As September begins, Martha’s Vineyard breathes a sigh of relief after 100,000 summer visitors have left, and the island’s population returns to 15,000 year-round residents. The Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, in its third year, is meant for those who remain, as Co-Directors Richard Paradise and Nevette Previd are quick to point out. “This place is known for clambakes and pretty beach walks,” says Previd, “but the idea is to offer something different for local people. What makes Martha’s Vineyard so special is that it is a destination, but it’s also a microcosm of the world.” Paradise adds, “It’s about community, bringing together people and watching some great films from around the world.”
Filmmakers and islanders gathered on the rooftop of the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven on Thursday evening to celebrate the Opening Night of the festival at a pre-screening reception for “FLOW” by Irena Salina. The slightly unfocused documentary highlights the current crises of clean drinking water shortages and the privatization of water around the world. And one of the film’s main targets, Nestle Waters, is also one the festival’s presenting sponsors; what “FLOW” lacked, the Q&A made up for, especially when a representative from Nestle spoke up to challenge some of the statistics in the documentary. Smoothing over any awkwardness, Paradise put it into perspective, “It’s about water…but more than that, community and sharing and being good global citizens.”
“Our overall theme is films about other places,” says Previd, “and we try to get a film from each continent.” Some of the highlights included Christophe Honore‘s polyamorous musical “Love Songs,” Yung Chang‘s “Up the Yangtze,” and Guy Maddin‘s “My Winnipeg.” “Tuya’s Marriage,” with its breathtaking cinematography and naturalistic acting, looks at one woman’s struggle to provide for her family in the harsh landscape of Inner Mongolia. And in “The Listening Project,” filmmakers Dominic Howes and Joel Weber follow four Americans abroad as they find out what the rest of the world has to say about the US.
On a much lighter note, the weekend started out with a dose of Wizard Rock at a screening of “We Are Wizards,” a doc focusing on musicians who sing about Harry Potter and artists who have been inspired by the series. Unlike other quirky obsessed fan portrait docs, “Wizards” gives its subjects a chance to tell their stories and effortlessly weaves interviews with animation and archival footage. Director Josh Koury, who himself may have had a healthy obsession with the books, made it clear, “We didn’t want to poke fun at the fandom. The subjects of the film are great artists besides from being fans.” “We Are Wizards” opens theatrically in New York City on November 14.
Friday night in Town Hall saw a screening of shorts from the All Roads Film Project, a forum that aims to give indigenous storytellers a voice. “We have a huge Native American tribe on the island,” says Previd, “and they were really involved with the screening.” The centerpiece of the event was Billy Luther‘s “Miss Navajo,” an intimate and touching portrait of the Miss Navajo Nation competition. After the film, Luther noted that when his mother won the title in 1966, the emphasis was on being able to speak English; now it’s the opposite, on preserving the spoken Navajo language. “I hope that the film sparks some interest in Navajo culture,” said Luther during the Q&A. “I think it’s really important that we tell our own stories and we don’t give the camera to National Geographic and say film us.”
Echoing that sentiment was renowned cinematographer Ellen Kuras, there to present her lyrical directorial debut “The Betrayal.” “One of the reasons I wanted to make this film is to give the Lao a voice, so they would be able to speak for themselves,” said Kuras. This beautifully composed, moving documentary focuses on one family’s exile in America, after leaving a war-torn Laos. Kuras followed her subject Thavisouk Phrasavath for 23 years, who became so involved in the making of the film that she gave him a co-director credit. “We talked about the ideas for so long… This film was about philosophy and death and life and what happens to people without land, in exile.”
Beloved animator Bill Plympton, who designed the festival’s poster, returned this year both to present the world premiere of his new short “Mexican Standoff” and to curate Animation Lollapalooza, a fast paced, quirky, not-for-kids shorts program. Plympton enthusiastically introduced the showcase on Saturday night, “I was here last year and I just had a ball, so I brought some animator friends of mine back to show their new work.” Richard Paradise hopes that other filmmakers will fall in love with the island and the fest and come back each year. “We try to make sure our filmmakers are here for the whole weekend. That they don’t just pop in for their screenings and leave.”
“One of the goals of the festival is for the audience to interact with the filmmakers,” said Nevette Previd, “so we’ve amped up the programs as far as filmmaker meet and greets.” And this year, the fest launched Reel Food MV, celebrating local food, island farmers, and filmmakers with a raw bar, three-course dinner, and screening of shorts. As Previd put it, “One of the best ways to explore the Martha’s Vineyard is through food.” Another way was through Destination MV, a tour of the island arranged by The Trustees of the Preservation, exploring the beaches of Chappaquiddick and Cape Poge’s lighthouse, and finally through Think Globally, Shoot Locally, a screening and discussion with local filmmakers. After showing a trailer for her doc “House of Bones,” Torri Campbell compared her film to the Maysles’ “Grey Gardens,” with four generation of women in one West Chop house. Through photos and home video shot over the last few decades, Campbell focuses on her family’s last summer on the Vineyard.
All in all, the festival in its third year and growing is maybe not just for the locals anymore. Previd concluded, “There were a lot more people who came in for the weekend and made it an event. They came here to see films and go to parties and check out Martha’s Vineyard.”