On a recent spring-like afternoon in downtown Chilmark, as the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival staff walked from their offices on South Road to the Chilmark Community Center, the sun burst through a patch of Beetlebung trees.

“Look at how cool they are,” said Thomas Bena.

“They look just like people,” added Hilary Dreyer.

Soon Beetlebung Corner and the community center, or the “campus” as they refer to it, will be an amalgam of film, food and conversation as the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival returns, from Thursday, March 19, through Sunday, March 22.

The festival took root 15 years ago when Mr. Bena and a few friends rented the Grange Hall and showed a few independent films to a packed house. From there, the festival grew to its annual March event then branched out to Cinema Circus, Dinner and a Movie and outdoor screenings at Owen Park during the summer.

“I feel like, for years it was me, and me and some other people, and then me and Brian [Ditchfield],” Mr. Bena said. “We noticed it last year at the festival. It was like oh, this is going to live on, this is going to be something bigger than Thomas and a few friends.”

Ms. Dreyer and Cassie Dana joined the team last year.

The Hunting Ground highlights issue of campus rape.

“There’s this infusion of new young energy,” Mr. Bena continued. “They are half my age and they bring incredible ideas and they have this comfort with technology and so I think we have a really dynamic workplace.”

Ms. Dana used social media to swiftly contact the subjects of the documentary The Hunting Ground, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, to invite them to speak following the screening of the film on Saturday, March 21.

“When you see these two women after Hunting Ground, you want to give them a standing ovation, just after the trailer,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “The fact that they are going to be there and you are really going to get that one on one is really special.”

The film, which has been screening in major cities and colleges and universities around the country, tackles the issue of campus rape and the hesitance of institutions to support victims and implement policies and programs to deal with instances of assault.

“Many schools create task forces and create policies but very rarely are they enforced,” said Ms. Pino. “Universities have a very difficult time dealing with this. Regardless of how good these policies are, until students feel like they can’t get away with rape it’s going to keep happening.”

Ms. Pino and Ms. Clark were raped while attending the University of North Carolina. The film follows the journey of both women as they evolve from survivors to activists as a result of their frustration with how UNC handled their assaults, and others. The two women filed a Title IX complaint against the university in 2013.

Father Unknown tells story of a director's search for understanding.

Film festival alum Kirby Dick directed the film.

“Our objective was to create a reaction in audiences that would help schools and pressure schools about policies that should’ve been changed a long, long time ago,” he said. “Documentaries have the potential to have a real dramatic impact around issues. It has started to change the discussion on college campuses. It’s revelatory for students and parents.”

Saturday’s lineup also features Vessel, a documentary profiling the creator of Women on Waves, and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which tells the story of the first wave of the women’s movement. Filmmaker Dawn Porter will moderate discussions after each of these films.

“To have young activists learning from these historical figures I think is such an opportunity to formulate some really cool tactics to change our world,” said Ms. Dana.

Mr. Bena said that when selecting documentaries the selection committee leans towards films that offer some sort of call to action rather than leaving the viewer with a sense of hopelessness. And sometimes the call to action is to go out and make more films. This was the case with Vineyard resident and former film festival volunteer Matthew Heineman. His documentary, Cartel Land, which tells the story of two groups of vigilantes fighting against Mexico’s drug cartel, screens on Saturday and Sunday. Mr. Heineman won best director at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

“When I volunteered at the festival as a teenager, I was always inspired by the films that Thomas and Brian curated, even though I had no idea I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Mr. Heineman said. “Now over 10 years later, I’m grateful to have shown all three of my films at the festival, and I’m especially excited to be showing a sneak peek of Cartel Land. It’s always great to see how Vineyard audiences react to and engage with social issue films, and I look forward to that conversation.”

And it’s the conversation, not just the film itself, that goes into the selection process as the team reviews and selects films.

“This year, especially, we had to say no to some really good movies,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “Sometimes it’s the quality of the movie but other times it’s the quality of the movie and the discussion. These days you can get movies in so many different ways. So it’s not just about how good is the movie, it’s a huge factor, but then once we have 50 really good movies and we have to pick 21 of them . . . then it comes down to who can come with the movie and what’s the discussion afterwards?”

Local folk, like Johnny Hoy, show up in Vineyard Shorts program.

And the discussion continues beyond the screening rooms — in the lobby, at the Hay Cafe, at the Filmmaker’s Brunch.

“There’s a really inclusive feel to the festival that has grown over the years and we’re really proud of that,” said Mr. Bena. “Filmmakers come and say do not change what you are doing and be careful how you grow.”

This year’s festival is showing 12 documentaries, seven fictional narratives, 15 shorts and offering three special events at the community center, Chilmark School and Chilmark library. The festival’s films are scheduled so that there is a good balance between hard hitting documentaries and lighter narratives.

“There’s enough of a mix that there is something for everyone,” said Mr. Bena.

“You can pick your ride,” added Mr. Ditchfield.

The mix includes a mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand, a film about a hip-hop dance crew aged 67 to 95, an exploration into the secret world of Scientology, and the journey of a young Delhi student with cerebral palsy, just to name a few.

In addition to family shorts, a children’s program will offer free filmmaking workshops for all ages and the opportunity for kids make their own narrative film over the course of the weekend, which will be edited and then screened on Sunday.

“There’s something so magical about having the kids in the hay loft and having a very important purpose with the project they are working on,” said Alexandra London-Thompson, director of children’s programs. “It is very evident that film literacy is an incredibly important skill. Our kids consume pop culture at a shocking rate. It’s important to give them tools to tell the stories.”

The festival is also offering a shorts program called the Future of Farming followed by a farmer’s breakfast with local farmers in the Hay Cafe.

“There’s themes of films that seem to come via submissions that make us think oh, this is what’s in the air right now. And we got a lot of films about farming,” said Mr. Ditchfield.

Under a big tent on the campus lawn, the Hay Cafe will host live music by local musicians such as Willy Mason, Nina Violet, Jeremy Berlin and David Stanwood and offer local food prepared by Morning Glory Farm chef Robert Lionette. There will also be an Art Walk and Silent Auction, an idea of Ms. Dreyer’s, which will feature work from 20 local artists of all levels and mediums.

“We say more than movies a lot here,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “We have plenty of people who come just to hang out. This time of year we’re all starved for that.”

Next week the staff and volunteers will begin preparing the campus for the festival, loading in couches, raking snow and laying down wood chips and hay for the cafe, and shoveling and plowing parking lots. There’s a lot to do as they gear up for the biggest event of their season, but Mr. Bena said he makes sure to step back, observe and take time to be in the moment.

“When that Hay Cafe is full and there’s live music and people are hanging out and the film directors are right there hanging out with the kids making movies . . . when that whole thing is happening it’s like, that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “That’s the whole vision manifested right there.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival will take place at the Chilmark Community Center from March 19 to 22. For a full schedule and to buy tickets, visit tmvff.org. Must see movies include: Brian’s pick, Margarita, With a Straw; Hilary’s pick, Vessel; Cassie’s pick, Hip Hop-eration; Thomas’s pick, Father Unknown .