The Nantucket Film Festival brings films from across the world to Nantucket, and with them come their stars, directors, and writers, all sporting impressive accolades and lengthy IMDb pages. Just this year alone, NFF boasts a Disney/Pixar blockbuster and several films starring Oscar-winning actors.
But amidst all the international award-winners and box office hits are a few films made right here on Nantucket and this year, two were directed by the same woman: Laura Cunningham, the owner and creative director of the local film company Yellow Productions.
Cunningham, who runs Yellow Productions with her husband Chris, has always had a passion for storytelling, and her two films debuting at NFF are, at their heart, about local stories.
“This is our island and our future and if we can help people understand it, then we’ve done our job as storytellers,” Cunningham said.
The first of Cunningham’s two documentary shorts premiering at NFF is Coskata-Coatue: A Refuge on the Edge. Made in collaboration with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the Trustees of Reservations, the documentary will highlight the ecological, recreational, and cultural importance of the refuge and its natural beauty. Cunningham, who was selected by NCF and the Trustees to direct the film, shot much of it on-site at the refuge with her crew.
“There’s just no other feeling like it,” Cunningham said. “We’ve driven out there as a family many times, but to see it through our lens and having the organizations hold our hands and guide us to all the incredible spots was an experience that not many people get. One of the first trips out there was planned around the blooming of a cactus... a cactus on Nantucket? We couldn’t believe it.”
“We experienced bird eggs hatching, baby seals, and all kinds of wildlife,” she continued. “We also got to experience a storm, which made the refuge impossible to drive on. It really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The refuge is an ephemeral place, the landscape always shifting, so Cunningham may well be right. She was also quick to point out that the film was the result of the hard work and expertise of NCF and the Trustees, not just her directorial skills. The two groups work together to manage the refuge and provided Cunningham with critical information and support throughout the project. In fact, the idea for the film initially came from them.
“[NCF and the Trustees] had the idea as partners to create a film,” said Cynthia Dittbrenner, Interim Vice President of Conservation and Resilience for the Trustees. “We wanted to work to tell a story that both educated and engaged the community.”
With Cunningham’s help, that vision was realized.
The documentary has a 12-minute run time and will be presented as part of Patrick and the Whale, an Austrian documentary about the relationship between a diver and a sperm whale named Dolores. Like Patrick and the Whale, Cunningham’s production is partially a nature documentary. But it also has a greater significance.
Coscata and Coatue are renowned as some of the most scenic locations on Nantucket, and the refuge is known to be a beautiful landscape with a rich history and a unique ecology. Beyond that, however, it is critical to Nantucket’s coastal resilience—and it is in danger. Each year, storm surges wear down its battered beaches, and climate change brings further threats. As sea levels creep ever higher, more and more of the refuge is lost to the waves.
While researching the documentary, Cunningham was presented with a series of reports on the dangers facing the refuge—dangers many islanders may be unaware of.
“I don’t think I will ever forget the emotions that I went through reading [those reports],” she said. “Living here year-round, it hit a little hard. I was worried, scared, but also confused. When I would chat with groups of people my age, they didn’t seem to know about the impacts or couldn’t really grasp the reality. I knew we had a great responsibility to work with [the Trustees and the NCF] in understanding it thoroughly and then being able to translate it to a language that everyone could understand. The report included their solutions, which excited me and gave me hope. Mother Nature is going to do what she is going to do, but the solutions that these organizations are presenting to work with her and not against, are pretty incredible.”
Cunningham’s second film, The Ottisons: A True Nantucket Story, will be presented and paired with Food and Country. The 15-minute documentary chronicles the history of the local Ottison family. The film also focuses on the family’s unique property on the Creeks, weaving in environmental storytelling that makes it a natural partner for Cunningham’s other short.
Both shorts fall in NFF’s Green Carpet Cinema category, which returns for its second year this June. Doubtless a pun on the red carpet walked by politicians and celebrities, the newest category added to NFF was designed to include films that deal with the environment and climate change. The hope is that these films can foster conversations about the critical issues they highlight. It is perhaps notable that both of Cunningham’s films fall under the Green Carpet Cinema category. With Nantucket’s natural beauty at her fingertips, a focus on the environment makes sense.
Regardless of the category, premiering a film at NFF is an impressive achievement—just look at the names billed alongside it. Cunningham’s films are being screened the same day as The Pod Generation starring Oscar winner Chiwetal Ejiofer and a Disney film with a $200 million budget.
“We always had an eye towards the Nantucket Film Festival,” Dittbrenner said. “Having that hope become a reality is really special. For us, the film festival represents the chance to reach both local and broader audiences. The folks who will see our film are people who come to the refuge and will be impacted by the potential effects of climate change on such a special place. They’re the people we always hoped to reach with this story.”
Getting a film into any major film festival is a daunting task, but the selection process is mostly out of the hands of the filmmakers. Once the film is submitted, NFF has to decide whether to screen it or not—while the filmmakers wait with bated breath.
But soon, the films will be screened, and the waiting will be over.