It’s the most fun you could have all year, maybe the most fun in five years. What I discovered at this year’s Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival was, you need a big breakfast on each of the four days and a powerful multivitamin to build your strength. Though stamina for this event has nothing to do with age: 82-year-old Doreen Kinsman is the all-time movie maximizer, able to view 12 to 14 screenings (out of 36-plus offered, three per time slot) per festival. I believe she also can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
This is the sixth year of this festival, brought to us by Island film impresario Richard Paradise, backed up by a roster of 50-plus volunteers, including the indefatigable Mary Spencer and Mr. Paradise’s wife, Brenda Horrigan. And truly, as we consider the dazzling array of parties, filmmaker discussions and scores of award-winning movies from all over the world offered from Sept. 8 through 11 in Vineyard Haven, it’s difficult to grasp how one curator, with even a thousand volunteers, could have managed all of it.
But over the weekend it’s the ticketholder who has the heavy lifting to do. First, let us assume you’ve purchased an all-access pass ($180 general admission, $150 for film society members). On Thursday you’ll open your program to ascertain that, starting at 5:30 p.m. you are welcome to the live music of the Aphro Beat Project with Entrain drummer Tom Major, and hors d’oeuvre at Saltwater Restaurant. This is followed by an 8 p.m. screening at the Capawock of one of the festival’s starring movies, Just Like Us, the documentary following Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed on his ground-breaking tour through Eqypt, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. (If you skipped this, Just Like Us had a second showing on Sunday).
On Friday the real marathon began, beginning at 4 p.m. when the ticket holder was required to choose among a trio of movies: Puzzles, from Argentina, at the Capawock; Bag it!, an American documentary about our flagrant overuse of plastic, at the Katharine Cornell; and Tales from the Golden Age, animated shorts from Romania which, believe it or not, takes amusing pokes at the regime of gruesome dictator Ceausescu and, as the write up notes, “takes tragedy and twists it into mordantly funny tales that are part Kafka, part Seinfeld.” Tales was screened at the third venue, the Vineyard Playhouse.
At 7 p.m. another three films were screened, then another round between 9 and 9:30, a cinematic “Three movies diverged in a yellow wood” times three. For an extra $100, ticketgoers could scoot over to Saltwater Restaurant where a feast was laid on between 6 to 8 p.m. As part of the open pass package (or for an extra $15 per event), a Celebration of Scandanavia was held at the Stina Sayre Design store on Main street. Later, from 9 to midnight, was a party in the Space Formerly Known as Che’s Lounge, repeated on Saturday night.
Guests were overheard exclaiming, “I only want to see comedies this weekend, what with all the depressing news.” These folks would have saturated themselves on such fare as Ahmed Ahmed’s documentary as well as The Trip, wherein two English comedians outdo each other with celebrity impressions as they eat their way around the U.K., and the Norwegian comedy Happy! Happy! which one filmgoer declared, “Kept me laughing for the rest of the night as I remembered different scenes!”
For those who feel they’ve only gained their money’s worth if they’re made to ponder and suffer, abundant opportunity was on offer. There was the Rwandan genocide film, Kinyarwanda, directed by a young American, Alick Brown. A Screaming Man, set in Chad, gives us Adam, who loves his job as a pool tender, is replaced by his son, Abdul, so he secretly finagles to draft Abdul into the government’s war effort against the rebels.
For the most part, however, a broad selection of movies seemed to be the favored choice, and most of the picks fell on the spectrum between funny but thought-provoking (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, from Thailand) through informative (Connected, an American documentary about the human brain and technology) to grueling-to-watch-but-fascinating-all-the-same (Puzzles and The Strange Case of Anjelica).
The word “grueling” is applied to the last two movies — the first, from Argentina, the second a French-Portuguese-Spanish coproduction (directed by 101-year-old Manoel de Oliveira) — because, judging by this pair of films, native audiences are not yet riddled by our epidemic American Attention Deficit Disorder. The camera can dwell on a woman doing her dishes interminably, or a breakfast table where lodgers eat and speak at a leisurely place while the hero stares in a stupor out the window and across the river to a barren hillside . . . endlessly. The American viewer is groaning, “C’mon, already, will you learn how to edit?” while at the same time one might marvel that the Argentine or Portuguese filmgoer is immersed enough in the present moment to thoroughly enjoy this slower pace.
Both the above-mentioned movies, by the way, were harrowing to sit through, yet left one with lasting impressions. In the former, it was Argentine women facing the struggles for independence that those of us up north battled for in the early 1970s. In the latter, one might hold on to the figure of a beautiful ghost in a shimmering white bridal gown lifting her living “lover,” who himself despises the noise and stink of modern life, up into celestial skies. A happy ending, of sorts.
Some screenings are an event unto themselves, such as Sunday’s premier video at the Vineyard Playhouse of Passing the Torch, featuring Harry Bellafonte, Rose Styron, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ronan Farrow, Julie Flanders, Tony Horwitz and Len Morris, in support of the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Leadership Initiative, followed by a reception.
Festivities culminated in a closing party at the Vineyard Haven Marina, enlivened by the bluegrass band Ballywho.
Mr. Paradise, asked how he’d assembled this particular glittering and eclectic array of films, said: “I program all year long through the MV Film Society. Distributors send me movies, I go to festivals and catch screenings in the cities. My list begins in September so that by the following September I have a full festival in place. Sometimes there’s a last-minute glitch. This year it was a film about Japanese sushi preparation, but I was able to fill in with A Matter of Taste [“a rare insight into the world of cutthroat haute cuisine”] and . . . get director Sally Rowe to come for an introduction.”
The open pass is recommended so you can navigate through the wide selection without stopping to think about cost or, if a particular film proves discouraging, chalk it up as part of the adventure.
To find out about upcoming screenings, see mvfilmsociety.com, where you can also find plans for a new film center in the Tisbury Market Place. Once this cultural center is in place, there will be no further reason to leave the Vineyard in winter. Well, except to visit WalMart, CVS and Staples. If it’s strictly necessary. You might miss a good movie.