“There’s something magical about being 30 miles out to sea,” says Mystelle Brabbée, executive director of the Nantucket Film Festival. “Nantucket has always been a place that celebrates and welcomes art in all forms, a place for writers to tuck themselves away and develop their craft.”
Brabbée knows from experience how the island’s rich cultural history lends itself to the modern appreciation of artistic media like film and screenwriting. “The atmosphere on Nantucket really suits our mission,” Brabbée explains. “The festival seeks to celebrate great screenwriting and storytelling…because there are no great films without great screenwriters.” The festival, founded in 1996 by brother and sister Jonathan and Jill Burkhart, has long honored the achievements of notable screenwriters, and the films their screenplays become. Brabbée joined the festival team in 1997, and spent years as the artistic director before moving into the role of executive director in 2012.
Each June, the festival screens more than 70 films and shorts in a variety of screening venues, mainly notable island landmarks; 2015 venues included The Dreamland Theater, Nantucket High School, and the Sconset Casino. “We try to create a well-rounded festival, with equal amounts of narrative films, documentaries, feature-length films, and shorts,” says Brabbée. “While most films are more appropriate for adults, we usually screen a variety of kid-friendly shorts and feature at least one children’s film on opening day—in the past, we’ve worked with Pixar to screen their summer release.”
This year, the festival will celebrate its 21st year, running from June 22 through June 27 and featuring films that run the gamut from moving documentaries to tongue-in-cheek comedies. “I’m particularly excited for Don’t Think Twice, [written and directed] by Mike Birbiglia,” says Brabbée. “It’s such a funny, well-acted film.” It depicts the struggles of a fictional comedy troupe whose members aspire to a sketch-comedy television show that bears a resemblance to Saturday Night Live. The film stars comedic powerhouse Keegan-Michael Key and features a performance from Birbiglia himself.
The festival’s opening film is Life, Animated, written by journalist Ron Suskind and directed by Roger Ross Williams. The documentary follows Suskind’s son, Owen, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at a young age. “After many years of being nonverbal, Owen begins to absorb information from Disney movies he watches, and learns to speak in Disney dialogue,” Brabbée explains. “Throughout the film, the family comes together and learns to communicate with Disney as a medium. It’s a riveting story,” Brabbée adds. “It’s such an audience-pleaser, and I think it will make a wonderful opening-night screening.” The closing-night film promises equal enjoyment: Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which Brabbée describes as “hysterical, and a lot of fun,” is a comic adventure film by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi.
Dedicated not just to screening films but also to celebrating their craft, the festival features a wide range of Signature Programs, live events featuring guests from the film industry who share their stories with audience members. “Our crown-jewel event is the Screenwriter’s Tribute,” says Brabbée, “where we recognize the body of work of a screenwriter who has made a significant impact on American cinema.” Past honorees include David O. Russell and Aaron Sorkin; this year, the festival will celebrate the achievements of Oliver Stone, whose legacy includes controversial releases like JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and the upcoming Snowden (2016).
Other Signature Programs promise an equally enlightening experience for audience members; “In Their Shoes”… hosted by journalist Chris Matthews, is series of hour-long conversations with industry luminaries who share insights into their lives and their work. In 2015, House of Cards creator and star Beau Willimon and co-star Robin Wright were the honored guests. “Late Night Storytelling,” another crowd-favorite, is an evening of five-minute stories from a variety of sources that range from year-round islanders (past years have featured a local gynecologist and sanitation worker) to festival headliners including, among others, Jim Carrey, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, and Alan Cumming, according to Brabbée, who also hints that audience members occasionally have the opportunity to join in. “It’s a really fun, lively event,” Brabbée adds. “A night where everyone’s story is heard and celebrated.”
Appearances by A-list writers, directors, and stars are a draw for many festival-goers. “It’s a chance for very high-profile people to let their guard down,” says Brabbée. “All of our guests, whether industry professionals or audience members, are committed to the same goal—experiencing the love of cinema in a very relaxed setting. The island acts a wonderful incubator for connections between people who might never meet otherwise.”
Brabbée stresses that a visit to the festival is very much within reach for many Massachusetts residents. “Tickets for many festival events cost about the same as a trip to your local movie theater,” she notes. “It’s really simple to purchase a day pass, catch three films and end the day with a live event; or, you can purchase tickets to single screenings or events.” This year, tickets to single events will go on sale May 20th.
North Shore residents might choose to make an overnight or weekend trip; taking the ferry from Hyannis to Nantucket can be a wonderful part of the island experience. For visitors who prefer air travel, Cape Air flies frequently between Hyannis and Nantucket. However, visitors choose to get there, navigating the island is quite simple, according to Brabbée: “Everything on the island is close together—you step off the ferry, and there are restaurants, inns, and festival screening venues right in front of you. That’s part of the beauty of Nantucket.”
Where to Stay
The White Elephant Hotel offers luxury accommodations overlooking Nantucket Harbor, including 67 guest rooms, suites, cottages, and beautiful in-town lofts—all designed with well-appointed coastal décor. The hotel also offers spa services to help you relax and rejuvenate. The hotel’s Brant Point Grill, or BPG as it is more commonly known, is serves fine wines and impeccable seafood dishes for the ultimate dining experience—while watching the sailboats drift by on the water. A pre-arrival concierge can arrange transportation, island excursions, and picnics, as well as bike and car rentals. Visit: www.whiteelephanthotel.com