Newport is famed for its gilded age mansions and old world opulence. This summer, for the fifth year in a row, the lawns and vacation palaces of Doris Duke and the Vanderbilts have served as a backdrop to one of the more unusual regional film festivals in the country.
For its fifth year, NewportFilm has paired the resort town’s historic lawns and gardens with roughly a dozen outdoor showings, which routinely attract between 700 to 1,100 locals and visitors, of such non-fiction films as “What Happened Miss Simone?,” “Iris” and “The Diplomat.”
The non-profit organization plays films year-round, but its summer showings, which take place in such storied locales as Marble House — a Beaux Arts masterpiece — the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, one of the country’s oldest community libraries, are what sets it apart. It’s as if an open-air screening took place in an Edith Wharton novel.
The festival’s backers say that the leadership behind these historic venues love the exposure they get from opening up their grounds for film viewing. That’s a good thing, since they offer up access for free.
“Even people who are a little wary end up saying to us, ‘Please come back,'” said Terri Conners, the organization’s executive director. “It’s such a vibrant thing. There’s never a piece of trash left on the ground and our audiences are appreciative and grateful.”
The backdrop is what brings filmmakers to the Rhode Island resort town. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, director of the extreme sports documentary “Meru,” was impressed by the care that NewportFilm’s backers took in choosing a venue to show her look at mountain climbers braving one of the world’s most dangerous peaks. The film was shown on the grounds of St. George’s, a Tudor Revival boarding school that counts generations of Astors and Bushes among its alum and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Before the film started, the grounds were alive with picnickers, musicians and food trucks, and the crowds waited around after the credits rolled to listen to a moderated discussion.
“It was such a jovial environment,” said Vasarhelyi. “I was impressed by how many people were there and how seriously they took it. It was a cinema savvy audience. There wasn’t any talking during the screening.”
It’s also what keeps artists and backers coming back. Josh Braun, co-founder of indie film company Submarine Entertainment has had several films play at Newport, starting with the New York Times documentary “Page Six.”
“It’s a beautiful seaside town and I’m a sucker for old time architecture,” he said.
Unlike other festivals that are clustered around a few days, NewportFilm spreads out its screenings. That’s attractive to filmmakers, because it means the spotlight shines solidly on their work.
“We make each screening a standalone event,” said Andrea van Beuren, founder and artistic director of NewportFilm. “As soon as we see a film at a festival we’re thinking about who we can partner with and where we can show it.”
Having reached the half-decade mark, NewportFilm is trying to figure out what the future will hold. One area where the group hopes to expand is by reaching out to less affluent parts of the summer community. Though known as a playground of the wealthy, Newport also illustrates income inequality. It has the state’s fifth highest rate of children living under the federal poverty level and the highest rate of subsidized housing.
In order to broaden its base of viewers, NewportFilm has partnered with the Women’s Resource Center, a group committed to ending domestic violence, on a grant-backed program that seeks to improve social and environmental conditions in economically struggling areas. To that end, the group will screen “The Mask You Live In,” a film about boys struggling with society’s definition of what it means to be a man, at the Friends Meeting House. The venue is a mile from the mansions that line Bellevue Avenue, but it’s also a world away.
“We feel that we show a lot of important documentaries and we want everyone to have access to them,” said Conners. “We want to have a presence in every community.”