Maine International Film Festival bridges cultural divides and entertains

The reception at the Opera House in Waterville during the Maine Film Festival for guest and honoree Glenn Close. Photo by Chuck Robinson

By Ramona du Houx

Needless to say, movies are a huge part of American culture. Looking back at releases from the first talkies to modern action blockbusters and underground independent films it’s easy to see how they have reflected cultural forces.

Now independent movie houses often put on classics that years ago would have been in the more populous theaters if large corporations hadn’t taken over big movie studios. Nonetheless, this too is a reflection of the present American culture. Ironically, some of the movies the big corporations are showing metaphorically rebel against the domineering control of big corporations.

With corporations deciding to produce more blockbusters, independent movies and venues for unique films have become more popular in recent years. Movies with people interacting or undergoing inner growth, where characters are complex and have in-depth, real-life situations, are more in demand. They are shown in independent theaters. Meanwhile the video-game-on-steroids movies continue to be shown in corporate-owned venues. Occasionally there are crossovers. But to really see a movie that stimulates the mind, awakens one’s conscience, and takes you somewhere you’ve never been, the place to go is a film festival.

When the founders of the Railroad Cinema complex started the first Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) 17 years ago, they had no idea how well received it would be or how it would grow organically over the years.

Every year MIFF honors a critically acclaimed actor with the Mid-Life Achievement Award. This year the honor went to Glenn Close. Photo by Chuck Robinson

“I’ve been hearing for years that the MIFF each July is the place to be, that the organizers strive to bring together adventurous films, old and new, and unusually interesting actors and directors, and to attract a committed, movie-loving audience in Waterville, Maine. Well, I was up there this week ... and it’s true, my friends, all true. Here’s a model film festival,” wrote Gerald Peary in The Arts Fuse.

MIFF challenges viewers to take a risk with some of their screenings that have the power to change minds on certain topics. They also bring rare foreign films to Central Maine and always have unexpected thought provoking movies.

MIFF obtained a series of masterpiece Polish films from the 1950s which had been handpicked and digitally remastered by Martin Scorsese. The depth of the Polish culture came through the screen. “For forty years, I’ve been reading about the legendary filmmaker, Andrzej Munk, dead in 1961 at age 40. At the Maine Fest, I got a chance to see Eroica, a cynical anti-war film, my first Munk picture ever,” said Peary in his Arts Fuse piece.

During the ten-day event that shows around 100 films, guests enjoy the rare opportunity to meet and speak with directors, producers, writers, and artists. Each year MIFF recognizes key contributors of the independent film industry, while providing forums for panel discussions, informal Q&A sessions, and an authentic glimpse into the art of cinema. Maine and the New England region’s most innovative filmmakers are also highlighted with a special day of events, where audiences interact with the filmmakers.

I've been to a lot of film festivals and this is one of the best," said director Ernest Thompson, who held a discussion with informal Q&As.  Photo by Chuck Robinson

"My favorite thing about this festival is that it isn't just cinephiles attending. It is a festival that draws all walks of life to enjoy cinema, and that to me is what I think a good film festival should be. This is my second year at the festival, having a film in both, and the people that come to the films and the workshops to watch, learn, and engage with film is really what makes this film festival so special. I've been to a lot of film festivals and this is one of the best," said director Ernest Thompson, who held a discussion with informal Q&As.

Every year MIFF honors a critically acclaimed actor with the Mid-Life Achievement Award. This year the honor went to Glenn Close. During the festival, MIFF showed four films, which were chosen with Close. They demonstrated her amazing ability to transform completely into the characters as well as her commitment to independent film. The MIFF award is unique in film festival statuettes, as it depicts a moose with a twinkle in his eye.

"It’s the best award I've ever received," said Close.

At a party in her honor, Close posed for selfies and chatted with everyone at the Italian restaurant. In most festivals a celebrity party is reserved for VIPs, board members, and big-money pass holders — that’s another thing that's so unique about MIFF; anyone can meet any of the guests, even if they didn’t see a movie.

“We are committed to outstanding programming, featuring films that would otherwise never be seen in the state of Maine. We are also committed to making the festival accessible to everyone. All of our events are open to the public. We try to encourage conversation and dialogue and create a friendly, welcoming environment,” said Shannon Haines, Festival Director. “One of the best parts of this festival is when we can come together outside of the movies and have a great time.”

"Our volunteers, the attendees that come back every year and the city of Waterville make the festival special … like watching a movie in your home with lots of people to share it with. This is my home,” said Serena Sanborn, on the right. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The programming gets underway for the MIFF festival almost immediately after the current festival is over. According to programmer Ken Eisen, the budget is low. He and those around him work tirelessly to bring quality movies and those who make the films to Central Maine.

Cláudio Marques was brought up from Brazil to show After the Rain, a political feature. Bluesman William Bell and rapper Frayser Boy were flown up from Tennessee for the screening of Take Me to the River. MIFF also hosted the first tribute ever to Leonard Mann; now a California therapist, in the 1970s he was the star of “Eurocrime” Italian-produced cinema.

This year, an event for filmmakers to network with Maine agencies that could possibly provide assistance was held at the Hathaway Creative Center.

“The filmmakers’ networking brunch was designed to bring filmmakers together to network with each other and with the arts agencies and organizations in the state that might have resources to support their work. The event was very well received and will certainly be repeated in future years. Over 40 individuals attended, and the filmmakers were enthusiastic to share their projects and ideas with each other,” said Haines. “We worked with the Maine Film & Video Association, the Maine Film Office, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and the Maine Arts Commission to conceive of this event.”

The volunteers of the Maine International Film Festival of 2014. Photo by Chuck Robinson

This year themes were more evident — the most pleasurable for many was "Music, Sweet Music." Leading the list was Take Me to the River, about the quintessential blues that came from Memphis. The film won second place for the MIFF people’s choice of movies, and the documentary captured generations of legendary musicians jamming in the same uplifting spirit. The Case of the Thee Sided Dream was about blind jazz tenor and musician Rohsaan Roland Kirk. A remastered A Hard Days Night with the Beetles was shown and exhibits their mastery of music, comedy and wit, which transcends generations and cultures. And Finding Fela, a film about a groundbreaking musician activist in Nigeria, along with Dhoom 3 a romance that took place in India — these were just some of the films included in the musical roundup.

“We do show a lot of films with music being important to them. Music, like food, is an open door to other cultures. It allows us entry without having to understand the language. It bridges what divides us,” said Serena Sanborn, who helps run the festival. Serena’s father Alan is the festival’s technical director and one of the founding members. She grew up watching wonderful movies and consequently worked at a big film festival in San Francisco.

“Our festival is so much more community based. Our volunteers, the attendees that come back every year, and the city of Waterville make the festival special … like watching a movie in your home with lots of people to share it with. This is my home,” said Serena. “Bringing the world to people in Central Maine with our movies is always a thrill for me.”

MIFF, a nonprofit event, had over 8,000 admissions in 2014. The event relies on the volunteers that work for free every year.

“To be a part of the discussions with a director after seeing the movie they did is an amazing way to learn about film making. That and all the films we get to see for free make it so worthwhile,” said volunteer Bernadette.

Shannon Haines, festival director, gives a moose award, designed by her mother to Glenn Close. The actress said it was the best award she had ever recieved. Haines said, “One of the best parts of this festival is when we can come together outside of the movies and have a great time.” Photo by Chuck Robinson.

Many of the movies were sponsored by local businesses, which adds to the diversity of the films. The Harlow gallery sponsored Breathing Earth — about artist and architect Susumu Shingu of Japan and his life-long quest to translate the wind’s movements into sculptures. His masterpieces depict how wind currents can gracefully move. By turning the wind into sculpture, we can see how the wind can transform us.

“The photography in this movie was art. Every frame taken in the natural areas which surround his sculptures was so peaceful and expressed Shingu’s vision,” said Cindy Reed of Carmel, California. “We’re on vacation and happened upon MIFF. The events, films and beautiful lakes in the area made us decide to stay instead of traveling around the state.”

Many downtown businesses host the parties for MIFF and give discounts to movie attendees. Hotels, restaurants, and shops clearly benefit when the festival comes to the city of 15,000 people.

“The last economic impact study that was done was in 2011 by the Maine Arts Commission. They estimated that MIFF generates around $750,000 in economic activity each year,” said Haines.

MIFF is hosted at two unique venues: The Waterville Opera House — a 940-seat turn-of-the-century theater with gold-leaf proscenium — and at Railroad Square Cinema where the best of independent, foreign, and specialized films have been on the big screen since 1978.