Maine film festival: ‘The numbers are encouraging’

Posted July 20, 2009, at 5:21 p.m.

Late nights out. Striking up conversations with strangers, making fast friends and taking risks. Living on fast food, bagels and popcorn. Sound familiar?

It might if you participated in the Maine International Film Festival, or MIFF, which ended its 12th annual celebration of cinema in Waterville on Sunday.

After a dozen years, MIFF, the annual 10-day-long marathon of independent and foreign movies screened at Railroad Square Cinema and Waterville Opera House, continues to grow.

“The Music Hall [in Portsmouth, N.H.,] came to us and suggested the idea [of expanding the festival],” said Ken Eisen, festival programmer. “We always felt as if there was an audience in the southern part of the state.”

MIFF spent a weekend at The Music Hall, bringing the festival’s films and filmmakers to the southernmost tip of Maine and its neighboring state. “It’s New Hampshire by 20 yards or so,” Eisen joked, adding that he hoped The Music Hall and MIFF would make the satellite arrangement permanent.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” Eisen said. In support of the new location, Randy Begin, manager of the Waterville Opera House, said the expansion was “a good idea.”

The Music Hall was not the only extension of MIFF this year. For the first time, the Skowhegan Drive-In became a venue for a screening. “Infestation,” a science fiction movie made by Maine native Kyle Rankin, had its North American premiere at the festival, showing at both the opera house and outdoors at the drive-in. “The Skowhegan Drive-In had been talking about doing something with us for a while,” Eisen said, “‘Infestation’ [just happened to be] the perfect drive-in film.”

Perhaps adding to the authenticity, midway through the “zombie movie with bugs,” as Rankin described his film, the screen went unexpectedly black for about 10 minutes. The audience good-humoredly honked car horns and flashed headlights, taking the time to talk to their parked neighbors until the film resumed. Rankin, currently living in California, braved an infestation of Maine mosquitoes to answer questions after the movie.

The director was one of several special guests in attendance at the festival. Kirk Wolfinger, the filmmaker behind “The Rivals,” MIFF’s opening night film, appeared onstage with the primary subjects of the documentary, the football coaches of Rumford and Cape Elizabeth. In what is described as “99 percent Made in Maine,” the film made its world premiere at the Waterville Opera House on July 10.

According to Alan Sanborn, an original MIFF founder and owner of the Railroad Square Cinema, the opening night crowd was “one of the biggest we’ve ever had.”

Also making appearances were the filmmakers and subjects of the documentaries “Automorphosis,” about the creation of art cars, and “Shooting Beauty,” about people with disabilities who express themselves through photographs.

“[I have been] welcomed with open arms [at MIFF],” said legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden after the screening of “Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy,” a documentary about his life, on July 19.

The single most noticeable disappointment was the absence of 86-year-old Arthur Penn, the winner of the 2009 MIFF Lifetime Achievement Award. Eisen said the director of “Bonnie and Clyde” was hospitalized with pneumonia and would be unable to appear at the festival award presentation on July 15. Jay Cocks, a film critic and motion picture screenwriter, accepted the award on Penn’s behalf.

“At least we were able to honor his work,” said Eisen. The festival screened four of Penn’s films, including “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man,” “Night Moves” and “The Left-Handed Gun.”

Sanborn said the audience numbers at the festival had “grown every year. The first year had 3,500 people; last year’s festival had around 9,000.” It’s too early to tell about the attendance figures this year, he said.

“Perhaps we’ve been spoiled,” Eisen added. The economy “is something that concerned us [this year],” he said, but “attendance is holding up nicely. The numbers are encouraging.”

Which ultimately leads to the question: Is 10 days enough?

“[The festival] is an enormous amount of work,” said Sanborn. “Ten days is enough.”

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