Movies on His Mind

It’s summer and Thomas Bena of Chilmark is thinking about two things: movies and money. He thinks about movies all the time since he started the Martha’s Vineyard Independent Film Festival. As for the money, he thinks about where he might find a quantity of it to fund the festival next year, its fifth. He’s not going the easy, usual, high-
season fund-raising route.

Everyone who attends the event raves about the three days of documentaries. But there’s a catch. It’s held in March. And on the Island, a smash event in March, no matter how smash it is, is not a summer event of clambakes or celebrity-gavel pounding that brings in the cash.

Who knows from a film festival on Martha’s Vineyard in March? Crazy, huh? We’d say so too, but there we were – at the Chilmark Community Center, where it looked for all the world like a summertime sell-out bash, except that the outside temperature was in the thirties and the wind was whipping around Squibnocket Point at twenty-five miles per hour. Filmgoers, cheek by jowl, were chatting up the movies, the filmmakers, and the guest speakers who showed up to lead panel discussions and answer questions. Couches were strewn around the hall to make it comfy. The kitchen was crowded with Vineyard chefs who laid out good food on the counter. There was an art show. And a sultry Latin quintet from the New York clubs provided samba for
Sunday brunch.

Sure, there were a few reports of folks nodding off because the couches sort of encouraged it, but everyone else was enthralled – all ears and eyes for the thirty documentaries selected to play over three days. The kind of films that change the world:  Lost Boys of Sudan; Miguel, në terren; American Eunuchs. Almost better, about a dozen were completely homemade: There was Richard Sandler’s Brave New York, about the gentrification of the East Village; Nancy Aronie and Elizabeth Witham’s A Film about Dan, about an Islander who, with his family, copes with multiple sclerosis; a retrospective on longtime political filmmaker John Douglas (brother of Islanders Bob and Dave Douglas). This local fare went well beyond local. Destined for PBS. Or vying for network attention. One was from just-an-Island-kid who began to kick around with a camera and realized that this filmmaking thing is very cool and ended up in the Boston Film Festival.

But this was March, and even with the record crowd and hundreds of viewers talking it up, the festival folks cleared just enough to pay for the hall and the films and posters, and hopefully the bill for the projector and screen rental in 2005.

Which is why Thomas and Richard and Heather and Jeremy and Kate and others are trying to figure out how to make a certain sector of the summer crowd – the Farrelly brothers, the Weinsteins, and so on – stand up and take notice. They’ve already gotten considerable help from one of them. Kate Davis, the documentary filmmaker and summer resident, is the winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Award for Southern Comfort and the creator of Jockey, which aired this spring on HBO. Davis serves as the designated Martha’s Vineyard Independent Film Fest mother hen. She tells anybody who will listen that this is a festival “like no other,” one of the best of the scores that she has
attended over the years, either as an award contender, recipient, or audience member.

So the film festival people come up with the rather obvious idea to hold one of those big July fund raisers. They need to take in enough money to justify spending a thousand hours between December and March screening films and renting halls and ignoring their day jobs. But then Tom Bena decides that what he really wants to do this summer is what he’s already doing in the winter. He wants to do good film, good food, and good people. He wants to talk issues and filmmaking, to show films that can change people’s lives. So the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival schedules a slate of films once a week through August – Wednesdays at 8 p.m. – at the Chilmark Community Center, charging just enough to cover the costs. And now Tom is thinking: film first, money second, and let’s hope that providence makes up the difference.