Inspiring, true stories are the backbone of the 19th annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival set to kick off Thursday night at the Chilmark Community Center with a screening of Children of Bal Ashram. This year’s festival is the biggest yet, with 30 films telling stories from around the world.

The lineup takes viewers inside a Queens courtroom, to communities on the frontlines of climate change, and even to the moon. Many of the films have Vineyard connections.

“I think that speaks to the incredible talent that’s here,” said artistic director Brian Ditchfield during a roundtable discussion with the festival team earlier this week.

The opening film, Children of Bal Ashram, is one of those narratives, produced and directed by Vineyarders Len and Georgia Morris and Petra Lent McCarron. For over 20 years the filmmakers have fought for children’s rights around the world by raising awareness through their documentary films and partnering with advocacy organizations. The films are results driven, looking for solutions rather than merely exposing the issues, and yet there is no getting around the fact that the subject matter can be hard going, chronicling children living in extreme poverty and exposing unfair labor practices and slavery.

Len Morris, Petra McCarron and Georgia Morris have spent their careers creating documentaries shining a light on injustices done to children around the world. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The filmmakers maintain, though, that their newest film is full of hope.

“I think that they’ll be surprised that it’s not depressing,” said Georgia Morris during an interview at the couple’s Vineyard Haven home and studio this week. “People expect films about trafficking and slavery to be yet another downer. It’s not that. It’s a view of how

things can be, how things can change and how things are on the move. It’s a view of how children are becoming activists.”

Children of Bal Ashram tells the story of a children’s refuge in Rajasthan, India where Nobel Peace Prize activist Kailash Satyarthi and his wife Sumedha Kailash provide a home and education for children rescued from slavery. After initially planning to visit for nine days, Len and Georgia ended up staying at the compound for two months filming the lives of the young boys and girls who refer to Mr. Satyarthi and Mrs. Kailash as “Papa and Mama G.”

“Bal Ashram is a very inspiring place,” said Mr. Morris. “Nothing prepared me for these kids. These kids have had the worst treatment imaginable and they’ve formed a family of survivors built around equality and fairness.”

“Kids there were once hideously abused, but are brought to a point where they can feel, give and receive love,” added Ms. Morris. “It’s just a wonderful place and that’s what we filmed.”

Brought to you by: Brian Ditchfield, Hilary Dreyer, Danielle Mulcahy, Thomas Bena, Madison Ibsen and Ollie Becker.

The story culminates in an 11,000 kilometer march to the presidential palace to demand an end to child trafficking. Helping to organize the 5.5 million marchers were child activists raised and taught at Bal Ashram.

“They moved from child labor to become shock troops in the global campaign to end child labor,” said Mr. Morris.

The filmmaking team said they hoped audiences will be inspired and see how positive change is possible and that they can be a part of it.

“I want people to take away from this that you can recalibrate society,” said Ms. McCarron. “This is just a remarkable change that they have made.”

“I want people to see what’s possible and understand that change is here and now and these children are the clenched fist of that change, right at ground zero,” added Mr. Morris. “It was very inspiring to see the power of love at work, which is really what the film is about at the end of the day.”

This year’s festival also includes a film by seasonal resident Matthew Heineman, a prolific filmmaker and somewhat of a regular at the festival. His documentary Cartel Land was nominated for an Academy Award. His new film, A Private War, is his first narrative feature, a biographical telling of the career of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed while reporting in Syria.

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable screens on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.

Another seasonal resident, David Modigliani, makes his debut at the festival with a timely documentary about Beto O’Rourke, who this week announced his candidacy for President. The film travels with Mr. O’Rourke from political unknown to household name during his Texas senate campaign to unseat Ted Cruz.

Part of the mission of the film festival is to move the experience of watching movies from passive to active by generating discussions in a community setting. To foster this, many of the filmmakers will be on hand after the screenings, including Len and Georgia Morris and Petra McCarron, Matthew Heineman and David Modigliani.

Other documentaries in the lineup include Amazing Grace about the late Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Unstoppable about Bethany Hamilton, a world-renowned professional surfer whose left arm was bitten off in a shark attack.

“I love surfing films that transcend just surfing and tell a real story,” said festival founder and executive director Thomas Bena, an avid surfer himself. “It’s a powerful story about a fierce woman.”

The deaf community, of which Chilmark has a long history, also plays a part in several shorts and one feature, a romantic comedy called You & Me. The film, which also stars a blind actor, was written by the deaf actress Hillary Baack.

“It’s an engaging and lovely romantic comedy in itself, but given the Chilmark context, it’s a really engaging story,” said Mr. Ditchfield.

Amazing Grace, a documentary about Aretha Franklin, screens in Friday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:45 p.m.

Mr. Ditchfield said the expansion of offerings outside of film screenings makes this festival one of the most exciting yet, for all ages and interests.

“We are embodying our ‘More than Movies’ tagline more than ever before,” he said. “We’re doing a community forum, workshops, two theatrical performances...they’re tied into the film experience, but we’re embracing the festival side of film festival.”

One major new addition is a free workshop for the next generation of Island filmmakers where students will get the chance to craft their own short film and screen it for the public, all in just three days.

“This is our most ambitious undertaking yet,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “We’re going to write, shoot and edit all in one weekend.”

The team stressed that the festival is a gathering place for the community, with live music and food complimenting the films.

“We continue to grow in the age of Netflix and on-demand media,” said Mr. Ditchfield. “I think it goes back to that desire of a community to connect with one another.”

“Getting out of the house and socializing is empowering,” added MVFF filmmaker Danielle Mulcahy. “Media itself can be overwhelming. I love that this place is an energizer.”

As for the films themselves, the group echoed the sentiments of Mr. Morris, hoping that people leave the screenings feeling empowered to be leaders for positive change.

“Hopefully it will help inspire people to take that next step in their own life,” said Mr. Bena.

Visit for tickets and a full schedule of films and activities.