak Bluffs to the West Tisbury Grange Hall and Vineyard Haven Capawock Theater locations, as well as continuing its pay-what-you-can policy.

“There is this throughline of hope,” Ditchfield says about this year’s festival. “I think in these times, post-pandemic, election year, all those things — we’re craving not only hope and positivity, but those messages of inclusivity and paths forward.”

Circuit Arts, 1067 State Road, West Tisbury, upstairs at the Grange Hall. The theater is fully accessible via elevator. Email for more information, or text or call the box office at 508-560-2134. For more information and tickets, visit