Tucked away on a hill in West Tisbury rests an unlikely young girl. She’s over six feet tall, has ears as big as hub caps and is stuffed with thrift store rubble. Her name is Ellie the elephant, and she’s waiting to become the newest addition to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival’s Cinema Circus.
“There she is,” said Hugh Phear, Ellie’s creator, as he pointed through the screen door of his home which he has built, and is still building, from recycled material, including fallen branches and a kitchen table that was once a pool table.
Mr. Phear is the new education coordinator for the Cinema Circus. He has a bachelor’s degree in studio art and industrial design, and has taught at the University of Arts in Philadelphia and at Parsons The New School for Design. He has also taught English and biology in Kenya.
Unofficial Elephant Creator and Trainer is new on his resume.
“I hope she makes people smile,” he said.
In addition to being a life-size elephant, Ellie can walk, blink and use her trunk to tickle. Emblazoned on her cloth saddle are the words Cinema Circus. She has been created with all ages in mind, said Mr. Phear.
“There are very young kids and kids as old as thirteen or fourteen.”
Mr. Phear patted Ellie and added “Plus the parents — everyone enjoys the circus.”
The Cinema Circus takes place almost every Wednesday evening this summer beginning at 5 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center as a warm up to the films. Ellie is not the only performer either. There is face painting, stilt walkers, dancers, hula-hoopers and a ring master, too. After the circus everyone moves inside the community center for a series of kid-friendly short films. This year, Professor Projector makes an appearance to help kids understand the behind-the-scenes nature of creating movies.
“The kids’ programs break down the myth that the machines and the processes of production are outside of their understanding. In fact, kids are quite savvy with this stuff,” said Mr. Phear.
The summertime Cinema Circus began four years ago as an addition to the film festival, and has been growing ever since. Other kids’ programs have steadily developed alongside.
Lindsey Scott, the head of children’s programming, first became acquainted with the festival as a parent before there was a circus.
“I saw something great but knew it could be even better,” she said. Mrs. Scott approached Thomas Bena, the founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, and together they “invented the Cinema Circus in order to expand all the ways the festival could attract families. There’s performance, face painting, and a really playful environment,” she said.
The children’s program in general is still expanding. “We’re still adding. We see so many possibilities to embellish what we have and reach a more diversified audience on the Island.”
The Film Festival is making strides to connect to more Island nonprofits, companies, camps and libraries to further promote the festival’s goal of increasing media literacy in the community.
General manager Brian Ditchfield said, “Media literacy involves getting people to understand what goes into making film, and also to critically analyze how film tells a story. Kids, especially, are ready to dive right in.”
During the school year, Mr. Ditchfield and Mr. Phear spent twelve weeks at the West Tisbury School with the fourth grade class, writing screenplays and movies that tied Vineyard life to classic Aesop’s Fables. Kids worked in front of and behind the camera and were able to “glimpse all aspects of film,” according to Mr. Ditchfield.
“It was a totally magical experience,” he added. “The outgoing kids encouraged the shy ones. Enthusiastic kids spread their excitement. By the end, everyone got to be good at everything. We’re creating the next generation of Vineyard film makers.”
Mrs. Scott also worked with Island youth during the school year. She went to the Public Charter School with Jennifer Christy, a member of the advisory board for Cinema Circus, both of whom had previously taught art at the charter school. They returned to teach a special program that was part film and part visual art. Students in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades made puppets, wrote a screenplay and filmed an original movie entitled Bloom, that can now be viewed on YouTube. Mrs. Scott acted as producer but handed the reigns of directing and cinematography over to charter school junior Ian Chickering, who recently premiered his own film, Last Night on Earth, at the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven.
The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival has also expanded its work outside of the children’s programs. For the first time, there will be down-Island screenings this summer of select feature films and documentaries shown as part of the adult portion of the Wednesday night screenings.
“We’re spreading our wings,” said Mr. Bena. “We want to do more, and by creating more venues, we’ll be serving more of the Island population.” The Film Festival will continue to host dinners at each screening, too. The theme this year is good health — greens, grains and grilled food, courtesy of Chris Fischer of Beetlebung Farm and The Scottish Bakehouse. There’s also live music with Shawn Barber of Goodnight Louise, Phil Darosa, Dana Edelman and Heather Wolfe.
A complete schedule of events, screenings and special guests is available on tmvff.org, but Mr. Bena said that there are a few features that especially “pack a punch.” One is Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies, which documents Paul Simon’s controversial foray into African music and culture during his Graceland album and tour. Mr. Berlinger will attend the screening and give a talk afterwards. There’s also Knuckleball!, a documentary that follows Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox and New York Met R.A. Dickey through a full baseball season. Mr. Wakefield is scheduled to attend the screening and afterwards be available for questions.
The season officially starts this coming Wednesday, June 27, at the Chilmark Community Center. Cinema Circus begins at 5 p.m., followed by a series of short films for kids. Dinner begins at 7 p.m. and the feature documentary, Marina Abromovic The Artist is Present starts at 8 p.m.
Ellie the elephant, with Mr. Phear tucked inside, will be making her debut that day. Both are excited about their close-up.
“I’ve just always liked making things,” Mr. Phear said.
Ellie just smiled and raised her trunk in agreement.