When speaking with Thomas Bena, the founder and creative director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, there is no hesitation when he talks about his guiding principle. The films shown at the festival are always diverse in subject matter, a mixture of documentary and feature, and representative of many cultures. The common denominator is good storytelling.
“I think my energy has come from a real inner need to hear people’s stories,” Mr. Bena said. “To connect with people in a real way and not just have surface social interactions.”
Mr. Bena began the festival in the winter of 2001. Next weekend, on March 16 through 18, it raises the curtain on its twelfth festival. Over the years the event has continued to grow while maintaining its roots as a gift to Islanders in the off-season. For three days, the Chilmark Community Center is turned into a screening room where this year 13 films, four of them selections from the Sundance Film Festival, and a shorts program featuring two Academy Award nominees, will be showcased. The subjects of the films range from documentaries about the legendary Paris nightclub Crazy Horse, last year’s tsunami in Japan, passenger pigeons, bullying, and feature films including the comedy Goon starring Seann William Scott as a hockey goon, the French comedy Fairy, and the Belgian Golden Globe nominee The Kid with the Bike.
Chef Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm also takes up residence all weekend long, providing tasty local meals at a time when almost every other Island eatery is closed for the season.
To bring a slate of films of such high caliber to the Vineyard involves months of planning, listening, screening and talking. A few years ago Mr. Bena persuaded Vineyard native Brian Ditchfield to join the festival team as the managing director. Mr. Ditchfield is a filmmaker, arts programmer and sometime Cinema Circus ringmaster with unbounding energy. Recently, he returned from the Sundance film festival, just a week and a half before his festival’s booking deadline, with a host of new titles to add to the lineup.
“One of the great things about our festival is that now filmmakers and distributors see our festival as an opportunity to market their films to the right crowd and get their films seen by Vineyard audiences,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “We’re able to parlay the reputation that our festival has garnered over 12 years into getting some really great films.”
Over the years relationships have been fostered with companies such as the Weinstein Company and Independent Film Channel (IFC). The face time with filmmakers and distributors has paid off regarding the festival’s current list of films. Wim Wenders’s Oscar-nominated documentary about Pina Bausch is still selling out in New York city movie houses, and Matthew Akers’s documentary about performance artist Marina Abramovi’s recent residency at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art is fresh from Sundance and has not even been seen in New York city yet. And among the Vineyard visitors to the festival next weekend will be filmmakers and personnel associated with four of the featured films.
It is important to remember, though, that the connections made are a means rather than an end. After all, in many ways the festival remains the little festival that could, still choosing to shine deep in the Vineyard off-season amidst the dark and sloshy days of March.
“It’s about story power, not star power,” Mr. Bena reiterated. “It’s not a market festival, you’re not going to make a distribution deal here.”
So why do filmmakers choose to not just show their work here, but very often accompany the film and spend time in discussion with the audience after the screening?
“It’s just a really cool community and a really intellectual community,” Mr. Bena explained. “There’s the reputation of a smart audience here, and they ask really thoughtful questions.”
A few years ago, director Ross Kauffman told Mr. Bena that the question and answer session after the screening of his Academy Award-winning documentary Born into Brothels was the best he had ever experienced.
Mr. Bena also feels that the setting for the winter series is a draw for filmmakers and audiences alike. There’s the casual feel — think big fluffy couches — of the Chilmark Community Center, nestled amidst a beautiful landscape with an abundance of good food, conversation, and friendly people who care about film and well-told stories.
“I liken it to a wedding,” Mr. Bena said. “You show up on Friday and you don’t know many people. But by Sunday, you’ve made new friends and maybe exchanged a few cards.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival also operates during the summer, offering weekly Wednesday screenings. Both Mr. Bena and Mr. Ditchfield acknowledged that the films chosen for the winter series differ from the summer series in part because of the changing demographics of who is in the audience in the off-season. They describe March as “a little bit heavier slate of films” and they profess to going “a little deeper” with the subjects for the winter series.
“In the summer we have the reputation of the power brokers watching the movie in flip-flops and they can help you out with your movie,” Mr. Bena chuckled.
Film festival credentials, healthy ticket sales, consistent high-quality films, and the enviable position of being in the good graces of Harvey Weinstein make for an excellent foundation for the future of the festival, and both Mr. Ditchfield and Mr. Bena are beginning not only to dream bigger but act on these dreams.
For example, Mr. Ditchfield is excited about the festival’s recent collaboration with ArtFarm. Together the two organizations provided 12 weeks of in-class film instruction to fourth graders. Mr. Bena talks about building a post-and-beam cultural center that the festival could share with other Island organizations. But he is also mindful that like any good story, plot shifts should be more subtle than overpowering.
“I’ve had so many filmmaker people tell me, ‘don’t change, if you’re going to grow, grow it slowly.’ Just like Sundance was in its birth very pure. Grow it slowly, you have something really special here.”
The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival begins Friday, March 16 and runs through Sunday, March 18. For a full list of movies, descriptions, schedules and ticket information visit tmvff.org.