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Celebrating 20 years of cinematic magic with MIFF

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WATERVILLE – It’s that time again. We’ve once again arrived at the highest of highlights in Maine’s cinematic calendar.

The Maine International Film Festival is back.

This year’s MIFF – the 20th – runs from July 14-23. And once again, film fans from all over the state, the country and even the world will descend on Waterville to check out scores of films – shorts and full-lengths, comedies and dramas, features and documentaries – and numerous special events all aimed at celebrating the cinephiles among us.

Moviegoers have been conditioned to view the summer as the season for massive blockbusters. And don’t get me wrong – I’m quite enamored of the “sturm und drang” hugeness of tentpole franchises and CGI explosion extravaganzas.

But with something like MIFF, Maine audiences get a chance to see the small-scale cinematic brilliance that is being created all the time in all corners of the globe. Superheroes and sequels are all well and good, but it’s pretty darned wonderful to have the opportunity to experience a much wider swath of the filmic landscape.

As we look forward to this 20th year of the festival, we reached out to MIFF’s Festival Director Shannon Haines and Programming Director Ken Eisen to discuss not only this year’s offerings, but also a little bit about the festival’s history.

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The Maine Edge - What does it mean to Waterville specifically and the Maine film community in general that MIFF has reached this milestone?

Shannon Haines - Twenty years is a huge milestone for us. What began as the dream of a few individuals has grown into an event that is nationally recognized for its outstanding programming and has built a dedicated community of film lovers. I like to say that MIFF has thrived in an unlikely location (a small, economically-challenged, central Maine community) due to the commitment and support of the film-going audience that we have cultivated.

Ken Eisen - Well, I can speak for neither, of course, but I do think the fest has brought the profile of Maine filmmakers and filmmaking up a bit, and I am very glad that Maine filmmakers have a high-profile way to have their work premiered. I do also think that the festival has become a major event in Waterville and for central Mainers in general, even those who normally wouldn’t identify themselves as film lovers - and I love that. 

TME - Is there any programming - events and such - specifically tied to that anniversary?

SH - Yes, we invited back many of our favorite past guests, 11 of whom will be attending the festival to present films of their own or films that have inspired them in their careers.

KE – This major section of the festival entitled “Returning Guests Present” in which we have invited back many of our favorite guests from the filmmaking world — actors, directors, writers — and having them each choose a film — either one that they are involved with themselves or just one they love — and share them and their thoughts about them with our audiences. This is a section of the festival we’re very excited about.

TME - What are some of the ways in which the festival grown since its inception? 

SH - Attendance has nearly tripled since the beginning. When the festival started there were only three screens – two at Railroad Square Cinema and one at the Waterville Opera House; now there are three screens at the cinema for a total of four screens. The number of films that we show has more than doubled since the beginning as well, as has the number of filmmakers who attend the festival.

Five years ago, we also added MIFFONEDGE, which is a multimedia exhibition that we host in collaboration with Common Street Arts and Waterville Creates!

KE - I think it’s grown in every way! We have more guests, more films, greater attendance, a higher profile nationally and internationally, and more excitement and support every year.

TME - How long have you been affiliated with MIFF? What are some of the changes that you've been most pleased to see during that time?

SH - I have been the director for 15 years and this is my last year. I have been pleased to see the festival gain a national reputation for programming excellence and to see sponsorship and grant income increase in a way that allows for us to support greater attendance by filmmakers. We established a World Filmmakers’ Forum two years ago to bring in emerging filmmakers from across the globe; it was incredibly well-received by both the filmmakers and the audience. It is on hold this year because of the 20thanniversary returning guests section, but the plan is to reinstate it next year.

KE - I have been the Director of Programming at MIFF since its inception. It’s just been great to see the growth that’s happened, the acceptance, support and enthusiasm that we have from the community and the entire state of Maine, the friends we’ve made in the world of filmmaking who have come here to share our home with us here in central Maine. I could really not have imagined where we are now when we started.

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We also took time to discuss this year’s slate of films and awards with Mr. Eisen. Once again, over 100 films are on the bill over the length of the festival. The beloved tradition of the Mid-Life Achievement continues, of course, but MIFF has also added a new award – this one in honor of a filmmaking legend with a Maine connection.

TME - How many films are we looking at for this year? And how long did it take to assemble the program that you finally settled upon?

KE - I believe the actual count is 103. In truth, we start working on the next year’s program pretty much when the previous festival ends, but it certainly becomes more intense - at least for those of us dealing with programming - around February when we start in full-time, contacting people and watching an awful lot of films.

TME - Are there any surprises in terms of the films being presented?

KE - Without being hyperbolic, I think MOST of the films in the festival are surprises. Some of the biggest ones are the “Rediscovery” and retrospective films, films that are not new but look amazing now, often in restored new prints or vintage archive 35mm prints.

I think the thing that’s great about MIFF is that almost every experience is a surprise - you’re seeing a film that you haven’t read a review of because it hasn’t opened yet or seeing a film with a guest who can make you see a film through their eyes or rediscovering a film that’s crying out for discovery. THAT’S exciting!

TME - Could you maybe mention a few films that you would personally like to see highlighted? New releases, rediscoveries, whatever you like.

KE - Lots! But some of my faves include the new films “Axolotl Overkill,” “Rumble,” “Summer 1993,” “Lives Well Lived” and “The Last Pig” and the older films “Dekalog,” “Sunrise” (which will be screened with the premiere of a new score by Mark Tipton), “Double Indemnity,” “Ugetsu,” “Something Wild” and “Le Cercle Rouge.”

TME – How about the awards and special guests for this year’s festival?

KE – This year’s Mid-Life Achievement Award Winner is Lauren Hutton, a wonderful actress and presence. The [inaugural cinematographer’s recognition] Karl Struss Legacy Award winner is Roger Deakins, perhaps the greatest cinematographer around.

Tom DiCillo, one of the most distinctive and likable filmmakers in the indie film movement, will be here. Also, the festival is dedicated to our dear friend, past guest … and one of the greatest artists and humans I’ve ever known, Jonathan Demme, who passed away a few months ago.

TME – What prompted the inception of the new cinematography award?

KE - MIFF decided to initiate this award because the LOOK of films is something that, ironically, often gets overlooked; we’d like to recognize the work of great cinematographers whose work is certainly NOTICED by everyone who watches a movie, yet who remain popularly anonymous.

Who better to start with than Roger Deakins? Deakins, despite his 13 Oscar nominations, has been overlooked for getting a statue. This is our attempt to rectify that.

(Note: The award is named for Karl Struss, a Maine-connected cinematographer who won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1927 for “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.”)

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As you can see, there’s a whole lot going on at MIFF this year. Maine film fans are blessed to have the opportunity to experience such a rich and diverse slate of offerings right here in our backyard. Haines, Eisen and the rest of the MIFF team have once again outdone themselves, assembling a wonderful program packed with outstanding movies.

And the team is anticipating the festival just as eagerly as the rest of us are. When asked what she might most be looking forward to, Haines had her answer at the ready.

“Seeing the returning guests who have become like family to us,” she said. “Watching incredible movies with appreciative audiences and enjoying the overall vibe and sense of community that happens during MIFF; [it] really does transform Waterville in a way that doesn’t happen at any other time.”

A few MIFF highlights

With so much going on over the course of the festival, it would be impossible to see everything. Here’s a list of potential highlights – one for each day.

(Please note: this is far from a compressive list. Also, most of these selections have more than one screening over the course of the festival. Visit miff.org for a full schedule of films and events.)

July 14

“The Sounding” – (7 p.m.; Waterville Opera House)

This film – shot on Monhegan Island right here in Maine – is the opening night film for MIFF 2017. A tour de force written and directed by and starring Catherine Eaton, it’s a compelling look at the power and possibilities of communication.

July 15

“Henry David Thoreau, Surveyor of the Soul” – (3:30 p.m.; Waterville Opera House)

This work from Maine filmmaker Huey offers a portrait of Thoreau that puts the spotlight on the continued resonance of the writer’s spirit over the years.

July 16

“Sunrise” – (6:30 p.m.; Waterville Opera House)

This rarely-seen silent movie – winner of the first cinematography Oscar – was filmed by MIFF award namesake Karl Struss. This screening features the world premiere of a brand-new score from Mark Tipton and Les Sorcieres Perdus.

July 17

“Abundant Acreage Available” – (3:15 p.m.; Railroad Square Cinema 2)

Amy Ryan stars in this film, written and directed by playwright Angus MacLachlan. It’s the visually stunning story of a North Carolina family farm and the brother and sister that live there.

July 18

“The Ecology of Jazz” – (6 p.m.; Railroad Square Cinema 3)

This documentary from Rob Whitehair explores the unexpected connections between jazz and the natural world, featuring some magnificent landscapes and some phenomenal musicians.

July 19

“Bambi” – (6:30 p.m.; Waterville Opera House)

The Centerpiece Gala Film for this year’s festival, this 75th anniversary screening features the Academy Archive 35mm print of the film. You might be surprised to learn just how many Maine connections there are to “Bambi.”

(Honorable mentions: There are screenings of both Tom DiCillo’s outstanding indie “Living in Oblivion” and Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” – only the greatest concert film ever – on July 19. It’s a VERY good day filled with some VERY difficult choices.)

July 20

“The Trip to Spain” – (6:30 p.m.; Railroad Square Cinema 1)

This is the third in a series of cinematic culinary road trips – following “The Trip” and “The Trip to Italy” – featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Dry and wry with stunning scenery and enticing cuisine.

July 21

“Dear Zindagi” - (3:30 p.m.; Railroad Square Cinema 1)

A Bollywood offering that is unusual in that it is written and directed by a woman and stars a woman, yet is not built mostly around romance. There’s still plenty of that Bollywood sense of fun, though.

July 22

“Welcome to the Men’s Group” – (12:30 p.m.; Railroad Square Cinema 1)

This indie comedy-drama takes a look at a group of men whose monthly ritual of male bonding and emotional venting proves troublesome when some members start allowing personal conflicts to bubble to the surface.

July 23

“Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” – (7 p.m.; Waterville Opera House)

The Closing Night Film, this documentary takes a look at the many ways that Native Americans have impacted the history of rock and roll. The film features famous figures from all across the rock spectrum.

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