African American Film Fest Marks Ten Years

When the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival (MVAAFF) opened its doors in August 2002, an audience of ten rattled around in the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School auditorium in Oak Bluffs. Fast forward to 2012 – the festival’s tenth anniversary – and festival founders Stephanie Tavares-Rance and husband Floyd Rance predict the audience will top the one thousand mark, just as it did last year.

Film fans will flock to the Island August 7 to 11 from Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, and as far away as London and Paris to watch between fifty and sixty features, shorts, and documentaries, because the festival is a happening event for African Americans, as well as plenty of others interested in new independent films.

“The audience is predominantly African American, but we get a lot of non-blacks too, and interracial couples,” Stephanie says. “Now we’re getting a lot of films directed by non-blacks with black actors. Also Hispanics – we’re broadening our reach.” She adds that the festival’s awards night in particular draws a lot of Vineyarders.

Emmy Award–winning MacArthur Fellow Stanley Nelson, an Oak Bluffs summer resident and documentarian, came on board the first year with The Murder of Emmet Till, his documentary from the PBS “American Experience” series. Although Hollywood actor Ben Vereen introduced Idlewild in 2006, and Disney’s animation feature Tinker Bell played in 2010, the festival is less about glitz and more about showcasing new and emerging African American filmmakers for indie film lovers.

“We’re not doing the celebrity gawking thing,” Stephanie says. “Celebrity takes away from the independent filmmaking theme. People come to see the films. Famous people do pop up sometimes. You never know who you’re going to run into.”

The festival provides support and a networking forum for participants like Bree Newsome. A New York University graduate with a degree in film and television, she brought Wake, her senior thesis film short, to the festival in 2010. She didn’t take home any awards, but the next year she won a spot in advertising firm and festival sponsor Saatchi & Saatchi’s artist-in-residence program, so participation served as a springboard to career advancement for her.

Sponsorship has played a key role in the festival’s success. Sponsorship pays the bills, provides awards, and allows the festival to throw first-class parties, like last year’s Shenandoah tall ship sail and the directors’ brunch, both funded jointly by Macy’s department store and the clothing company Lacoste. Sponsor CNN’s Executive Producer Geraldine Moriba fielded questions last year for that organization’s screening of the documentary Pictures Don’t Lie, a CNN “Black in America” special about civil rights photographer Ernest Withers. HBO has backed the festival for eight years, providing cash prizes for best short, documentary, and feature film.

HBO marketing executive Lucinda Martinez describes the festival as “becoming more and more of a staple in the African American film festival circuit, known for a good lineup of programming.” Filmmakers and audience members enjoy themselves because MVAAFF features good-quality, smaller films that depend on festivals to support their visibility, according to Lucinda. She also cites a strong sense of community fostered by this festival.

The sponsors are from both off-Island and on. “The banks on Martha’s Vineyard have been big supporters,” Stephanie says, mentioning Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank and Edgartown National Bank. “The Mansion House [in Vineyard Haven] has been great to us too.” So have people on the Vineyard in general, although “they were a bit skeptical at first, because we weren’t from the Island.”

Even if the Rances aren’t Vineyarders, they love coming, and their audiences do too. “It’s one of those places on people’s bucket list,” Stephanie says. “They know about Martha’s Vineyard, but they’ve never been there, and the festival gives them the reason to come."

The MVAAFF story combines talent, confidence, and down-home friendliness. Floyd and Stephanie, who lived in Brooklyn when the festival started and are now based in Charlotte, North Carolina, have been vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard since their dating days in the nineties. With a communications degree from DC’s Howard University, Floyd interned with filmmaker and Vineyard summer resident Spike Lee, and worked on several of his films. The MVAAFF co-founder has gone on to direct projects for HBO and NBC Sports and specializes in commercials and music videos, and his contacts in those worlds have proven golden in finding support for the festival. Although Stephanie majored in fashion merchandising at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, she began her career at New York’s SBK/EMI Records finding new talent, did event planning for Martell Cognac, and eventually formed her own public relations company, Crescendo.

“I think the festival’s successful because Floyd and I are accessible,” Stephanie says. “We’re greeting everyone who comes. The older generation likes the fact that we’re hands-on and that we just want to do something positive.” The festival gets lots of repeat customers, filmmakers as well as viewers.

“It’s like a family reunion,” Stephanie says. “They e-mail us. They come. I greet them with open arms.”

A loyal retinue of volunteers testifies to Floyd and Stephanie’s strong people skills. Some have turned into paid employees: Heather Charles of Boston began volunteering in 2009, because she found it a rich opportunity to connect with African Americans and watch excellent films. She now serves as the volunteer coordinator.

“My experience with the MVAAFF has transformed from a basic volunteer gig into a powerfully inspiring and meaningful responsibility,” Heather says. “The MVAAFF group is not only welcoming and down-to-earth, but much like a second family. What a blessing, indeed.”

The seed for what grew into the MVAAFF was planted at a Vineyard house party Stephanie organized on July Fourth weekend in 2000. One of the guests brought a group of short films, so the couple called Island Theatre owner Buzz Hall, who agreed to let them screen the films there in Oak Bluffs.

“The place was packed,” Stephanie says. “I guess the moon and the stars were aligned. I just kept it in the back of my mind.” The next year Floyd got a film job in Barbados. Stephanie, who went along for the weekend, pitched a film festival to the Barbados Tourism Board, and they agreed. Then 9/11 happened, and the board backed out.

“I had all the sponsors and the films together,” Stephanie says. “We were ready to go.” Since Barbados was out, Martha’s Vineyard was the couple’s next choice. They called Buzz Hall and asked if they could run it at his two theaters in Oak Bluffs, but he declined.

Despite the festival’s low turnout that year at the high school, Stephanie did not give up. Instead the couple moved the site to smaller venues, the Mansion House and the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, with parties at nearby Louisa Gould Gallery and at the former Lola’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs. As the event gained momentum, the festival outgrew its home at the Mansion House and will return to the high school this year. “It’s funny how we came full circle,” Stephanie says.

Because it’s expensive to get to the Vineyard and housing on-Island is expensive, the festival has resisted raising its prices. “You get a lot for your money,” Stephanie says. It took four or five years, but now the festival makes a profit. The couple added a winter event, “The Color of Conversation,” in New York at Macy’s to coincide with Women’s History Month. Floyd shared master of ceremony duties with Today Show contributor Lola Ogunnaike, while S. Epatha Merkerson from Law & Order, Karyn Parsons from Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and MVAAFF alumnae Rosalyn Coleman and Bree Newsome talked about the role of African American women in film and media to an audience of three hundred. One success bred another, and a new film festival is in the planning stages for the Rances’ hometown of Charlotte in April of next year.

Stephanie says if 60 percent of the MVAAFF’s success comes from her and Floyd, the other 40 percent belongs to the Vineyard. “The Vineyard gives that great vibe,” she says. “It’s the place that we just started coming to and hanging out. I think that’s true for people who come to the festival. They get to see great films in a great setting. What could be better?”