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The Clichéd Notion of Community Redefined by Film Festivals

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Courtesy of Yvette Shi

As a non-native English speaker, I started to ponder the meaning of a “community” during college application season. The word was, and perhaps still is, in the mission statement of almost every university across the nation. To this day, I still see it everywhere, from a president’s speech to a local restaurant flyer.

More importantly, the definition of “community” based on a physical location is now outdated, as suggested by Megan Garber at The Atlantic.

With technological development and globalization knitting the world increasingly closer, at least temporally and spatially, community has become a choice, a process of self-identifying in all possible realms. In short, we get to decide which communities we see ourselves as a part of.

This past summer, my long-term confusion caused by the somewhat over-used notion of “community” has been partly resolved in Middlebury, a small town with a population of 8,496 in Western Vermont.

The fact that it is where I go to college almost decided that my only relationship with the town was limited to its handful of restaurants and supermarkets, until I discovered what lied beyond that through writing for the local bi-weekly newspaper.

In one short month, I found myself at different news-worthy events trying my best to remain objective to note down everything I saw and heard. Yet, the jotting on my notebook failed to capture my constant realizations of what a so-called “local community” looked like, and with that, a sense of amazement.

Only a small number of students at my college knows about the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival taking place every August since 2015, but I would doubt that was the case for the local town residents.

At this year’s festival, more than 3,000 local community members showed up to screenings and other events to see the 96 films from all over the world, of which more than 40 were accompanied by an in-depth conversation with the filmmaker.

Among the filmmakers who made it to Middlebury was Thomas Bena, maker of “One Big Home,” a documentary feature about emerging giant houses and zoning policies on Martha’s Vineyard.

The small island of Martha’s Vineyard also has its own film festival, the founder of which also happens to be Bena, a marketing graduate who first made a living on the island as a carpenter.

Having never been to a film festival, Bena founded the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival in 2001. He considered himself a “believer in community festivals” and contemplated calling it that, but decided against it because it might sound too “out there”.

“We do center around films but for me, the period in between the films is as important as the films,” he said.

“It’s really important for us to connect with each other. What drives me and gets me out every morning is to play films that spark discussion, debate, and action.”

Bena’s documentary did just that. The film captures very different perspectives on the huge mansions being built on the scenic island, and Bena himself helped pass a new bylaw limiting house size in his local community.

With that, the notion of “community” began to reveal itself to me.

Despite its changing implications, which are now increasingly lending itself to “the rise of individualism as a guiding force in culture,” according to author Bill Bishop, I managed to comprehend the word in a truly multifaceted form.

A community can be based on what Garber calls “mutable circumstance” and be bounded by the physical site, while also be constructed towards a set of “shared values”.

As proven by community film festivals like the ones discussed, the “culture of extreme individualism” incubated by today’s digital-based everyday life can become a building block of a community.

A filmmaker’s work may at first seem individualistic, but the processes of both the production and the showing of the film would require a community of people – those with the same passion in filmmaking for the former and those finding themselves in the same place for the latter.

By: Yvette Shi

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