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MIFF turns 15

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Maine International Film Festival returns to Waterville

WATERVILLE When we think about movies in the summertime, more often than not, we tend to think of big-budget blockbusters. And with good reason: explosion-laden action epics, superhero sequels and movie star vehicles abound at this time of year.

But that's not all there is. Here in Maine, summer movies also means the coming of the Maine International Film Festival. The 15th annual festival gets underway on July 13 and runs through July 22 and features over 50 filmmakers and nearly 100 films over the course of the 10-day run.

As you might guess, a whole lot of work goes into those 10 days.

'It's definitely a year-round process,' said Festival Director Shannon Haines. 'We start in October with fund-raising and opening the film submission process. In November and December, we try to start lining up media partners and filmmaker guests.

'Things ramp up in March with programming and film selection. We start finalizing in May and try to have everything locked up by the first week in June.'

MIFF, Maine's longest-running film festival, has an excellent reputation for presenting high-quality programming; this year's schedule is no exception. However, selecting the bill of fare is no easy task. It falls to Festival Programmer Ken Eisen to put it all together.

'It's definitely a full-time job,' said Eisen. 'You spend the whole year out there looking for things that might be great and try and make sure you get what you want to get.'

'We want the latest, greatest, best films available,' Haines said. '[But] we want something new as well. We want films that Maine audiences don't get to see. Unless there's a really good reason, we won't pick one that's had a significant audience in Maine.'

It's a multifaceted selection process, to be sure. Eisen travels to various film festivals looking for movies to add to MIFF. He also receives leads from the variety of film industry connections that he has built over the years, both through MIFF and from his own company, Shadow Distribution, and of course, there is the multitude of individual submissions.

'We look through the available films and we screen a mess of them,' said Eisen. 'I have a couple of wonderful assistants, Jack Peters and Nancy Bixler. They are acute, brilliant and similarly-mindedthey have good taste. They go through the hundreds of submissions and pass along those they think are worthy.'

Eisen and his team work their way through all of these films, slowly thinning the numbers down and assembling the final program for the festival. There are the sorts of categories you expect to see 'Feature' and 'Short' are pretty self-explanatory. But then you have a category like 'Re-Discovery,' devoted to bringing restored versions of classic films back to the big screen.

'The festival is partnering with Martin Scorcese's Film Foundation,' said Haines. '[It] is dedicated to ensuring that film on celluloid is restored. We've got nine films from the Foundation this year.'

'It's a chance to screen restored or rediscovered 35 MM films,' Eisen said. '[The category] is larger than it has ever been. It's a tribute the Film Foundation. They've restored over 550 films. These are one-of-a-kind prints of past masterpieces shown as they were meant to be seen.

'It's the most exciting part of the festival for me.'

(As an aside, Haines had mentioned during her interview that Eisen's favorite film was Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' During his interview, Eisen confirmed that fact. It was an interesting glimpse at the MIFF dynamic; at the end of the day, these are two people who love movies and have come together to celebrate them.)

In addition, there is a notable difference in the festival's programming one that local filmmakers will likely find heartening.

'We have six feature-length Maine-made films premiering this year,' said Shannon Haines, Festival Director for MIFF. 'Usually, there are one or two features; this year is a spectacular year for Maine filmmakers.'

'It's a central part of our mission to showcase Maine-made films,' said Ken Eisen, Festival Programmer. 'We didn't set out to open with a Maine film, but I saw Vacationland' and it was a perfect opening film.

'[I'm not sure if] a lot more films are being made here or if it's just a quirk, but either way, it's great.'

Of course, there's more to MIFF than just film screenings. There are live events every day of the week, from meet-and-greets with filmmakers to Q&As to concerts. And of course, there is the coveted MIFF Mid-Life Achievement Award, an honor bestowed on a number of giants in the world of film. From actors (Sissy Spacek, Ed Harris, John Turturro, Malcolm McDowell) to directors (Terrence Malick, Jonathan Demme, Walter Hill) to figures from all corners of the filmmaking universe (including 2012 honoree, Oscar-winning editor and longtime Martin Scorcese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker), MIFF has honored some of cinema's greats.

When asked about the award, Haines said 'We want to honor those who have made contributions to the cinema independent cinema especially. We certainly have a pool of film folks that we admire. We form relationships over the years; we've made certain connections. We've got credibility due to our long history.

'It's a weird little formula we admire them, someone knows them, any kind of Maine connection it all gets figured in.'

The mention of the 'Maine connection' is telling, because festival organizers clearly feel that the connection to the local community and the State of Maine is of the most important aspects of the festival.

'One thing we strive to do is integrate the festival into the community,' said Haines. 'We very specifically work with local businesses to host events and drive customers there. [MIFF is] an economic driving force and very beneficial to the business community.'

It's not just about economics, though; it's also about involving and embracing the community.

'We want the festival to be inclusive to all. We try to make everything open to everyone. There's a whole different buzz in Waterville during the festival.'

Events such as the Maine International Film Festival are hugely ambitious undertakings labors of love, really. Haines and Eisen (not to mention the scores of others especially the volunteers) work long hours in order to bring their vision to fruition. Eisen summed it up nicely:

'You throw it all together and hopefully, you wind up with a film festival.'

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Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 11:24


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