By Mark Bell | August 3, 2011

Last year I was invited to attend the Woods Hole Film Festival. At the time, however, I was stressed out about getting to and through the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, mainly due to the 25th anniversary panel Film Threat was having at the event (which added an extra layer of insanity to the always crazy SDCC). In an effort to not over-extend myself, I declined but promised that, next year, I’d be there.

Which brings us to now, a year later and at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This is the fest’s 20th anniversary, and despite attending numerous types of film fests, big and small, I had no idea what to expect.

Woods Hole, from my experience thus far, is essentially one main road, Water Street, from which all the shops, theaters and restaurants/bars thrive. I lucked out, as I drove in, finding street parking right in front of one of the three main venues in Woods Hole proper, the Redfield Auditorium. I arrived around 5pm, so I was in-between screenings (which kick off, usually, at 5pm, 7pm and 9pm) and decided, after snagging my badge and tix for the later night’s screenings, to wander around the town.

Water Street in Woods Hole, MA

I didn’t get too far before I met up with Ellen Gitelman, publicist for the festival, and she walked me over to a restaurant where Stewart Nusbaumer of Filmmaker Magazine was having a quick bite. I sat down and chatted with Stewart for a while before we were joined at the table by the filmmakers in town with The Mulberry Tree.

Despite having only been at the fest for around an hour at that point, I noticed a distinct difference in the conversation. We were talking about the movie, we were talking about the festival, the town, the audience… but not the normal fest bullshit. Sure, we eventually talked about distribution (it’s hard not to get there), but we didn’t start there or linger too long. We probably spent more time discussing the different in attitudes on the East and West Coast than we did a distribution strategy.

What really impressed, and surprised, me occurred near the end of the conversation. as Stewart and I were getting ready to head to the 7pm screening of Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream, a woman walked up to our table and started praising The Mulberry Tree as the best film she’d seen all year; that she was still thinking about it today (it was Tuesday; film screened on Sunday). The praise just kept coming, and it was unprompted except that she recognized the filmmakers. This wasn’t a film hipster, industry exec or what you would consider the stereotypical fest dweller. Hell, judging books by covers and all that, she didn’t strike me as a festival audience member period. F**k me for my own judgment, right? Message delivered.

As Stewart and I walked the short distance to the Redfield Auditorium, I noticed the huge line outside the theater. The room holds roughly 220 people, and it looked, from the outside, like a sell-out screening… on a Tuesday night at 7pm… in a seasonal town… in Massachusetts. I’ve seen bigger fests PRAY for attendance like this for a midweek screening.


While in line, Stewart and I got to meet with filmmaker Vinnie Straggas and star Jimmy Tingle of the film we were seeing, Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream. It was a quick chat, but we made plans to meet up after the screening. We also ran into the biggest J.X. Williams fan in the world, David Kleiler. Nothing like a conversation that starts with, “have you heard of…” only to end with, “yeah, he writes for us.” David is on the festival’s screening committee, so he had seen the documentary, but he still came in for a few minutes as a show of support for the screening. He did lose his seat, tho, because the crowd was a full one.

Stewart Nusbaumer seated for the film

One of the very first things to strike me about Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream is that, honestly, if someone had asked me what the American dream was/is, I’d be at a loss for words. Me, a jackass who writes about film and gets to travel to different film festivals meeting wonderful and interesting people, was clueless as to the American dream while living my own version of it. So, right off the bat, the documentary had me thinking… and laughing. Jimmy Tingle is a hilarious political comedian, and no topic is off-limits. Which is my kind of comedy. The minute you say “I can make fun of this, but not this,” you’re dancing with discrimination and judgment; all is fair game, or nothing is.

Now, tackling the American dream, and the various interpretations of it, is a big task for any film to do, and the documentary does find itself battling with exactly what you would expect: how do you tie all the opinions together to make a cohesive narrative? I can see the criticism of the film being a bit scattered (and it was filmed over the course of 7 years), but it worked for me because I was too busy pondering what was being said and laughing at the comedy to be too critical of whether Comment A really connected with the following Comment B.

Personally, I saw it more as a comedy performance film that expanded itself to cover more than just the show itself, but explored the overall ideas and topics that made the comedy so on-point in the first place. Viewed with that perspective, it far excels its “documentary” label. Again, though, while it made me laugh, it also made me think.

Director Vinnie Straggas and star Jimmy Tingle

Jimmy Tingle and an American flag...

After the screening, Stewart and I bolted from the theater to a nearby bar/restaurant. I say “bolted” because a severe thunderstorm had rolled in while we were watching the movie, and the rain was dropping hardcore. Luckily, when everything in town is mainly off the one road, you don’t walk too far without finding something.

While at the bar, we were joined by Jimmy Tingle, Vinnie Straggas, David Kleiler and fest programmer Jean-Paul Ouellette. Like the conversation with The Mulberry Tree filmmakers earlier, the conversation at the bar was all over the place, in a good way. Jean-Paul and I talked about H.P. Lovecraft (he directed 1988’s The Unnameable) and Vinnie and I bonded over a love for hockey (though he is a dirty Bruins fan, and I represent Flyers pride). Sure, we did eventually talk about distribution (again, you cannot escape this conversation; filmmakers make films to be seen, so it’s always going to be a topic of discussion), but it was another quality experience at the Woods Hole Film Festival… and I’d only been in town for about 5 hours at that point.

Today the festival really gets rolling around 4pm with a filmmaker happy hour (which is apparently daily), and then I’ll be catching, hopefully lest things change (which I’ve learned to just go with), The City Dark at 5pm, Everyday Sunshine at 7pm and then Calendar Girl at 9pm. The last film will be seen at the Old Firehouse venue, which I haven’t been in yet.

So there you go, first impressions of the Woods Hole Film Festival as it celebrates its 20th year. More to experience, and I’ll be sharing it all here.

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