Approximately 30 miles south from Cape Cod, Massachusetts lies the island of Nantucket. The plot of land is a quaint locale whose name is derived from a Wampanoag expression, and in the native Algonquian tongue translates to “faraway land.” Nicknamed “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea,” the often fog-bound island is a summer tourist attraction destination for those seeking a humid continental/oceanic climate.
Originally inhabited by the Native American Wampanoag people, the outpost was settled in 1641 by English colonists, and soon came to be a large part of the 17th century whaling industry boom. The town, in fact, is the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s classic literary work, “Moby Dick.” Steeped in a history of both visual and performing arts, the enclave has been used as the backdrop for films like “Summer of ’42” and “One Crazy Summer,” and was the home of the 90s sitcom, “Wings.”
In 1996, Jill and Jonathan Burkhart, a brother and sister team who had been raised on the island, established the Nantucket Film Festival. To honor the literary history of their home, their mission was to shine a spotlight on screenwriters and screenwriting. In the festival’s second year, Mystelle Brabbée joined the Burkharts on their quest. Brabbée started out programming films for the event before becoming the Artistic Director, eventually serving as the Executive Director for the gala. In 2012, Basil Tsiokos, who had served as Executive Director at NewFest, joined Brabbée, working as the Film Program Director for Nantucket.
I recently sat down with Brabbée and Tsiokos to discuss the upcoming 24th Annual Nantucket Film Festival, and you could feel the excitement they had to bring the selected films and events to their audience.
Mark Johnson/Awards Circuit: What makes Nantucket stand out from other festivals?
Mystelle Brabbée: All the live events we do all have an eye toward storytelling. That is what truly sets us apart. It’s who we are. Each festival has its own flavor and feeling, and you certainly feel it the moment you step on this island, you feel you are apart from the rest of the world. There’s kind of a magic in the air, and because of the size of the fest and the focus on screenwriting, there’s a real opportunity for people to come together and talk about their work. Collaborations are often formed, and projects are often launched here. There’s room to breathe, it’s not a crazy marketplace where films are bought and sold. There is space for people to have conversation and dialogue with each other, and ideas are often sparked here on the island.
MJ: Your festival’s mission is, “to promote the cultural awareness and appreciation of the art of screenwriting and storytelling.” How do you and your team work toward incorporating such diverse content, and were there any unique challenges with the selection process this year?
Basil Tsiokos: When we select our films, the first thing we are looking for are movies with the strongest storytelling and scripts. That is what we are looking to highlight, regardless of genre. From period piece to contemporary comedies to dramatic documentaries, we look for the strongest storytelling. There is a changing world now in terms of the speed in which films get released to the world. They may premiere in Sundance and two weeks later they’re on Netflix. So that’s one of the challenges in our timing at the beginning of the summer. It also means that we are not necessarily in the running for works that are being saved for end-of-the-year Oscar campaigns. While we are not positioned in that way, there are a lot of films that we are looking for that are undiscovered or that are doing the festival circuit that we want to bring attention to our audience. It allows us to build an eclectic and wide-ranging schedule, and we enjoy bringing different perspectives for our attendees to enjoy. Some have played at other festivals, like the documentary “Honeyland,” which won the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema – Documentary) at Sundance, and the fantastic French comedy, “A Faithful Man,” which I think audiences are going to love. “Midnight Family” is another documentary about a family in Mexico that runs an ambulance company and drives around at night looking for people to help. A smaller standout is “Olympic Dreams,” which is a fun, romantic comedy set in an Olympic village in 2018. There is a fair amount of films that even if they have gotten a small amount of awareness from other festivals like Sundance and South by Southwest, they’re not necessarily the biggest titles out there, but we do think they are very well written and well-made and will connect with the audiences that come out to Nantucket.
MJ: What do you personally envision for the future of the Nantucket Film Festival?
MB: We have talked about launching all sorts of initiatives and themes in the future, finding a year-round home here instead of having to set-up and break-down shop each year. We’ve looked into expanding our educational program as well. There are several things we’ve talked about and I hope to see all of these things take place in the future.
BT: One thing I have seen in the seven years I have been with Nantucket, is that our audience is very open to us changing things up. We want to continue to make sure our signature plans aren’t too like prior years. We move things around and mix things up to find new and inventive ways to highlight storytelling. That is always exciting for us to think of different ways to pack in this fundamental mission of ours by paying attention and homage to the art and craft of storytelling so that we can share that passion with our audiences here.
Aside from a slate of films that includes “Toy Story 4,” “Yesterday,” “The Farewell,” and the films Tsiokos mentioned above, the festival also hosts events that include The Screenwriters Tribute – celebrating noted screenwriter Leslie Dixon this year – Late Night Storytelling, an unscripted improv act put on by festival attendees, an All-Star Comedy Roundtable featuring female writers and cast members from “Saturday Night Live,” including icon Jane Curtin, and an awards ceremony honoring the best in show.
The Nantucket Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday, June 19 and runs through Monday, June 24. I will be there to detail the festivities, so check back for our exclusive coverage of the event.