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Mid March is almost as far from high season as you can get in Chilmark, the tony hamlet near the west end of Martha’s Vineyard, but on this Sunday evening nearly 100 culturati from across the Northeast are gathered in a Chilmark Community Center auditorium. They are there to watch a screening of Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, a documentary by Joe Berlinger, known for his 1996 film Paradise Lost, about the trial of three teenagers accused of murder. The screening, and a subsequent discussion with Whitey Bulger’s defense attorney Hank Brennan and Steve Davis, the brother of a woman allegedly killed by the Boston mobster, were part of this year’s 13-year-old Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, which is gaining prestige and attendance with each go-round.
The 2014 festival, which ran from March 13 through 16 and drew more than 1,000 people to the island, screened 20 feature films (including Fading Gigolo, directed by John Turturro and starring Woody Allen) and several short films by local filmmakers. The documentaries and dramas covered topics such as coastal erosion and the rise of the sea level, the effect of music on Alzheimer’s patients, and the untimely death of extreme skier and BASE jumper Shane McConkey. The festival was organized by founder Thomas Bena, executive and creative director, and Brian Ditchfield (CFA’99), who has been managing and programming director for the past five years.
Ditchfield grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, and after graduating from BU as a theater major, he moved to Chicago. In 2000, he founded Shack Productions and wrote and produced a feature film called The Last Will and Testament of Marlboro Patch, a coming-of-age comedy shot on the Vineyard. He moved to New York, where he worked on several award-winning shorts and documentaries. Ditchfield now lives on the Vineyard with his wife, Brooke Hardman (CFA’99), the artistic director and events manager of Artfarm.
Ditchfield oversees the selection of films for the festival, choosing from submissions and from films that have been shown at the largest festivals in North America, including the Toronto International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival. The final selections are made by a committee and by the community.
“If it’s a documentary about farming that I’m considering, I’ll ask a farmer to watch it first,” says Ditchfield. “If they like it, I’ll ask someone who is very far away from the farming community to watch it to try and glean if it has general resonance.”
Just five years ago, the festival was a one-day affair in the island’s agricultural hall. Now 4 full-time employees, 10 part-timers, and more than 2 dozen volunteers run the four-day event, as well as a weekly summer series.
The films are the main course of the festival, but much of its pleasure comes from the distinctly Vineyard ambience. Most of the seats in the Chilmark venues are comfortable couches. The Community Center’s fluorescent lights are muted by burlap, and a partition of dried reeds stuck into driftwood logs leads to the kitchen, where lunch is served on mismatched china plates. Chris Fischer, the chef at the Vineyard’s well-known Beach Plum Restaurant and a former chef at Babbo in New York, oversees the busy kitchen, keeping an eye out as his chicken and tomato soups are ladled into large bowls and a rainbow of roasted vegetables is tossed with olive oil. In a large heated tent, a crowd sits on hay bales at communal wooden dining tables and listens to a guitarist playing James Taylor. Beer and wine are served in mason jars. If and when celebrities show up at screenings (Seth Meyers was spotted this year), Ditchfield does his best to keep them from being recognized.
“There’s a reason that film watching has shifted to the living room at home,” he says. “It’s a comfortable place to watch a movie, but what’s removed from that is the community aspect. So what we try to do is to keep the living room feel, but add the community.”
Next, Ditchfield hopes to add more community more often. He is looking for a way to make some version of the festival available year-round, perhaps by finding a more permanent home for frequent screenings.
“We keep growing,” he says, “but we grow in a communal way.”