In anticipation of this year’s Nantucket Film Festival, accessible by Tradewind with daily scheduled flights and private charters to the island, we sat down with Executive Director Mystelle Brabbée to talk past, present, and future of the acclaimed film showcase.
In the Oscar-nominated 2015 film Brooklyn, a young Irishwoman walks New York streets longing for the salt air and village life of her childhood in County Wexford. In the spirit of movies, storytelling, drama, and character, it’s easy to ascribe similar romantic yearnings to Mystelle Brabbée – needing only to substitute windswept Nantucket for Enniscorthy, Ireland.
A Brooklyn resident herself, Brabbée has been executive director of the Nantucket Film Festival since 2012, and she’s curated the festival program for a total for 16 years. Blond and athletic-looking, with a style both humble and intense, Brabbée annually spends the last week of June like the main character in the final reel of a blockbuster action flick, striving for all manner of happy endings as a year’s preparation unspools over six exciting days.
Plenty of New Yorkers split time between the city and Nantucket, but do any of them bring their work out to the island in such a climactic – not to mention high-pressure – fashion? It seems not, and as the late spring days keep NFF staffers working late, Brabbée falls into a mood akin to what Emerson must have felt when he wrote that “the air of Nantucket comes into your face and eyes as though it were glad to see you.”
In the run-up weeks before this year’s 23rd edition of the event, she indeed confessed to a bout of Nantucket fever. “It’s the same every year at this time,” she says. “I can’t wait to walk away from this desk, leave the city behind, and get out to the island.”
Its physical beauty and sensory effects were a revelation when Brabbée first visited Nantucket, during college. “I grew up in Colorado, and at the time I was studying at NYU, so I had never seen anything like it,” she says. “There was a sweetness and softness to the air that was all new to me.” As others have reported, she experienced the odd sensation of standing on solid ground yet feeling she was far out at sea.
If you’re an enthusiastic moviegoer and have not yet attended this festival, make a note to do so. The brother-sister duo of Jon and Jill Burkhart founded it and have guided the operation through nearly two dozen seasons, with Brabbée’s competence giving them an opening to step back. “For a festival of this prominence to be family-operated is unique,” Brabbée notes. “Over the years I guess I became part of that family, which extends to all our patrons and our filmmakers, too.” And indeed she did become an honorary Burkhart, according to Jill, who first hired Brabbée as a volunteer and soon offered her a staff role in programming.
“Mystelle said yes to my offer and we just went from there,” Burkhart says. “She is the longest-tenured staff member of NFF, and that’s owing to her combination of talent and knowledge – and especially to her passion. I sleep easy at night knowing she’s there running the show.”
Many of the moviemakers premiering their work on the island have returned again and again, including writer-director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone and the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone). “Debra’s entire career has been connected to and supported by our festival,” says Brabbée. “That’s one of the great things about being around so long.”
Few, if any, film fests are as inviting and walkable as Nantucket. And while it’s not the only such event with a heavy schedule of forums and presentations, it can claim a particularly inclusive mood to its programs. “This year we’re taping live with National Public Radio – their “Ask Me Another” Saturday show,” says Brabbée. “We’ll also have a Q&A session with Noah Baumbach, Adam Driver, and Ben Stiller.” If you’re attending for the first time, you will surely relish the anybody-can-talk-to-anybody atmosphere this gathering fosters.
The Burkharts, who as kids moved to Nantucket from (where else?) Brooklyn when their parents made a somewhat impulsive lifestyle reboot, envisioned a festival atmosphere in keeping with the island’s high-season escapism. “From the beginning, we likened it to summer camp,” recalls Jill Burkhart. “All it needed to succeed was people who love film, love this place, and want to share the intimacy and the storytelling.”
She recalls a night during year three when a young filmmaker screened his movie, spoke with audience afterward, and noticed one couple particularly taken by the film and its auteur both. “It so happened he’d never had a lobster dinner, and these folks said they had to fix that, so they took him out for lobster,” she says. “That wouldn’t happen at Sundance or Toronto or any big-city festival.”
Historic preservation is tantamount to a religion on Nantucket, dating back to the 1950s and Walter Beinecke Jr., who was heir to the S&H Green Stamps fortune and a devotee of classic island architecture and anti-commercialism. When the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary, Brabbée and her team sketched a design for classy-looking canvas signs that would hang from street lamps throughout the town’s cobblestone-paved center. They were informed that their signs were, ahem, against ordinances.
“The NFF is a commercial enterprise, so we’ll come up with plans and ideas that any business would,” says Brabbée. “Now and gain we run into prohibitions. The same preservation ethic that keeps the island so pristine can derail some of our plans. You learn to adjust.”
Asked to search through her long tenure and find a few festival moments that stand out, she at first stumbles, as too many memories flood in. Then she recounts the screening of Life, Animated, an award-laden documentary based on a father’s account of his autistic son’s obsession with Disney animated films – and how that fixation became a doorway for the boy’s dramatic progress in regaining speech and other capacities.
The filmmaker, Roger Ross Williams, provided background on the story and its central figure, Owen Suskind. Also in attendance was renowned composer Stephen Schwartz, author of so many familiar tunes in the Disney animation songbook. “Stephen played, and as he did the boy got up on stage and sang,” recalls Brabbée. “We plan and prepare all year, then something amazing will happen on its own.”
When the last ferry sails and the last flight out departs, ideas for the next year’s festival can begin to percolate. “Our fundamental value, the thing that guides us,” Brabbée says, “is the importance and the craft of storytelling – and in fact the joy of it.”
That idea resonates from Brooklyn to Nantucket and surely around the world. On occasion, like the evening a profoundly autistic boy stepped onstage to sing, the story will unfold right in front of you.
The 23rd Annual Nantucket Film Festival will be held June 20 – 25.
All photos courtesy of the Nantucket Film Festival.