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MIFF goes to the drive-in in 2020

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SKOWHEGAN – Like many arts and cultural events, the Maine International Film Festival faced a difficult reckoning in 2020 thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Organizers were forced to look for alternative solutions. Luckily for area film buffs, they found one.

MIFF is going to the drive-in.

The festival has teamed up with the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre to present a scaled-down version of their scheduled slate. Running July 7-16, MIFF will screen one offering per night at the drive-in starting at 8:45 p.m. In addition, some programming will be made available for streaming for film fans from farther afield. For more information on programming, check out www.miff.org.

It’s a deft and thoughtful response to a challenging time. While the schedule will feature a fraction of the festival’s usual number of films – pared down from over 60 full-length features to just 10 – it’s still an impressive program, one that offers a selection of excellent films that wouldn’t be available for viewing anywhere else in Maine.

Sure, going from multiple screens and multiple screenings to a single offering per evening isn’t ideal. No one would argue otherwise. But folks like Maine Film Center executive director Mike Perrault and longtime MIFF program director Ken Eisen have put in a lot of work to ensure that the festival would mark its 23rd year.

Perrault and Eisen were kind enough to answer some questions regarding this unique iteration of the festival, discussing the process behind the pivot and some of the challenges that came with it, along with some thoughts on the selections that audiences will get the opportunity to see.

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Where did the idea of moving to the drive-in come from? Has it been difficult to implement?  

Mike Perrault: As early as March, when the coronavirus pandemic led to widespread shutdowns—including our beloved Railroad Square Cinema and Waterville Opera House—we knew that it was so important to our community (and our staff) to find a way to make MIFF happen this year. We had partnered with the Skowhegan Drive-In for special MIFF screenings in the past, and we soon decided that the best way to safely show the best independent and international films of the year would be to ask them to collaborate. The owners and staff at the Drive-In were responsive, excited, and glad to work with us to host MIFF23. It’s such a cool and unique venue—one of only 6 in the state and just 300 in the U.S.—so our audiences have a truly special experience in store for them.

We’ve had a lot of experience programming film events at theaters other than those at our home base in Waterville just this year with Maine in the Movies, so we came to the decision emboldened by that flexibility. 

What has audience interest been like in this very different sort of experience?

MP: We’ve seen such a great response from our audiences these past few months. Many have already purchased full festival passes or tickets to the shows they want to attend. Overall, I think people are eager to gather and watch movies projected on the big screen—they way it should be—in as safe a way as possible. I think there’s something to be said about watching films under the starry Maine night sky that is just so unique.

What was the process of paring down the bill like? How did you decide which films to keep?

Ken Eisen: It was difficult indeed, since we will have only one screening slot per day at the drive-in, as opposed to the 12-16 per day we had when able to use the three screens of Railroad Square Cinema, and the one at the Waterville Opera House, and the program was well along towards being set when we had to make the decision to change what we were doing this year.  But, having said that, some things just fell by the wayside naturally. For instance, our annual Midlife/Lifetime Achievement Award had to be suspended for the year since the recipient likely couldn't travel to receive it, and the retrospective films of theirs we usually show departed along with that decision.  For that matter, so did all other retrospectives and sections because we can’t show enough films to form a section this year! And I did think that, while we’re hardly showing a lot of “normal drive-in” films, a few of MIFF’s more contemplative, overtly quiet films might be ill suited to the format.  After that, there were just some films that really stood out for their quality and originality and that I felt we just HAD to share with out audiences…and basically, those were the ones we’re screening.

Obviously, there were no easy cuts, but were there any that you found particularly tough?

KE: Well, there was one that cut itself: a Maine-shot feature we thought very highly of which couldn't be completed in time for its scheduled world premiere with us because the labs needed to do the finish work were all shut by COVID.  And, because of the drastically smaller number of films we can screen, we had to abandon most of the restoration section, which I always greatly love doing, though we did save one slot—which we’re giving to the U.S. restoration premiere of the amazing “Latcho Drom”—but had to postpone the restoration premiere of Robert Altman’s “Kansas City” since one of its stars was going to present it, but was also prevented from doing so by the pandemic.

Any personal highlights you want to mention from the films on the schedule?

KE: Well, “American Thief,” an American indie film that’s  our Centerpiece film in its World Premiere, is a real discovery, and, I think our audiences will really enjoy, as always, the fantastic Maine Shorts program, programmed by Karen Young, our Opening Night film, “Heroic Losers,” which is a charmer for our times, and several films that very much speak to this moment in our country and in our world: “White Riot,” a strong documentary about the Rock Against Racism movement in the U.K. in the ‘70s, and our Closing Night film, “The Last Shift,” a very smart and entertaining film that deals with racism in our country in a film about an older white man about to retire from his lifetime work in a fast food restaurant and a young black man on parole who comes to work there temporarily. 

But I also do think that part of the strength of this year’s program is its diversity—we have several terrific music-centered films (including “Latcho Drom,” “White Riot,” and “A Bright Light: Karen Dalton,” original true American indies like “The 11th Green” and “American Thief,” and several knockout films from countries like Turkey, with “Queen Lear,” and the Netherlands, with “Instinct.”  I really am happy with every one of these films, though as I always tell our audience, if you all see all the films and you like ALL of them, that means I haven’t done my job since we show films that intend to take you places most other films don’t.

Could you share some details regarding the online component of the festival?

MP: The online offerings include a “From Away” shorts program as well as two features: “Represent” by Maine Student Film and Video festival alumna Hillary Bachelder, and the world premiere of “Actually, Iconic: Richard Estes.” Our platform allows people to stream directly from MIFF.org or download the Eventive TV app on Apple TV, Roku, and Android TV and watch from home or wherever they might be.

How important is it for MIFF to continue forward even in these trying times?

MP: For 23 years MIFF has brought films to Maine that might not otherwise ever be shown on the big screen here. We make a cultural and economic impact statewide, and we just plain love showing the best movies out there. It’s an honor to celebrate film every year. That said, we continue to learn about changing exhibition practices, and we’ve done a lot of work to adapt to the challenges that this year has brought. We hope people can take part in any or all of the festival’s offerings, whether by attending a screening at the drive-in or checking out the incredible lineup of films available for streaming.

KE: I think MIFF has just become such an important part of the year for our audiences, it felt like we’d be letting everyone — including them and ourselves — down if we didn’t find a way to make it happen, and doing so in a way that we felt was consistent with our commitment to film as a collective and collaborative and community event.  And this was not the time to let anyone — and the art of cinema — down.
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MIFF 2020 schedule

(All screenings start at 8:45 PM)

July 7

Heroic Losers

Part hilarious comedy, part ingenious social critique, part suspenseful heist film, “Heroic Losers” gives us people to root for, an unforgettable bunch of characters who make their own way together when all else fails, and one heck of an entertaining night at the movies.

July 8

Maine Shorts

Shoulder Season: A recreational dodgeball league pulls people through some of the tough parts of Maine’s tough winters.

The Bold Coast: A story of best friends Penny and Laurel. One of them is about to become a mermaid.

The Space Between Words: A stop-motion animation of one rural Maine couple’s daily life.

Oh For a Muse of Fire: An actress tries to deal with her city-life struggles by visiting her aunt’s lake house to recuperate.

Meridians: A look at one man’s vision of food and community.

The Caller: A man is visited in the night by an unwelcome, uninvited presence.

Felix the Robot: A hybrid of robot and man has dreams karaoke stardom.

Say Cheese: A girl rescues a mouse at an art auction, rendered in stop-motion animation.

July 9

A Bright Light: Karen and the Process (shown with Primary Needs)

Do you know who Karen Dalton was? If you do, you are both well-versed in fantastic and trailblazing 60s/70s folk music, very eager to see this movie…and very lucky! French director Emmanuelle Antille takes us on a subjective documentary that travels across the United States in Dalton's footsteps in search of one of the 1960s’ most astonishing voices.

July 10

Instinct

Both a truly tense erotic thriller and a super-charged psychological drama, directed with great aplomb by celebrated Dutch actress Halina Rijn, “Instinct” is also just as much a mesmerizing showcase for two of the strongest acting performances of the year, by Catrice van Houten and Marwan Kenzari.“Instinct” was the Netherlands entry to this year’s Academy Award competition for Best Foreign Language Film, for good reason.

July 11

American Thief

Wow! What a discovery “American Thief” is! Four years in the making but fresher than today, this wildly original, truly thrilling film has the immediacy, daring and perspective of only the best cinematic triumphs of recent years—yet it’s a true American indie, shot because it had to be, and introducing us to several great talents. Toncruz and Diop are teenage hackers. Diop wants to awaken society to the reality of overreaching government surveillance programs, while Toncruz wants to use technology to avenge his father's murder. As Toncruz connects to internet criminals on the deep web, Paul Hunter, a disgruntled and possibly somewhat askew video blogger, rants about political conspiracy theories. Both Paul and Toncruz are contacted by a mysterious, nameless figure who claims to be able to provide what they all need to expose the truth. Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence programmer observes what unfolds as she attempts to contain the monster she’s created. “American Thief” leads up to an astonishing climax on election evening 2016. Wow! Did we say that already?

July 12

Queen Lear

Funny, sweet, modest and, in its own way, profound. Not a bad combo! “Queen Lear” travels with a group of women and a female-led documentary crew, captained by director Pelin Esmer, to where no mere KING Lear has gone before! 16 years ago, a handful of peasant women from the mountains of southern Turkey formed a theater group. The women acted out their own life stories in the village, and the play changed their lives. Now, they take to the road with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” following dusty and risky roads to remote, forgotten villages in the mountains of Turkey that are hardly reached by even drinking water. The play delicately becomes “Queen Lear” in the hands of the group. The troupe and villagers’ discoveries may parallel your own as you watch this remarkable cinematic odyssey.

July 13

White Riot

A country deeply divided about immigration. Racism rearing its ugly head again. A generation rebelling to change and make a world that’s different and better. Sound familiar? This could describe the U.S. in the present day. Or the U.K. in 1976, when Rock Against Racism was founded in collaboration with musically and politically terrific punk bands including The Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson to form the biggest—and certainly the most energetic and musically charged—civil rights movement in British history. “White Riot” is director Rubika Shah’s inspirational and incendiary documentary about a cause that brought black and white, music and politics, energy and intelligence together in a truly revolutionary way. It’s a kick to watch—and to hear!

July 14

The 11th Green

Director Christopher Munch’s films, including “The Life and Times” and “Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day,” have always been distinctive, inventive and original. But Munch has outdone himself with “The 11th Green,” which features a great central performance by Campbell Scott and a truly otherworldly plot. When his 85-year-old father drops dead of a heart attack, Jeremy Rudd is summoned to the exclusive California golf resort where he lived. Though estranged from his father for two decades (Jeremy’s muckraking Washington journalism flew in the face of his father’s career in classified aerospace programs), he is now forced to become acquainted first-hand with the man’s secretive legacy. In his father’s former assistant, Laurie (Agnes Bruckner), a woman with a past, he develops a romantic interest that threatens to undermine his judgment. But his judgment is even more challenged when his father’s protégé, Jacobsen, a charming but shifty intelligence operative, offers him several astonishing reels of film that purport to document our interaction with off-world visitors half a century ago. It doesn’t take long for the trail to lead to a post-presidency version of Dwight Eisenhower who has dreams of a future president asking his help, and a possible attempt by elements of the government to open the murky topic of UFOs to the light of day. “The 11th Green” is a film to ponder, wonder at and discover.

July 15

Latcho Drom

U.S. DCP theater digital restoration premiere of the truly spectacular film (the first major release of Waterville’s own Shadow Distribution, never available on streaming, DVD, BluRay, download or anything else.) Shot in ravishing widescreen images, “Latcho Drom” is a journey told entirely through music, song and one spectacularly staged visual sequence and jaw-dropping musical performance after another, literally following the path of the Rom or Romany people (more popularly but questionably called “gypsies”) through the Rom musicians and dancers of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain.

July 16

The Last Shift

Midwestern white working class Stanley (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) is retiring after 38 reasonably proud years as a fast-food worker, intending to move to Florida, but when he's tasked with training his replacement, Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a bright, aspiring young black journalist on probation with a family, Stanley discovers uncomfortable truths about himself and the culture and world he’s rarely quite questioned. Executive produced by Alexander Payne, who was at one time going to direct it, “The Last Shift” the fine fiction debut of documentary-maker Andrew Cohn, bears the best of each: Payne’s sly humor and Cohn’s determined honesty.

Last modified on Thursday, 02 July 2020 07:33

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