Lights, Camera, Action!
2019 Nantucket Film Festival Overview
by: Joshua H. Balling
There’s something magical about sitting in the dark, in a movie theater, surrounded by strangers, watching a story unfold on the big screen in front of you, enveloped in Surround Sound, that can’t be captured on a television screen or an iPad.
The Nantucket Film Festival was founded 24 years ago to celebrate that magic. It rolls into town June 19-24, with an eclectic six-day lineup that includes more than 100 feature-length and short films, and a tribute to “Mrs. Doubtfire” screenwriter Leslie Dixon.
Organizers say they’ve chosen a program of narrative films and documentaries this year that stays true to the festival’s founding principle, to honor the story – and the storyteller – on the big screen.
“Is it a well-written script? Do the characters pop to life? Is the dialogue crisp? Is it fresh, interesting, memorable?” film-program director Basil Tsiokos said in describing what he looks for when choosing films for the festival.
“We’re a summer festival on a beautiful island. We generally want to have a nice mix of lighter and more serious work. We want to give audiences the opportunity to be transported watching these films. That doesn’t always happen watching TV at home, where you might be distracted by the phone, or cooking dinner. Sitting in a dark room with a bunch of friends, or strangers, or both, it transports you to a different time or place.”
Written by Oscar nominee Richard Curtis and directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is the opening-night film. It’s about a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town who wakes up after a freak accident to discover that The Beatles never existed, and only he remembers their songs.
“The opening film tends to set the tone for most film festivals. You often want to start with something that has an audience-friendly feel, something that’s on the lighter side, a happy way to kick off a week of great films. That’s what we did with ‘Yesterday’,” Tsiokos said.
“Generationally it’s a good fit. Who doesn’t love The Beatles, especially the audience that comes to Nantucket? The story is really strong, by masters of screenwriting and directing. It’s going to resonate with the audience, and it’s a nice way to get things started.”
“Maiden,” a documentary that recounts the story
of Tracy Edwards, a 24-year-old charter-boat cook who became the skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, will close the festival.
“For a documentary to close the festival – which we’ve done before – it needs to be really strong, and have some kind of relationship to the audience, and to Nantucket,” Tsiokos said.
“This film is focused on a yacht race, and the seafaring tradition that is such a big part of Nantucket’s history. It’s wonderfully told. The real heart and soul of the film is Tracy Edwards. The footage taken during this journey is remarkable, even for people not necessarily interested in sailing.”
“The Farewell,” written and directed by Lulu Wang, is the festival’s centerpiece film. Starring Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”), the comedy follows a Chinese-American woman as she returns to China to say goodbye to her grandmother under the ruse of a family wedding.
Among this year’s narrative titles are several by women screenwriters, and others that highlight strong female leads, including Annabelle Attanasio’s “Mickey And The Bear,” Claire McCarthy’s “Ophelia,” Hilary Brougher’s “South Mountain,” Chanya Button’s “Vita & Virginia,” and “The Farewell.”
Documentaries helmed by women include Cindy Meehl’s “The Dog Doc,” Jenifer McShane’s “Ernie & Joe,” Petra Costa’s “The Edge Of Democracy” and Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s “We Are The Radical Monarchs.”
“It happened last year, and I think it’s become part of the cultural zeitgeist. We have quite a few films that focus on strong female leads, and strong female characters,” Tsiokos said.
“There has been a big discussion recently around representation in filmmaking, that women filmmakers are not represented in the numbers they should be. This is part of the process as well, having strong female characters as well as filmmakers, who hold audiences, instead of being relegated to a subservient or secondary position. We are happy to be able to champion that.”
The festival is welcoming back several alumni, including docu-
mentarians Barbara Kopple with “New Homeland” and Nick Broomfield with “Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love.” Both are past recipients of the festival’s Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling Award.
Kopple won the Academy Award for documentary film in 1977, for “Harlan County USA,” about a strike by coal miners, and again in 1991, for “American Dream,” the story of a Hormel Foods strike in Minnesota. In both films she worked with a small crew to better capture dramatic moments.
She has made films about the country band Dixie Chicks (“Dixie Chicks: Shut up and Sing”), the actor Gregory Peck (“A Conversation with Gregory Peck”), boxer Mike Tyson (“Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson”), and director Woody Allen (“Wildman Blues”).
Her documentary “Miss Sharon Jones!” about the 59-year-old soul singer Sharon Jones of the Dap Kings, screened at the 2016 Nantucket Film Festival.
“New Homeland” chronicles the experiences of five refugee children from Syria whose families have resettled in Canada.
Broomfield’s “Whitney: Can I be Me” screened at the 2017 festival. The British filmmaker has a wide body of work, balancing celebrity profiles with darker work like his examination of the rise of a neo-Nazi leader in South Africa.
In “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” he chronicles the troubled 1960s love affair between the late Canadian singer Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Marianne Ihlen. Broomfield’s longtime friendship with Ihlen is the entry point for the film.
“His films go beyond the surface level, and often bring humanity and respect to people not usually treated with respect. They’re not sensationalistic, but in-depth stories that go beyond the headlines,” Tsiokos said.
Another alumnus is “Tel Aviv On Fire’s” Sameh Zoabi, whose screenplay with Dan Kleinman was the winner of the festival’s 2016 Showtime Tony Cox Feature Screenplay Competition and now comes full circle with the completed film screening this year.
Nearly 50 feature selections are in this year’s lineup, including several award-winning films from the Sundance Film Festival, including Grand Jury Prize-winning documentaries “One Child Nation,” Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s film about China’s extreme popu-
lation-control policy that ended in 2015; and “Honeyland,” directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, about the last female bee-hunter in Europe whose way of life in her Macedonian mountain home is threatened by nomadic beekeepers who don’t adhere to ancient traditions.
“Our documentaries are always going to be a bit disparate. We’ve got a nice mix of portraiture, about famous and not so famous people, from Toni Morrison and Mike Wallace, to more intimate stories about people you never would have heard of, like Honeyland,” Tsiokos said.
“We don’t necessarily walk into the festival looking for a theme. Our goal is to show the strongest work possible, to bring a mix of fiction and non-fiction that is going to be impressive, smart and well-written, that tells a great story,” he continued.
“We look for balance. You can’t be overwhelmingly dark or heavy in the summer on Nantucket. There needs to be a mix of lighter work, of heavier work, dramatic stuff, comedic work. I’m really happy overall with that this year.”
Festival executive director Mystelle Brabbée agreed.
“Our audience is sophisticated, they appreciate strong storytelling. They are open to fiction and non-fiction films, and short films, and traverse between all of those. That being said, we spend a lot of time talking about how we can make it more accessible and affordable to the younger generation. Festivals across the country, with the exception of a few very specific ones, tend to generate older audiences, people who have the time and means to give to a festival,” she said.
“No question, every year we will push our own boundaries a little bit. There are a handful of films making their way into this program that may speak to a younger audience. Not every film is going to be for everyone. It’s important to kind of nurture different audiences.”
Dixon, whose credits include “Overboard,” “Hairspray,” “Pay It Forward” and “Gone Girl,” will receive the festival’s 2019 Screenwriters Tribute.
“She’s not a household name, but her work is. She has endless credits,” Brabbée said. “She is a 100-percent writer, not a writer-director. She works with the biggest actors and directors out there. Her films aren’t always in the Academy Awards, but they changed the landscape of American cinema as much as the darker and heavier films.”
The festival will also present its Creative Impact in Television Writing award to the women writers of “Saturday Night Live” over its 50-plus years on the small screen. Four of them – Jane Curtin, Anne Beatts, Sudi Green and Sarah Schneider – will also be featured during its All-Star Comedy Roundtable presented by Ben Stiller.
“ ‘Saturday Night Live’ had spectacularly few female writers. There was a real divide. It was kind of known as a boys club when it started. Female writers and reparatory players had to fight their way to screen time,” Brabbée said.
“That’s not the case today. Female players are front and center in the best sketches and pieces. It’s really important to continue the dialogue, to celebrate and beat the drum around their work. It may be a beat after the #MeToo movement launched, but that’s OK. It’s more important not what happened at the dawning of a movement, but what its legacy becomes.”
For the 10th year in a row, the festival will screen a Disney•Pixar film on opening day. This year it will showcase the animated feature “Toy Story 4,” with Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves and Joan Cusack doing the voice work.
The Nantucket Film Festival was founded by brother and sister team Jonathan and Jill Burkhart in 1996 to promote the awareness and appreciation of screenwriting in the world of cinema. ///
Joshua Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today, and the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.