Middlebury festival gives diverse filmmakers chances to reach new people

Documentary filmmaker Thomas Bena had just finished writing an email to Dick Lehr, the former Boston Globe investigative reporter, when I recognized him in Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Saturday afternoon. I remembered him from that day’s earlier screening of “Nashville.” I quickly did some research on my phone and, as a rookie reporter and aspiring filmmaker, and engaged him in a conversation.
As soon as I sat down, I learned that Bena met Lehr just a day before at the screening of “Black Mass,” a narrative feature adapted from Lehr’s 2000 biography about James “Whitey” Bulger, one of the most notorious criminals in American history. Bena felt lucky to speak to the Pulitzer Prize finalist, and he was even able to pitch a story idea for Lehr to bring to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, the newspaper’s investigative reporting unit.
Bena’s idea concerns a big bridge construction project on Martha’s Vineyard. Bena maintains the huge concrete architecture disrupts the local environment and lifestyle and would be inappropriate, or worse, for the island community. He said he was thrilled that his efforts (he had done a documentary on a tangential subject on the island) might end up in Boston Globe.
“That’s like amazing,” he said. “And that’s just something that happens here at a little festival.”
He opened Google Earth and showed me the bridge and other enormous houses built in Martha’s Vineyard, the subject matter of his film. The next morning, I got to see the same aerial views come to life in his documentary “One Big Home.” The long sequence of satellite images of the place before and after the trophy homes were built was powerful.
 The film chronicles Bena’s 12-year journey to make sense of the emerging giant houses and to take action in his community. In it he strives to show different perspectives in the film, including his own, and he does not shy away from expressing his opinions.
I was curious what specifically brought him to Middlebury’s festival, and it turned out Bena had been a long-time fan of Jay Craven, the MNFF Artistic Director. “I respect how he brings his films all around New England and makes films about New England,” he said. “So I reached out to him.” 
His film aims to spark discussions in communities throughout New England and beyond. And in Martha’s Vineyard, where he calls home, he created the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival 17 years ago.
“I founded my film festival having never been to a film festival,” Bena said. “I was really going to call mine a community festival, but I figured that would scare people off, because it would sound a little too out there.”
 “I’m a believer in community festivals. I’ve been to the big market festivals, and quite frankly, I think these (smaller festivals) are as important if not more important,” Bena said. “Some of the big festivals, you know, you walk out of the film and you are on the city street. You are at a loud party with techno music and you can’t talk.”
I could certainly relate. Having been to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, I can attest to the access and intimacy provided by smaller festivals like the MNFF, which is exemplified by the fact that I was sitting on the same couch at a café with a filmmaker that afternoon and had the opportunity to speak with many filmmakers throughout the four-day festival.
While the MNFF is intimate, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t busy.
ALEX GONZALEZ, A filmmaker and website developer, shows off the Virtual Reality gear he let viewers use in the Marquis Theater Cafe to view his VR movie this past weekend. Independent photo/Yvette Shi
Alex Gonzalez, a filmmaker and website developer, produced seven-minute featured short “Beyond the Mountain,” the first Virtual Reality Screening held at the festival.
I sat in the café and watched Gonzalez get up every seven minutes to talk to another viewer about his or her experience, and then set up the gear for the next person. He encouraged the viewers to move around in the squeaky arm-chair. “See you on the other side,” he said to them. During the times he was showing his film on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, he was packed with back-to-back viewers.
It was indeed another type of the intimate and personal atmosphere created at the festival.
I was the last one to put on the goggles on Sunday. The wide array of landscapes, animals and mystical characters shown in the film was beautiful and absorbing.
“I set out to make an emotional rollercoaster with this,” said Gonzalez. “So there are moments of peace and tranquility, and there are moments where it kind of turns into a nightmare.”
To create the film, Gonzalez worked for the first seven months mainly at night, because he worked full-time during the day. “It’s a struggle because it’s a battle between the technical difficulties and the artistic decisions,” he said, also acknowledging the financial necessity of holding down a job.
As for his future as a filmmaker, he has many different development ideas in mind, from creating a flying game to helping handicapped people, and is eager to find the time to get to them.
The two producers, Bena and Gonzalez, represent the diverse selection of the 96 films at the MNFF this year, all of which bring powerful and relevant statement on crucial topics. But you could say that about any film festival today.
One thing that made the MNFF special for me was the filmmakers’ openness and honesty about their experiences. Their comments explored their challenges and obstacles, but were highlighted by their months and years of passion and persistence — discussion that motivates filmmakers to advance their personal projects and skills, and viewers to broaden and sharpen their perspectives.
That’s why MNFF’s Craven is able to say that the festival “is one of the most stimulating arts events in Vermont” — and why he just might be right.

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