Notes From the Nantucket Film Festival, a Nrighborly Island Incubator

Everyone wants to come to the Nantucket Film Festival, a place where scrappy indie filmmakers chat and mingle with some of the most successful people on earth, trying to make good things happen.

They mix it up with none of the pressure or panic of some larger festivals, because Nantucket is a beautiful island, 30 miles out at sea. No one has anywhere else to be, at least for a while. There’s time to really watch the films, and really talk, and perhaps make some progress.

About an hour from the Massachusetts mainland by ferry, and 40 minutes from New York City by plane, the island of lighthouses, pristine beaches and buildings covered in quaint cedar shake is also home to the festival founded in 1996 by siblings and film producers Jill and Jonathan Burkhart. Mystelle Brabbee, who started back then as an intern, is now the festival’s executive director, dividing her time between the island and New York.

“It’s got this incubator kind of feeling,” Brabbee says. “The spirit is like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.'”

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Steve Martin and Judd Apatow are among past guests lured by the festival’s prestige and the charm of its environs. This year’s impressive lineup included Ben Stiller and John Turturro, who talked about their Apple TV+ drama Severance. Also in attendance were Cooper Raiff, writer-director-star of the Sundance hit Cha Cha Real Smooth, which Apple quickly snapped up for $15 million, as well as Marcel the Shell With Shoes On writer-producer-star Jenny Slate, and Ramin Bahrani, the White Tiger director who shared his new documentary 2nd Chance. Jurors included John Patten Ford, director of the upcoming Emily the Criminal, another Sundance standout.

Barry Jenkins, scheduled to attend, had to switch to a virtual appearance at the last minute. But, because this is Nantucket, other great people just seem to magically appear at the festival, even if they aren’t on the official schedule. They include producers, investors, and brilliant writer-producers like The Wire veteran George Pelecanos, co-creator of The Deuce. He attended a very successful speed-dating style industry mixer on Saturday afternoon, overlooking the harbor.

One example of festivalgoers trying to enact positive change came at a Saturday morning screening of the Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing documentary Endangered, about threats to journalists nationwide, which will soon air on HBO. It details how news-gatherers from Brazil to Mexico to the United States suffer a similar torrent of stupidity and abuse when they try to relay facts: from calls of fake news (or noticias falsas) to abuse by overzealous cops, blind to press passes as they arrest and tear-gas journalists.

Despite the gorgeous weather and easy proximity to beaches, the film drew a packed crowd of people who watched intensely. And instead of filing out afterward, a little depressed about the state of the world and grateful for Nantucket’s easy access to the palliative comforts of ice cream and lobster rolls, they stayed to talk — and think about what they could do.

Notes From the Nantucket Film Festival, a Neighborly Island Incubator

A friendly gentleman we encountered at the Nantucket Film Festival

Because Nantucket is Nantucket, the odds are decent that at any given screening at the Nantucket Film Festival, someone in attendance has the means to make a situation better. You’ve heard that saying that the real deals get made on the golf course. But in a better world, they can also be born in movie theater lounges.

Grady and Ewing discussed their hopes for some kind of News Corps, like the Peace Corps, that could train young reporters. A Q&A about the film evolved into a gaggle and brainstorm that continued outside the theater.

“Soros could pay for it,” someone joked. At least I think it was a joke.

It helped that they were gathered at the Dreamland Theater, one of the most charming theaters and community spaces in the country. Its history, like so much in Nantucket, goes way back: It once served as a meeting house for people organizing against slavery.

It has been rebuilt over the years to look brand-new, spacious and welcoming — the first thing you see upon entering is a bench with a statue of Mr. Rogers, positioned to take his picture with you. Why is he here? Who knows? He’s a weird, delightful surprise, like so many things on the island. (A cool, neighborly guy offered to take my phone so I could have a picture with Mr. Rogers, and I later learned he was the award-winning producer Gill Holland, who is one of the festival’s advisors and has more than 130 credits to his name. See? Pleasant surprises abound.)

Why can’t everywhere be like Nantucket, I wondered — and then remembered that when I looked into last-minute hotel rooms, the cheapest was about $700 a night.

The sheer expense of the island can be a barrier of entry to indie filmmakers — finding “enough beds on the island” has always been an issue, Brabbee notes — but she and her team make the festival accessible with help from hotel partners and residents who open up their homes. Grady and Ewing thanked a woman in their audience Saturday morning for their time staying in her beautiful house.

“We do it by the graciousness of many people who have homes,” Brabbee says. “We have a homestay program where they’ll put up filmmakers and guest cottages, or we have hotel partners. So we make it work.”

The festival especially had to make it work in 2020, when it quickly went online due to — well, you know — and in 2021, when it expanded to 11 days and offered a cavalcade of safe, outdoor wining and dining experiences all over the island. Brabee likened it to “producing a wedding every night.”

She wondered if guests would be comfortable returning to indoor screenings this year — some of the festival goers are older — and was delighted to see long lines of people, eager to get into films. But she notes that Nantucket has always been a festival noted as much for movies as for the events around them.

“We’ve always leaned in heavily to what we call our signature programs: staged readings, storytelling, Morning Coffee. We had 350 people at late-night storytelling on Friday night,” she says.

This year’s events also included a Skate Jam in honor of Skate Dreams, Jessica Edwards’ documentary about the rise of women’s skateboarding.

“Everything was free. Kids turned out, people who don’t normally come to the festival turned out. And so that was just fun and surprising in that way,” says Barbee. “Every time you change a venue, you change the model of something, it’s just fun.”

You can learn more about the Nantucket Film Festival, which ends today, at the festival’s website.

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