I am a town provincetown

I Am a Town provided the perfect opening to the 25th Annual Provincetown International Film Festival: The artistic Cape Cod community has long been celebrated as an LGBTQ+ haven, which the 2020 film lovingly captures. But it also hints at the many mysteries of Provincetown, from caretakers of people and land to fisherman and writers prone to dreamy, melancholic tangents.

“This is a Provincetown that’s hard to find if you’re coming for the first time,” the festival’s executive director, Anne Hubbell, said during a Q&A about the film with its director, Mischa Richter.

Provincetown may be the only place in the world that brings together queer culture, fishing, sailing, art, sand dunes, lavender sunsets, and the pilgrims. At Thursday’s opening-night screening of the new comedy Cora Bora, a man in a pilgrim costume with a rainbow flag brim called the meeting to order.

I Am a Town provided a kind of less-official kickoff earlier Thursday, given that the film was first released three years ago. It came out in the midst of the Covid lockdowns, which meant that Thursday afternoon provided the first opportunity to show it in the stunning Provincetown Town Hall, one of many locations featured in the documentary. It previously played the festival in 2020 at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater.

Richter’s grandfather and namesake settled in Provincetown after coming from Ukraine roughly a century ago. The filmmaker — a well-known photographer whose shot of Amy Winehouse covers her Back to Black album — grew up in Provincetown and trains his perceptive eyes on a colorful range of characters.

They include the late local fixture Freddie Rocha Jr., who gives a very abbreviated history of the town; Kiah Coble, an artist and friend and carer to the late painter Pat de Groot; sculptor Paul Tasha, a nature lover who doesn’t care much for people, especially developers; a multigenerational Portuguese-American family who talk about fish and memories; a gay couple who find a sense of security in PTown that they don’t in parts of New York City; a Jamaican-American woman who considers Provincetown a paradise; and a smoky-voiced singer plucking out masterpieces on ramshackle pianos.

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Richter’s subjects were filmed from 2016 to 2019 by the brilliant cinematographer Richard Stewart, on stock often provided by Hubbell, a filmmaker and Kodak executive. Editor Marie-Hélène Dozo elegantly guides us from one subject to the next, letting their stories unspool. They often seem to forget the camera is there, and just talk, freely, giving you pieces to assemble into your own conclusions.

The film almost never mentions anyone’s names.

“It’s more about just having some time with the people, and not so much about who they were,” Richter explained at the Q&A. “It was more about their presence and their influence on me as a kid. A lot of people that are in the film I grew up around, but even the ones I didn’t, I tried to pick people that represented ideas of this town that I developed as a kid, and things that I thought were unique, that struck me growing up here. So I think like, names were kind of irrelevant.”

I Am a Town in Provincetown

The free, meditative quality of the film captures what makes New England’s coast feel so true. As gorgeous as Cape Cod is, there’s none of the fake we’re-living-in-paradise energy you occasionally find in the coastal towns of Florida and California, possibly because winter is always around the corner.

The This Is a Town trailer includes Will Harrington singing the Iris DeMent song “Our Town”

One name that did come up at the Q&A, in response to an audience question, was that of Will Harrington, the singer who’s voice carries through long stretches of the film. At one point, the film lingers on a shot of an old boat as Harrington sings. Richter explained its significance to the PIFF audience.

“He grew up in Brewster,” said Richter. “But when he was very young, he started to come to Provincetown to play music on the street. At the time of filming, he lived in that sailboat that you see him get off at the beginning. He lived there in the harbor and then when he got cold he would sail down to either Cuba or Key West or Bermuda and he would find an old piano.

“He studied to restore pianos. So he would find an old piano there and tune it up to make his money and then when it got warmer, he would sail back,” Richter said. “I thought he was such a free character, and creative, and part of the soul here with his music.”

Harrington plays songs take their time, building to unexpectedly gorgeous crescendoes. Moments that seem like tangents often turn out to be the point.

The Provincetown International Film Festival is now underway through Sunday.

Main image: Paul Tasha in I Am a Town.