I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Thomas Bena says in the voiceover of his new documentary, One Big Home, which had its Island premiere at the Chilmark Community Center on June 29. Bena, who at forty-seven is also the founder and director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, arrived on the Island in 1997 and immediately felt a connection he couldn’t ignore. “There were no strip malls, no McDonald’s. It felt like I was in some kind of magic land.”
But after working for six years as a carpenter helping to build bigger and bigger houses, he felt conflicted. “I had been backpacking in various countries, traveling, surfing, and seeing the world,” said Bena, who started the MVFF in 2001. “I had just spent time with people struggling to find food and shelter, and all of a sudden I’m building homes that will sit empty and heated for ten months a year. It hit me in the gut: I was part of the problem.”
He set off, à la Michael Moore, to make a film in which the subject was as much himself as it was Martha’s Vineyard trophy homes and the Island’s seasonal, construction-driven economy. Bena interviewed contractors, builders, and architects, many of whom were slow to judge the 10,000-plus square foot houses that keep them busy with work. “People who just got here, they have no idea what it was like to go through building recessions, when your friends were losing their houses,” says contractor Bob DeFelice in the film. Of the wealthy patrons choosing to build their dream homes here, DeFelice remarks, “We’re lucky we have people like that coming here.”
The late newscaster and seasonal Vineyard resident Mike Wallace also saw both sides of the debate. “Conspicuous consumption satisfies some people,” he says on camera. “They work hard. It’s a free country. Why does it offend you?”
It’s a question that Bena spends the rest of his film trying to answer. One Big Home took more than ten years to complete, and over the course of the film the moral, political dilemma turns personal when his then-fiancée, now-wife Mollie Doyle buys a pre–Revolutionary era house in Chilmark. After careful consideration, the couple tears down the existing structure and embarks on a home-building journey of their own. In a particularly conflicted scene, we see Bena approaching the men building his own house and asking if they think the house is too big.
Such dramatic self-awareness does not, however, temper Bena’s outrage at what he sees others around him doing. Eventually, he helps to lead the successful effort to impose a limitation on the size of new houses built in Chilmark. But it is always his own internal struggle as the plans for his own home change, grow, and expand that is at the heart of the film’s story.
The memory of Bena’s passionate campaigning against big houses and in support of stricter zoning bylaws, often delivered at town meetings with camera in hand, no doubt fueled the explosion of opinion when Bena’s MVFF announced plans in late spring to build a six-thousand-square-foot entertainment “barn” and campus in the historic heart of West Tisbury. The Vineyard Gazette’s interview with Bena, and a follow-up report of a selectmen’s meeting where the debate continued, garnered a record-breaking number of comments on the website. The vast majority voiced concern that the rural West Tisbury setting would be inappropriate for a commercially developed lot. With the land deal announcement coming just weeks before the film’s release, more than one commenter was quick to jump on what seemed to be ironic timing. Elisha Weisner of Chilmark wrote: “Local filmmaker Thomas Bena will be showing his film about giant trophy homes ruining Martha’s Vineyard in his giant trophy movie theatre.”
For his part, Bena was dismayed by the “incredible outpouring of anger and resentment” that talk of a new festival venue has provoked, though he seemed to understand the somewhat precarious position he found himself in. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and will make more, but I hope people will understand that the most powerful force that drives me is the desire to bring joy into the community and create a safe space for us to explore fundamental issues.”
As for the timing of the film’s release, Bena saw the irony differently: “My film largely makes the point that communities must work together to determine their destiny, and that often entails difficult conversations about prickly issues,” he said. “Where to build a barn to hold public events is understandably one of those prickly issues.”
By the time this magazine went to press, the prickles had gotten through to the MVFF and the plans for the West Tisbury center appeared to have been quietly abandoned. For Bena, it was no doubt a disappointment, but he’s not one to let a change of course affect his long-term goal.
“The film I set out to make is not the film I ended up making,” he said of the film project. “I started out wanting to say that big houses were bad. Along the way I realized that there was so much more going on than that, and so much more at stake than I originally realized.”
As for what it was like to make a film about houses while building a house for so long? “So utterly stressful,” he said, “I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the process.”
And for the record, he holds firm to his belief that giant houses and overdevelopment on the Island could be a passing fad.
“Remember fur coats?” he asked. “They were cool once. Then they were done.”