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Provincetown International Film Festival Returns To The Water's Edge In More Ways Than One

A still from director Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer's film "The Catch." (Courtesy The Catch Film)
A still from director Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer's film "The Catch." (Courtesy The Catch Film)

After a condensed virtual festival in 2020, organizers of the Provincetown International Film Festival (PIFF) had to start planning 2021 before knowing exactly what the summer would hold, pandemic-wise. “As the months went on, things looked worse, then better,” explains artistic director Lisa Viola. When it became clear that in-person screenings could happen, she says the PIFF team quickly — and elatedly — adapted.

Screenings will take place at several outdoor venues, including the Wellfleet Drive-In, the Mary Heaton Vorse House garden, and a pop-up at Herring Cove Beach. Add to that a festival launch that coincides with the reopening of its theatrical hub, the Waters Edge Cinema. Closed for 14 months during the pandemic, like many independent art house theaters, this tiny two-screener has been staying connected to its audience with a virtual screening room. PIFF will likewise include some streaming access to a line-up that includes many LGBTQ+ friendly storylines as well as a boatload of films with local ties.

With virtual awards presentations (to Richard Linklater, Natalie Morales and Riz Ahmed), in-person special guests (Kirsten Johnson, Christine Vachon, Daniel Minahan, Wally Lamb and others) and a dynamic group of 42 feature films and seven short film programs, PIFF '21 (June 16-25) resembles something as close to “normal” as a festival could post-COVID, by a Provincetown measure anyway.

The concept of the water’s edge takes on added meaning this year with an abundance of films that take place in coastal settings or at sea. The astonishing archival footage of diver, shark lover, and staunch marine life advocate Valerie Taylor in “Playing With Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story” gives the viewer a chance to watch the trailblazer mature from her 20s to age 85 before your eyes. Taylor and her husband, Ron Taylor, met and married while both champion spearfishers in the 1960s. While Ron tinkered with new ways to shoot 16 mm underwater, Valerie shifted gears away from hunting to exploring and studying sea life, especially sharks.

Over several decades, they gathered thousands of hours of footage. Culled with an expert eye, this documentary shows how Taylor fearlessly recorded shark behavior by swimming with them, feeding them and rapping them on the head as a way to say, “We’re in your pack.”

Some of that footage went to television that Taylor says “wanted drama,” or sharks in attack mode. That human appetite led to two prominent film projects, 1969’s “Blue Water, White Death” and 1975’s “Jaws,” which played up great white sharks as predators and symbolically pounded sharp nails in the now vulnerable species’ coffin. Aggrieved over the public reaction, Taylor has worked diligently to set the record straight ever since: Sharks should be protected not feared. To this day she laments the one shark she killed herself. One of the most awe-inspiring scenes shows she and Ron setting one entangled shark free.

An undercurrent in “Playing With Sharks” is the contrast between the flourishing ocean life at mid-century (and the belief in the sea as a bottomless resource) as compared to now. This unstated but worrisome trend runs quietly in the background of “The Catch,” an independent thriller set in a lobster-dependent town in coastal Maine. Shot in Rockport, Ipswich and other spots along the North Shore, writer and director Matthew Ya-Hsiung Balzer grew up in Watertown and consulted with lobstermen in Provincetown while researching the story.

In “The Catch,” Beth (Katia Winter) returns home under duress to find her father and brother embroiled in a lobstering turf war. She picks back up with Dicky (James McMenamin), also hapless and living with his parent, and they hatch a plan to skim drugs off some bad guys and ditch town. “The Catch” doesn’t hang together anywhere near as well as the profusely feel-good “CODA,” also about a struggling New England fishing family (and playing this and other festivals this summer), but you have to admire its ambition. With scenes shot both underwater and on boats at night, it delivers some great one-liners (“learn the lesson now or life is just going to teach it to you again”) and convincing performances especially from the morally bankrupt lead couple. While the set-up suggests this is Beth’s story, the script plays the promises made by the men in her life that “nothing will happen to her” way too straight. In terms of overblown machismo, “The Catch” feels closer to mid-century than present-day.

Viola sees the storytelling captured in that film as well as “Give or Take” (a heartfelt coming home drama shot at many Cape landmarks, including the Wellfleet Drive-In) and “Red River Road,” (made entirely on the Cape by a family of four while on lockdown), as a sign of health for movies on the whole. “I feel like regional filmmaking is always in danger just because it’s harder to get these films made,” she says. “As we become more and more global, hanging on to that aspect of a particular region grounds you and gives you a sense of place.” The spirited “Breuer’s Bohemia” does that through the evolving architecture of Marcel Breuer, a protegee of Walter Gropius. The movie traces Breuer’s modernist designs from Bauhaus to brutalism, with an emphasis on a cluster of boxy homes in Litchfield, Connecticut and the intertwining social lives of the influencers who commissioned them. An enclave of Breuer’s Wellfleet cottages drew his inner circle to the Cape and also appear.

After a year that has put stress and strain on the entire movie endeavor, from artists to exhibitors, Viola sees the abundance of shorts as another encouraging sign for independent filmmaking. With more total short films than in past years, ones made on the Cape or in New England make up two of seven programs. I loved the compact storytelling in “Fish,” shot in Wellfleet and Orleans, for its ability to deftly shift from hilarious to reflective and ultimately transcend its premise of a squabble over money. “Let’s Meet Again at the End of the World” offers a literary take on Provincetown as a place for short-term escapes that challenge the protagonist’s long view on healthy relationships.

Viola says, “We try to not pinpoint or limit ourselves with a given theme but some overarching themes do emerge.” She noticed that in some of the films, people use water as a refuge. She notes her own experience of having grown up on the coast and moving away for 15 years. “I couldn’t wait to get back to the ocean,” she says. “There’s a pull to this region if that’s what you’re used to.”

Interestingly, coastal settings pervade line-ups of other area festivals as well. Several of the titles mentioned here, including “Luzzu” (about a fisherman from Malta), also screen at the Nantucket Film Festival (June 17-28) and the Woods Hole Film Festival (July 31-Aug. 7). If water settings pull you in, also keep an eye out for the documentaries “The Jump” and “The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52,” both at Nantucket. The trend of water as the grounds for so many films at once may be indicative of longing for home, or a longing to hold on to something that, by design and by human choice, makes that impossible.

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Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.

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