Martha’s Vineyard is one of the most beautiful places on the Atlantic coast, a scenic haunt of the Kennedys and the Clintons full of rambling hills and quaint New England architecture that has taken a special place in the American imagination. It may seem strange, then, that the organizers of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, which this weekend held its second annual run in the town of Vineyard Haven, would choose “Other Places” as their theme. Why bother with other places, when you’re on Martha’s Vineyard? “This is really an ideal place,” says Nevette Previd, who runs the festival with co-chair Richard Paradise, “but in order to really appreciate it you have to leave, get away from your surroundings. And film can really take you somewhere else, even just for a few hours.”
The crowd packed into the newly refurbished Capawock Theater, the oldest continually operating single-screen theater in the country–opened in 1912–to watch the inspired choice of opening night film, Stefane Gauger‘s crowd pleasing “The Owl and the Sparrow“, winner of the Audience Award at this year’s L.A. Film Festival. The feature is a sweet, slight film about three lonely souls in Saigon about a surprisingly well-adjusted runaway girl and her two older friends who she would like to pair up romantically. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to be opening this festival,” said Gauger after the screening. “It just seems like the right crowd for this film.”
In such a nautical community, it was only natural that the hottest ticket of the weekend was for a sailing movie, Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell‘s phenomenal documentary “Deep Water.” “I’m so grateful to show this in a place where there are so many sailors in the audience,” said Osmond, on hand to introduce the film, “though I would hope it’s not necessary to enjoy the film.” It isn’t; the film is spellbinding regardless of one’s affinity for sailing, telling the story of the 1968 competition to become the first person to sail nonstop around the world solo, and contestant Donald Crowhurst‘s tragic decision to continue with the race despite being relatively inexperienced and in a substandard boat. The resulting drama was so completely absorbing that the audience seemed startled when the lights came up.
The biggest ‘buzz’ film at the festival was Sean Penn‘s “Into the Wild,” featuring actor Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, the 22 year-old subject of Jon Krakauer‘s biographical novel who rejects his parents’ values and drops out of society, leading to a series of picturesque adventures and eventually to a fatal conflict with nature after McCandless sets up shop in an abandoned bus in Alaska. The response to the film was decidedly varied, split between those who found the film a moving retelling of McCandless’ story and those who were not able to overcome the smug, pious self-absorption of the film’s hero (Penn’s feelings about McCandless are fairly obvious lest anyone have missed the point after the myriad shots of Hirsch in the crucifixion pose, a friendly hippie helpfully tells him that he reminds him of Jesus). Already gathering Oscar buzz, the film might have seemed a commercial choice from the festival, until one looked at its surprising timeslot, 2:00 PM on a Friday, a fact which did not hinder the film from selling out.
The only other real hot-item ticket at the festival was Garth Jenning‘s Sundance hit “Son of Rambow,” a charming little family-friendly number about the misadventures of two misfit kids in England who make their own sequel to the “First Blood” films. Other films in the festival were programmed regardless of festival buzz or previous theatrical engagements. “Film festivals have become the real regional forum for smaller movies, movies that take a risk,” says Previd. The festival gave residents a chance to see Jafar Panahi‘s terrific Iranian film “Offside,” about a group of women who are detained after attempting to sneak into a major soccer game, dressed as men as well as Corneliu Porumbouiu‘s Camera D’Or winning “12:08 East of Bucharest,” and Sean Fine and Andrea Nix‘s festival darling “War/Dance.”
“The people on this island travel a lot,” says Paradise. “In particular, people are committed to all sorts of charity work. It’s one of the reasons the ‘Other Places’ theme works so well.” Any doubts of the veracity of this statement were removed entirely upon viewing the selection of short films, “Think Globally, Shoot Locally,” which featured at least half a dozen films made by locals traveling internationally, including documentaries about women salt miners in Ghana, a saintly couple in Kenya who have adopted dozens of orphans, and a doctor working on her medical practice in Tibet.
Occasional familiar faces was seen around town over the weekend. Hayden Christensen and Doug Liman blended in with a crowd bouncing to West African band Mamadou, and at a dinner thrown by Cape Cod cable channel Plum TV. Producer Ted Hope chatted with the islanders about housing while fellow super-producer Christine Vachon talked wine with the bartender. “Celebrities are nice,” says Previd, “but I prefer to see them in the audiences. We don’t need to show them off.”
The biggest celebrity attending specifically for the festival was probably the incomparable animator Bill Plympton, who treated the audience to a survey of his previous work, a preview of his upcoming film, “Idiots and Angels,” and a free drawing for each attendee. “I’m designing their poster for next year,” said Plympton afterwards, “and trying to get them to bring Weird Al.”
On the pacing of the festival, attendees were thrilled to see the schedule–no movies started before 2:00 pm, allowing for plenty of time to go out and see the island’s superlative beaches, the dramatic Gay Head cliffs, and the charming “Gingerbread Campground” of ornamented Victorian shacks in Oak Bluffs before heading back to the cinema. “This island is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the out-of-towners really ought to go out and see it,” says Paradise. “Then they can come to the movies later, and see everywhere else.”