Inaugural New Bedford Film Festival begins with a love letter

By Erin Trahan | | April 17, 2024

The New Bedford waterfront. (Courtesy Ethan de Aguiar)
The New Bedford waterfront. (Courtesy Ethan de Aguiar)

After years of shooting wedding videos right after college, New Bedford filmmaker Ethan de Aguiar decided to take a leap and launch his own film production business. Then someone stole his equipment. Then the pandemic hit.

“It wasn’t really a great time,” says de Aguiar about spring 2020. But that low point set in motion a series of events that led him to founding the New Bedford Film Festival, which celebrates its first installment from April 18-21 at venues throughout the port city.

The program includes all sorts of projects — from shorts to features, animation to music videos — with genres spanning from historical to horror. More than 50 New Bedford community members helped narrow the program to 101 titles from 209 submissions. According to de Aguiar, films came in from Rwanda, France and Ukraine, and close to half involve filmmakers from the South Coast.

For him, the festival’s story began when lockdown frustration made him grab his camera and get out of the house. “The bustling [New Bedford] downtown area was just a ghost town,” he recalls. But he came across a few artists painting a mural — an eye with a reflection of the sea and a welled-up tear — and a light switched on.

More than only good feelings, de Aguiar realized that making art “is also a way to get out those negative feelings, like depression.” The epiphany prompted him to make a short PSA-style “we’re in this together” video which grabbed the attention of Margo Saulnier, director of creative strategies for the New Bedford Economic Development Council.

In 2018, New Bedford launched a city-wide strategic arts plan, funded in part by the city’s hotel and lodging tax. Known as New Bedford Creative, Saulnier works with multiple stakeholders to lead the plan’s implementation. Saulnier says she told de Aguiar, “I love your work,” and soon after hired him to document artists and events related to a national pilot grant.

Ethan de Aguiar introduces "Love Letters to New Bedford" at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. (Courtesy Josh Souza)
Ethan de Aguiar introduces “Love Letters to New Bedford” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. (Courtesy Josh Souza)

But de Aguiar says he saw something more in the footage. Every artist he interviewed (with producer Beatriz Oliveira) “had the most passionate things to say about New Bedford.” He proposed making a short documentary with his hometown as the main character. In 2023, “Love Letters to New Bedford” took him to film festivals as far away as Portugal and as near as Newton.

The opportunities made an indelible impression. “You travel 1,000 miles just to find people that share the same interest with you and feel about their hometown the way you feel about your hometown,” he says. That led him to decide, “New Bedford should host its own.”

Though “Love Letters to New Bedford” will not compete for awards, it screens publicly for the first time in New Bedford on opening night at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. In addition to films, the four-day festival includes parties, panels and “Story in a Frame,” an exhibit of film stills with explanations written by festival filmmakers. De Aguiar says his biggest hope is that people visit for the festival and decide, ‘I need to stay like an extra few days or something and really explore it.’

Fairhaven, Massachusetts filmmaker Alyssa Botelho serves on the festival’s board. Her historical fiction short “To Dust All Return” screens on April 20 in the “Co-Creative I” block. Inspired by the Salem witch trials and shot in Bourne, Massachusetts, Botelho says participating in the festival offers an “almost a full circle kind of moment” for her. In November, she wrapped shooting another historical short, “Sweet Freedom,” about New Bedford abolitionist and confectioner Polly Johnson, which she hopes to release in fall 2024.

Alyssa Botelho (right) behind the scenes of "To Dust All Return." (Courtesy Nick Doyle)
Alyssa Botelho (right) behind the scenes of “To Dust All Return.” (Courtesy Nick Doyle)

Botelho describes how she became obsessed with film while a student at Fairhaven High School but felt pressure to move away to make a living. Now, the burgeoning South Coast film scene has given her reasons to ward off the “impending doom of, ‘I’m going to have to move to LA.’”

That’s exactly what de Aguiar wants for his community. “We’re a unique city,” he says. “We’re full of characters.” Instead of trying to bring Hollywood to New Bedford, de Aguiar says, “I would rather grow something organic, and grassroots in New Bedford.”

His broader vision includes year-round events, a training program for high school students, and a branch that connects outside productions (2023’s “The Holdovers” and “Finestkind” shot in the area) to South Coast talent.

Ultimately, he says he wants to give fellow New Bedford artists “the tools and resources to tell their [own] stories.” With the New Bedford Film Festival, they’ll also have an audience.

Arlington International Film Festival - April 8th
Massachusetts Independent Film Festival- April 25th - 28th



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