Author Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, examined trends in American society and concluded that the country was growing apart due to lack of community involvement. His thesis pointed to a disengaged populace that was more isolated and therefore less likely to be empathetic. The traditional outlets for bringing a community together were no longer thriving, he said, from bowling leagues to PTA meetings, and as a result the country as a whole was suffering. 

One of the Vineyard’s answers to this problem that many see as only deepening seems to be movies, in particular movie festivals.

Last week, the Chilmark-based Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival finished another summer of weekly screenings of independent and documentary movies. Their annual film festival is held each March, deep in the off-season, but whether in the summer or winter, the events are always a forum for community gatherings and participation. And now, beginning last night and running through Sunday, the International Film Festival arrives once again to provide a jolt of energy just as the summer winds down. More than forty independent and foreign films will be shown in four days, a true testament to finding enlightenment by spending a lot of time in the dark. 

Going to see a movie, while an individual experience when the lights are out, (no texting, please), is a communal event when the lights come back on, especially at the Island festivals as directors, writers, producers and cast members often attend the screenings. Whether discussing the movie with a friend or at question and answer sessions afterward, waving to an acquaintance (I can’t believe he likes films with subtitles), or even arguing about a film’s worth, the experience brings people together. But the creators of the festivals do not stop there.

Cinema Circus, an offshoot of the Chilmark festival, now reaches out during the off-season to engage students in film making and film appreciation. And the Film Center in its short physical existence — the building with its one hundred and eighty five stadium-style seats is just a year old, although the festival is now in its eighth year — has quickly become much more than just a place to see movies. It is a true community center, hosting parties, concerts and discussions.

And so the true measure of the success lies not only in the themes and narratives portrayed on the screens at these festivals, but also in the layers of community and connection created during each event.

Two thumbs up all around, no doubt about it.