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Jun 26, 2017 2:49 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Filmmaker's Critical Lens Pointed At McMansions

An aerial view of a Martha's Vineyard mansion.  COURTESY THOMAS BENA
Jun 29, 2017 11:48 AM

Thomas Bena, now 49, was conflicted to the point of personal crisis.

He spent a decade documenting the pitfalls of the so-called McMansions of Martha’s Vineyard—the ways in which they both polluted the character of a community and left behind heaps of environmental waste.

Mr. Bena was the one fighting excessive consumption, the one advocating to live with a respectful level of modesty.

So when he had his first child, it was “torment” for him to build a bigger, more suitable house. “Did I sell out?” he asked in reference to his 2,900-square-foot home. He was self-conscious, almost embarrassed of the size.

And then he thought of his grandparents: peasant laborers from the Portuguese islands of Azores who came to America with nothing but suitcases—which Mr. Bena owns today—in search of a better life.

And then the tears came. They’d come to offer opportunity to their children and grandchildren. He was realizing their dream.

“You would think the year of your wife having a baby and building a house and all that was going to be all rosy—and it was rosy in many ways—but it was also a really hard time for me because I was grappling with my own changing of my life,” Mr. Bena said. “Am I doing good?”

What started as a personal obsession, flashing a critical lens at the social and environmental impact of mega mansions, morphed into a quasi-crusade, one that took the form of “One Big Home,” Mr. Bena’s first feature documentary, which he began filming in 2004 and released in 2016.

And after touring for well more than a year, “One Big Home” will screen at Southampton Arts Center on July 6 and on the Shinnecock Reservation on July 7.

“I was impressed with the film,” said Wayne Duncan, 60, a Cherokee Native American who advocated for “One Big Home” to play on the reservation. “Education is knowledge. I think knowledge is everything. I think if everybody in their right mind isn’t learning something every day, then they’re just missing out. It was a no-brainer”

In 1991, Mr. Bena traded a financially promising career in the business sector for a life of travel and, above all, surf.

But in 1997, Chilmark, a town on Martha’s Vineyard, was attractive enough to anchor the nomad.

It was the quiet that reeled him in. Here, folks have a purer value system, one that practices humility and is environmentally conscious, Mr. Bena said. With the ocean ever in the backdrop, it was a paradise untainted by corporations.

Martha’s Vineyard, after all, underwent a prominent campaign to secede from Massachusetts in the late 1970s and successfully warded off the introduction of large chain companies, most notably McDonald’s. Remnants of that hippie ethos are still intact.

But over the decades, the island has been infused with “trophy home” mansions often occupied seasonally, an acute parallel to the Hamptons, and a sharp diversion from Martha’s Vineyard’s modest, communal culture.

And Mr. Bena, who became a carpenter in order satiate his thirst for travel and surf, saw these new constructions—some to the tune of 30,000 square feet—first-hand. Intrinsically, these homes and their conspicuous nature unsettled Mr. Bena.

But it was the very profession of carpentry that financed his roving lifestyle that so conflicted with what that lifestyle meant.

“Here’s what’s blowing my mind about the whole process: From day one, when I picked the camera up and people are like, ‘What are you doing? Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,’” Mr. Bena said. “And at the first site we went on, the contractor called the police and then they showed up at my buddy’s house that night— they traced the license plate. And they said, ‘What are you doing?’ So people are really intense about this issue.”

Although well supported by tangible statistics, “One Big Home” is notable for its personal focus. The film follows Mr. Bena, self-described as “a guy who knows nothing about changing a law, is a first generation on his mom’s side, is a carpenter and he feels conflicted” and his quest to institute a bylaw that would cap how large of a house may be built in Chilmark.

“I wanted people in that conflict and on the journey of, ‘Well, what’s right and what’s wrong?’” said Mr. Bena, who began running a film festival on Martha’s Vineyard in 2001. “And who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? And why does it matter if people buy a big house? I wanted people on that journey.”

“I’ve played a lot of environmental films in the festival that I run: ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and ‘Chasing Ice,’” he added. “I love them; they’re great films. I didn’t want to make a [statistics]-driven film. I wanted to make a personal documentary that has an environmental thread through it that it is affecting the environment.”

Ultimately, Mr. Bena was successful. He, along with a number of other locals, spearheaded a movement that culminated in the passing of a bylaw that limits the construction of Chilmark homes over the size of 3,500 square feet. Although, that number rises if the landowner has a certain number of acres.

The movement’s argument is multifaceted: mansions are of detriment to the community’s character, are siphons of wasteful energy—these homes are climate controlled year-round, but 63 percent of Martha’s Vineyard homes are lived in seasonally, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce—and gentrify the community by suffocating affordable housing for generational residents.

Mr. Bena defines three arguments against such restrictions: America is a “free country,” construction of these mansions support a number of workers, and property values will decrease.

“Guess what, it’s not a free country,” Mr. Bena says in response to the first argument. “Every single community has zoning and they have zoning for a reason: to preserve the character of the community. So it’s not a free country. You literally can’t do what you want with your land. You can’t. That was really a red herring. That’s one that people can really pound their chest with, but it’s not true.”

A local attorney polled 85 Chilmark building permits per year and found that only 1 percent surpassed 3,500 square feet, Mr. Bena’s proposed threshold.

“These subcontractors [of mansions], and I’m sure the same is true for Southampton of course, come from way, way, away,” Mr. Bena said. “So it’s not like the romantic sense of, ‘Oh the guy down the street, Joe the carpenter in the blue pickup truck, is going to lose his livelihood.’ That’s definitely not the case.”

And on the third talking point:

“The opposite of that actually happened,” Mr. Bena said. “An assessor stood up at a screening we did at Duxbury, a small town just south of Boston, and he said, ‘I just want you guys to know that this is amazing. I’m an assessor. I go to your island often and I’ve been doing this for years. We have the assessed values at Chilmark continue to go up at a high clip and we think it’s because Chilmark is preserved in a way.’ It’s not going to become East Hampton or Southampton.”

The Hamptons, which briefly come into focus in the film, has remarkable similarities with Martha’s Vineyard. Both are resort areas with fishing industries; both have seen a rapid migration of wealthy seasonal residents and subsequently, seasonal rent price gouging; and both serve as a beach and surf haven.

So it comes as no surprise that Mr. Bena previously screened his film at the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival in Sag Harbor.

“It was a very powerful night. D. A. Pennebaker, he stood up at the end and he said ‘Your film was very beautiful,’” Mr. Bena said. “‘ It made me cry.’ That was kind of like Ben Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker something. That just made my whole day.”

What keeps Mr. Bena touring with his film more than a year after its completion is its potential to ignite change. His plight laid a preliminary groundwork for others to model their fights after. Truro on Cape Cod has enacted similar house-size restrictions after consulting with Mr. Bena, and others are talking about doing the same. The film’s website keeps a running collection of such successes.

“I love Truro. It’s kind of like leaving Southampton and going out to Montauk. I surfed there a bunch when I was younger,” Mr. Bena said. “And they basically used our bylaw as a template and they just passed their big house bylaw about a month ago on the national seashore in Cape Cod. I can’t tell you how rewarding that is.”

And Mr. Bena’s reach is now global; his film is soon to appear in Milan and Melbourne, and previously played in Calgary.

As for his own community, Chilmark, Mr. Bena is far from done lobbying. The 3,500-square-foot mark was just a beginning on which to expand.

“It’s just one bylaw, one small step for the people that are left here who actually want to remain here to have some semblance of what they think their community should look like,” Mr. Bena said. “The thesis really, and why I’m pumped up and still traveling with the film after 14 months and most filmmakers are just Netflix and iTunes and onto the next project, is that I really want to have this discussion with communities about people stepping up and taking care of their own community. I think it’s the opposite of this crazy federal debate we have, partisan debate—no, no, no, forget that. Don’t even go there. This is about your community. What do you want? You want affordable housing, Southampton? What are you going to do to make sure your kids and their kids can afford to live here?”

“One Big Home” will screen on Thursday, July 6, at 7 p.m. at Southampton Arts Center. Admission is $10. Visit southamptonartscenter.org. The film will be shown again on Friday, July 7, at 7 p.m. at the clubhouse on the Shinnecock Reservation. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend.

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