By Annette Hinkle
Five years ago, Jacqui Lofaro began a film festival with a vision — to give filmmakers a “second chance” to have their work screened in public.
The idea caught on. The Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival (HT2FF), now in its fifth year, is no longer limited to older films. The festival — which runs this weekend at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor— also provides filmmakers the opportunity to get their new documentaries seen in an increasingly competitive environment.
As a filmmaker herself, Lofaro knows how tough it can be — especially for documentaries, which rarely make it to the big screen.
“I couldn’t get one of my documentaries into the Hampton’s International Film Festival, which I thought was a good film,” says Lofaro. “They did a wonderful program this year, but the bar is high. They have hundreds of submissions and requirements — like the film can’t have been screened before, and it has to have been made in a specific time frame. That’s restrictive enough so a lot of good documentary filmmakers can’t get in.”
“We started locally – and our impact still is as a second chance for filmmakers to show their films,” says Lofaro. “But the word has spread. We’ve expanded the pool of talent so we now have filmmakers from Suffolk and Nassau counties and New York City.”
This weekend’s festival features 19 films — some feature length, some shorts — over two and a half days. Among them are several that tell a local story — including Mike Canzoniero’s 77 minute film “Shelter Island: Art + Friendship + Discovery” (screening at 8:15 p.m. Friday night).
And like many documentaries, it all came about largely by happenstance. Canzoniero will tell you he wasn’t intending to make a documentary when he traveled to Shelter Island in the summer of 2010 to visit his in-laws. But when his father in-law took him to see an island gas station turned art gallery, it didn’t take long for Canzoniero to realize the place was something special.
The station is owned by Jimmy Olinkiewicz and the art in it is by Harald Olson. Before coming to Shelter Island in 2003, Harold was something of a drifter with a passion for painting. Jimmy is the single father of four (including an autistic son) who has become something of a patron for Harald — giving him the space, freedom and stability he needs to make art his own way.
“Hal’s been bouncing around the whole country – including Alaska. He never had a place that took care of him,” says Canzoniero. “But the Shelter Island community embraced this guy, that’s what allowed him to flourish. When Jimmy took him under his wing and put a roof over his head, Hal was living in a shack with no heat and hot water.”
With support and encouragement from Jimmy, Harald transforms part of the gas station into a veritable art museum. He scours the dump for supplies (including paint) and his colorful abstract art fills the place, and even covers the old gas pumps which have been turned into a centerpiece of the gallery.
One can’t help but draw comparisons between Harald and Jackson Pollock — who left New York to paint in solitude in a rural corner of the East End. Harald’s work even has a Pollock-like quality to it, despite the fact he didn’t know who Pollock was when he developed his method. The film takes a Cinderella story twist when renowned painter and sculptor David Rankin gets Harald an exhibition in the New York City.
That’s something Canzoniero didn’t see coming when he started shooting the film.
“I saw potential as a film, but I didn’t think it would provide the structure it did,” notes Canzoniero. “I’m filming Hal in a junkyard and the next time I see him, I hear he’s going to have a show in a big time gallery in Chelsea.”
While the artwork is the tie that binds the film, for Canzoniero, the heart of the story is the bond which forms between Jimmy and Harold.
“For me it’s more about friendship than patronage,” says Canzoniero. “Jimmy is raising four kids as a single dad working in construction in the middle of the worst recession ever. He’s going through things where you’d forgive him for not helping out a struggling artist. But he gives Harald a place to paint and the encouragement to flourish. Jimmy is exceptional in my mind.”
Like Mike Canzoniero, Tom Weston is a cinematographer who also has a film about an island in this weekend’s festival. In his case, it’s the island of Bequia in the West Indies and it was there that he found a 19th century story that references Sag Harbor’s past through the industry that virtually built it — whaling.
And like Canzoniero, Weston’s documentary grew out of a trip to visit relatives – in his case, an aunt and uncle who moved to the West Indies in the 1960s. It was there, in Bequia, an island in the Grenadines, that he found whaling was alive and well, a tradition passed down from father to son, and one learned in the 19th century by an islander who joined the crew of a New England whaler and brought the trade back home where it remains to this day — for better or for worse.
Though Weston had heard about the whaling tradition in Bequia, witnessing it firsthand in the late ‘80s sparked the idea for his hour-long film, “The Wind That Blows” (screening as a “sneak preview” 10 a.m. Saturday).
“It was amazing. In 1988 they were so close to the shore I could’ve hit the boat or the whale with a stone,” says Weston. “The people on shore were going bonkers.”
“So I introduced myself, watched for a few days, they let me come out on their boat,” he adds” “I shot some 8 mm video, put together a little trailer piece that I showed my friends.”
“They said, ‘Let’s do this movie,’” he adds.
Over the years, Weston and his filmmaker friends returned to Bequia to document the islanders pursuit of whales — shooting in formats varying from 35 mm to digital video. They documented the island’s head whaler from the age of 68 until he retired at 80 and in the end, “The Wind That Blows” offers a living example of how whalers like those who once populated Sag Harbor made their living at sea.
Unlike the floating factory ships that were the hallmark of whaling’s heyday, the Bequians — who rely on whales for sustenance and take about one per year — hunt from shore. Using traditional whale boats which they both row and sail, the methods are identical to the 19th century, from the steerer to the harpooner who throws the weapon (made in Doylestown, Pennsylvania) by hand.
“They’re the only ones on the planet who hunt like Yankee whalers,” says Weston.
Keeping a tradition alive that is largely reviled in the 21st century isn’t an easy task. But Weston points out, the modest Bequians have a far smaller carbon footprint than most of those who would criticize them. And unlike 19th century whalers, Weston notes the Bequians use the whole animal — from the meat which provides much needed food to the oil which they use for medicinal purposes.
“They’re amazingly smart guys, but not worldly,” says Weston of the Bequian whalers. “They’re not sophisticated to the point where they really understand the politics wrapped up in pro and anti whaling movement.”
“This is a pure, simple lifestyle that I found refreshing and compelling and ironic in the Save the Whale movement,” adds Weston. “They are not equipped to join the debate. It’s not how they live their lives.”
For his part, after four seasons following the whalers, Weston did witness a kill — and the excitement that spread throughout the island as a result. It was a moment that came with a conflict of emotions for the filmmaker.
“It’s a sad thing” acknowledges Weston. “It’s a magnificent animal and you experience all sorts of emotions – it takes a while to kill. It’s like ‘Oh my God can you believe what’s happening?’”
“Then it’s like … ‘Oh my God can you believe what’s happening?’” adds Weston in a much quieter tone of voice, referring to the moment when excitement turns to realization of what has been done.
“I’m excited to deliver the film to the folks in Bequia and find it a valuable document of their history and lifestyle,” he adds. “I hope it doesn’t become a political tool for anyone.”
The 2012 Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor runs Friday, November 30 (4:30 to 10 p.m.), Saturday, December 1 (10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and Sunday, December 2 (10 a.m. to 9 p.m.). WPPB radio personality Bonnie Grice and Andrew Botsford, professor in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton, will lead Q&As after the screenings.
This year’s festival includes a gala on Saturday, December 1 to honor part time Sag Harbor resident Susan Lacy, director and creator of American Masters on PBS. The evening begins with a cocktail reception at 6:30 p.m. followed by a screening of Lacy’s Emmy Award winning film “Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note.” Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein will offer opening remarks and a Q&A discussion with Lacy and three of her American Masters directors — Michael Epstein, Anne Makepeace and Roger Sherman follows the screening.
Films are $15 each, $25 for the gala or $100 for a full festival pass. For a full schedule of films visit www.ht2ff.com. Online ticket sales end at noon on November 29 with sales continuing at the Bay Street Theatre box office throughout the weekend.