The Vineyard prides itself on promoting all things local: music, painting, livestock, produce, you name it. This weekend, though, the Island goes international as it celebrates the cinema of the world.
Last night the fifth annual Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival kicked off as it always does, with an opening night reception on the Mansion House rooftop.
“I’m always excited about the opening night party,” said festival organizer Richard Paradise in an interview on Tuesday. “It really sets the tone for the next few days in a very celebratory way, with beautiful surroundings and cocktails on the roof.”
Shortly after the initial celebration partygoers migrated to the Capawock Theatre for a presentation of Miao Wang’s Beijing Taxi and a postscreening discussion with Ms. Wang herself. Her documentary, which screens again on Sunday at noon at the Capawock, follows the lives of three Chinese cab drivers during the frenetic and often wrenching lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
In an interview with the Gazette on Thursday, Ms. Wang said that she made the movie to tell the story of China’s breakneck transformation through the eyes of its everyday citizens, rather than through the more loudly broadcast and sanguine official account of the Chinese government.
“I wanted characters to bring out the Beijing I knew and that was disappearing,” said Ms. Wang, who moved to the U.S. from Beijing in 1990. She said that in the months leading up to the Olympics, thousands of migrant workers who had helped build the gleaming new edifices were shipped out, while 400,000 smiling “volunteers” were brought in from around the countryside. It was a story best told from the ground.
“The view from a taxi provided a metaphor for Beijing,” she said. “I was always moving and looking at the world outside as well as the world inside.”
Still, she said, she could not help but be awed by the industriousness of the Olympic building campaign.
“I was amazed by how quickly things went up, she said. “It was kind of shocking.”
For Mr. Paradise it is the fifth year of a festival that manages to draw submissions from top talent worldwide while still maintaining its intimate character in downtown Vineyard Haven.
“It’s very professionally run and we’ve got the same kind of components of the larger film festivals, it’s just scaled down,” he said. Mr. Paradise has limited the festival — which over four nights will feature nightly parties, 25 feature-length films and three programs of short films — to three small Vineyard Haven venues: the Capawock, the Katharine Cornell Theatre and the Vineyard Playhouse.
“I could extend it to other towns but I’ve resisted that because I like having everything compact, where you’re able to walk to everything,” he said, “and people have told me they enjoy that as well.”
This year marks the first time the festival also will offer an individual prize, the Global Citizen Award, to Matthew Modine, an actor made famous for his roles in such films as Full Metal Jacket and The Band Played On. Mr. Modine will accept the award on Saturday evening after a screening of his latest movie, the courtroom thriller The Trial. More commendable to Mr. Paradise, though, is Mr. Modine’s offstage work, which the prize will commemorate.
“Mr. Modine has had a tremendous body of work, but this is more to celebrate his environmental and humanitarian work.”
One cause dear to Mr. Modine is increased bicycle use, which he advocates through his organization Bicycle for a Day. The group drew 14,000 cyclists to its first event in New York city, and that helped win approval for a bike lane on Columbus avenue in Manhattan. Mr. Modine is also active in a number of other environmental and political causes.
The festival will honor him with a statuette fashioned by Vineyard sculptor Barney Zeitz.
“It’s not just your average bowling trophy,” said Mr. Paradise. “He’s a fantastic artist, and it will really be more of an art unveiling.”
Mr. Paradise plans to make the award an annual addition to the film festival.
Other notable attendees of the festival include Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa, who stars in the documentary The Last Survivor, which tracks the social activism of four genocide survivors. Mr. Kimenyerwa, a member of the persecuted Banyamulenge tribe in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saw family members and relatives killed by machete as he fled from South Kiva through Rwanda and into Kenya, eventually resettling in St. Louis with the help of the aid organization Mapendo International. Mr. Kimenyerwa will be on hand Saturday for the film’s 4 p.m. screening.
Also on offer Saturday is a documentary that has alternately flummoxed and delighted critics with its 79 minutes of unmediated baby gurgling. That’s right, in Babies, director Thomas Balmes simply turns the camera on four tiny tots who tell their own untranslated stories from households in Tokyo, San Francisco, Mongolia and Namibia. Although the babies are exposed to varying levels of fashionable versus traditional coddling, their ebullient neonatal quintessence is universal.
“When I first heard about the movie a few months ago my first thought was, ‘That’s a perfect movie for our festival,’” said Mr. Paradise, who adds that the movie ties in perfectly with the festival’s emphasis on exploring different cultures and broadening perspectives.
“It’s just phenomenal to see these four babies in their first year of life in four different environments and cultures.”
For films where travel to the Island by their makers is prohibitive, the film society has enlisted the help of local authors and experts to help introduce the works.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, an odd little movie that charts the Japanese fascination with insects, will be introduced by local entomologist Paul Goldstein of the Field Museum in Chicago. The award-winning French film Welcome will be introduced by Pulitzer Prize-winning Island novelist Geraldine Brooks.
Finally this year marks the first juried competition of short films. The film society solicited more than 200 films, which they whittled down to 10 finalists, all of which will be presented on Friday night at the Capawock Theatre, followed by the announcement of Best Overall Short Film prize winner by a jury of four (Mr. Paradise, filmmaker Amin Matalqa, Shorts International president Susan Petersen and Adam Roffman, program director of the Independent Film Festival of Boston).
“We’re tweaking a festival that’s already been really successful the first four years,” said Mr. Paradise. “Anytime you do that, it’s always going to be exciting.”