Amid the stacks of DVDs and under the piles of papers, press photos and programs, the sixth annual Martha's Vineyard Independent Film Festival is coming together.
"This is the crunch time, for sure," festival founder and director Thomas Bena says one afternoon last week from the festival headquarters in North Tisbury. "We still have a lot to do."
With only two weeks until opening night, Mr. Bena and assistant programmer Anna Molitor are busy stitching up the final details for the three-day event, which begins March 17 at the Chilmark Community Center. There are still issues to work out with the food, the volunteer staff and the filmmakers, some of whom are traveling to the Vineyard to present and discuss their films. On this afternoon, Mr. Bena is snared in seemingly endless conversations with several of the filmmakers, and Ms. Molitor is trying in vain to get in touch with members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which is co-sponsoring one of the films. The final line-up has not even been posted on the web site, and the program for the weekend needs to be finished.
There are other things to worry about, too, and the list is growing. But amid the confusion of these last weeks, Mr. Bena is confident the festival will go off without a hitch. And as each of his festivals has proven more successful than the last, Mr. Bena seems to have only one thing to worry about: Is his annual celebration of independent films and documentaries becoming too successful?
"It's truly a community festival in every sense of the term - by the community and for the community." Mr. Bena says. "And that is our goal. I just want people to come and relax, to see some really great films that will never make it to the Island, and to get a chance to hang out with their community and the visiting filmmakers."
But this year, some members of the community are unhappy with the screening committee's choice of films. Local filmmakers across the Island, whose works have been a staple of the festival in each of the previous five years, are crying foul after many of their works were rejected this year. Only two local short films were accepted, prompting some to wonder if the festival is abandoning its roots for a broader appeal. It is something Mr. Bena flatly denies.
"We didn't feel good about having to say no to Island filmmakers, but we have a limited amount of slots available in our one venue, three-day festival," Mr. Bena says. "I can stand by all of the submissions as well-told, well-filmed movies that make us feel something. There are five members of our screening committee and although we often disagree, we agree on one thing: if a film doesn't move us in some profound way, we won't screen it."
Last year, Island filmmaker Stacey Witt showed her feature film, Single on Martha's Vineyard, to a packed room. This year, her latest work was turned down. Likewise for Ken Wentworth and Liz Witham, who hoped to screen their short film, The Legacy of the Harp.
This week, Mr. Bena discussed with Mr. Wentworth the idea of having a local filmmakers night next Thursday. However, as of press time there was no indication as to whether it had come together.
These were hard decisions to make, Mr. Bena says, but he stands by the committee's decisions. And that, he adds, should speak volumes for the selections.
"There are some amazing films that we had to say no to, and that is just part of selecting a finite number of films," he says. "But on the opposite end of the spectrum, we are excited with the films we are showing."
Turning to a stack of films, he pulls out several of the festival's feature films. There is Favela Rising, an international award-winning documentary about one man's passionate movement to free his poor Rio de Janeiro neighborhood from a hopeless cycle of violence. There is In-laws and Outlaws, an endearing, modern look at the institution of marriage. And there is Fisher Poets, a short film about fishermen who write poetry about their time on the water.
"There is something for everyone at our festival," Mr. Bena says. "We spend a lot of time searching for films that will resonate with many different parts of our community."
Mr. Bena is also excited about the three fiction films he is presenting, including director Neil Jordan's latest, Breakfast on Pluto.
Last year, many of the films focused on political themes, with documentaries about the Bush administration, the war on terror and the ugly side of capitalism dominating the playbill. And this year's theme?
"Personal is political," answers Ms. Molitor. "The recurring concept this year is of people and their stories of how they take control of their own situation and make their own statements through their actions."
Another addition this year are movies for kids made by kids.
"Filmmakers have also commented about the intelligence of the audience and many have told us that they've had their best post-film discussions in the community center," Mr. Bena says."There is a definite experience people have coming to the festival that we want to continue."
To maintain this perspective, Mr. Bena and Ms. Molitor spent part of last year working at other festivals within similar communities, including the Hamptons, Nantucket, and Woods Hole. They have also traveled to Boston, Nova Scotia, Utah and Amsterdam in search of movies.
"These experiences have helped us to fine tune our methods and sensibilities and provided us with countless ideas," Mr. Bena says. "At each festival, I learn something new and realize just how truly special our festival is."