In 2004, Michael Collins read a letter that changed his life. It was signed by 35 witnesses and concerned a double murder trial in the Philippines. While most people might feel badly after reading about such an event but do little more to help, Mr. Collins was moved to act. The defendant, Paco LarraÃ±aga, had been imprisoned for seven years despite 35 witnesses, dubbed the “unheard 35,” who put him at a cooking lesson the day of the murders,
“I thought about how much I had grown and lived in those same seven years,” Mr. Collins said by phone this week. “He was on death row at the time. Someone had to do something.”
Mr. Collins bought a camera, quit his job at a communications company in New York city and flew to the Philippines to investigate the issue, unearthing a broken justice system and an intimate family drama. The four-week trip turned into four months, and suddenly he and Marty Syjuco, the film’s producer, and a relative of Mr. LarraÃ±aga’s, were making a movie.
“The more entrenched we got with the story, the more of an emotional rollercoaster it became,” Mr. Collins said.
Now, eight years later, Mr. Collins travels the world to promote his film, Give Up Tomorrow, which has won numerous awards on the festival circuit, including seven audience awards. Next Saturday, Sept. 8, he will screen the film on the Vineyard as part of the seventh annual International Film Festival held in Vineyard Haven. The festival runs from Sept. 6 through 9, with movies screening at three Vineyard Haven locations: the Katharine Cornell Theatre, the Capawock Theatre and, for the first time, the film society’s new official film center, located at 72 Beach Road in the Tisbury Marketplace.
Mr. Collins, 35, grew up summering on the Island.
“My earliest memories are from the Vineyard,” he said. “It’s my favorite place on the planet.” When asked where he was from during his travels to Asia and Europe, “I’d always say Martha’s Vineyard. There’s something about that Island that will always feel like home to me.”
Mr. Collins will attend the screening next week. “Nothing could make me happier than having to go to the Vineyard and calling it work,” he said.
Give Up Tomorrow is just one of many movies that will be shown next weekend, but it is a good example of the kind of films Richard Paradise, the festival director, brings to the Vineyard each year. The festival is now in its seventh year and Mr. Paradise has the juggling act of producing such an event down to a science, more or less. In January he compiles a spreadsheet of 40 or 50 films, paying close attention to films that have not gotten wide distribution, he said.
“I try to have an eclectic mix of films... to reach out to a broad audience.”
This year, he is showing 22 films at the festival, including four that deal with issues related to aging, and three French films. But perhaps the most eye-catching item on the film schedule is the screening location for some of the films, listed as the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Prior years had Mr. Paradise arranging screenings at many Vineyard Haven sites, but this past winter he embarked on an ambitious plan to build a festival center. As of last week, workers were still painting the walls of the new center, setting tile in the lobby, chiseling away on the stage and installing black flooring. And although electricity and seating had yet to be installed, Mr. Paradise guaranteed that construction would be finished in time for opening night on Thursday, Sept. 6.
“It has to be,” he said.
Mr. Paradise admitted that back in May when the building project first began, he took a “big leap of faith.” At that time, he had only fundraised 50 per cent of his goal.
“Luckily I have the personality that I don’t look too far into the future,” he said. “I just thought we could make it.”
Now, just four months later, although the hammers are still audible, the new center features a 27-foot screen, plush seating for 185 people, and a digital cinema initiative (DCI) projector, which allows the film society to play content off a hard drive, instead of 35-millimeter film. This technology is quickly replacing film in half of the theaters nationwide, Mr. Paradise estimated. A tablet instead of a control room at the back of the theater will start the projector, lower the lights and open the curtain.
The building project is backed by private developer and architect, Reid (Sam) Dunn. Mr. Dunn owns the building, but the Film Society has the option to buy it from him in the coming years.
Mr. Paradise has led the Film Society as a volunteer for the past 12 years, but the construction of the Film Center marks a career shift as he plans to dedicate himself to the Film Society full-time. Already he estimates he puts in about 50 hours a week on the project, and hopes to be able to draw a salary sometime soon. He doesn’t golf and he doesn’t enjoy fishing, he said.
“This is my hobby and my passion, showing movies. At 54 years old, how many people can say they can turn their hobby into a career?”
Last week, the Film Society announced a new partnership with the Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH. Mr. Paradise hopes WGBH will bring even more credibility to the film festival. WGBH will sponsor the film festival, as well as additional programming during summers, granting them access to an influential audience during the summer months, Mr. Paradise said.
“People are more likely to come to the Vineyard in summer, than to Boston,” he said.
Mr. Paradise also plans to continue showing art films and international films throughout the year at the new center, leaving wide-release features like “Spiderman” and “The Avengers” to the Island’s commercial venues. Having a permanent movie house will allow the Film Society to show more films during the year.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “We have been a gypsy organization for 12 years, going from place to place. We want to create an atmosphere where you know from weekend to weekend you can see some great films.”
On Thursday, Searching for Sugarman, a feature film about the mid-life disappearance of a famous Rock and Roll musician, opens the festival. Local filmmakers Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth will also premiere their six-minute documentary, which follows local musician Ben Taylor as he releases his newest album, Listening. Mr. Taylor, who is Ms. Witham’s cousin, will attend the screening.
On Saturday, Sept. 8, Vineyard Haven resident Lawrence Blume, president of Tashmoo Productions, will screen his feature film, Tiger Eyes. The film is based on the book of the same title written by his mother, Judy Blume. Mother and son collaborated on the screenplay, and Judy joined the set every day on location in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the story is based.
Growing up, Lawrence Blume read all of his mothers’ books, as soon as he was old enough to be permitted, that is, but always identified most strongly with Davey, the female protagonist of Tiger Eyes. When Mr. Blume was 13, his parents divorced and he and his mother moved to Los Alamos. In the book, the character of Davey also moves to Los Alamos following the tragic death of her father, and feels her entire social life uprooted. Similarly, Mr. Blume became separated from his father and his friends back in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“I was living her story,” he said. “I felt I completely understood what was in that girl’s head.”
For years, Mr. Blume thought about making the book into a film, but was waiting for the right financial backer. In 2010, British mega-retailer Tesco showed an interest in the film, and he and his mother began writing the script, much of which they wrote together on the Vineyard.
Mrs. Blume said she enjoyed working with her son on the screenplay, emailing back and forth, and discussing the best way to convert a cherished piece of literature into a film.
“I am used to working by myself,” she said. “I always thought, wouldn’t it be great to collaborate?” Mrs. Blume also said she enjoyed the experience during the filming of improvising dialogue on the spot.
Mother and son have spoken about the film at six film festivals so far and both will be present at the Vineyard screening and participate in a question and answer session.
“We’d love to see everyone,” Mrs. Blume said. “We are looking forward to sharing this movie.”
For a complete list of films to be shown at the festival visit mvfilmfest.com.