Maine’s International Film Festival brings community arts together

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Maine Film Festival: Discoveries, opportunities, and movies for every taste
Article in Maine Insights
September 26th, 2013

MIFF is a destination festival that brings cultures and ideas from around the world together in central Maine for 10 days. There is a wide range of movies to entertain and enlighten any person who wants to find something to stimulate their mind.

Assumptions cause discord, and films that open the doors of reality by challenging our views are the stock and trade of MIFF.

“I have seen some films here that have really changed my life. One was The Spirit of the Beehive, which was a Spanish film from the ’70s that they showed, and I had never seen anything like that before,” said Judy Bielecki of Belgrade.

The opportunity to meet directors, producers, writers, and even some actors presents itself in a way that doesn’t occur in other film festivals around the country. A lot of this process has to be credited to the founders of MIFF and the community in which the event is held.

“The special part of our film festival is that you have 70 filmmaking guests that you can meet and get behind the scenes information from. Little things like that expand the movie-going experience a lot,” said Serena Sanborn, festival manager.

In bigger cities, film festival events require special passes and more expensive tickets just to see people involved in the creation of a movie. At MIFF, there were parties that honored directors, actors, and producers, and all these celebrations were free and open to the public.

“You go to these things and there are incredible stars, and they come and they are just there and they answer questions. They are as nice as can be,” said Bielecki. “You can go to Sundance, you could go to Los Angeles or New York and can be with thousands and thousands of people, and you would never get the proximity to a lot of these people that you get here.”

Movies at MIFF open up perceptions and opportunities for some.

Take, for example, the screening of the 35mm version of the movie Stop Making Sense, the 1984 concert of Talking Heads. A new generation was able to listen to and become energized by a band whose work is still relevant today. Many in the audience, which included Waterville Mayor Karen Heck, got up and danced the night away while watching the Talking Heads. The director, Jonathan Demme, was on hand to greet patrons, and an unscheduled event happened after the movie.

“I love Waterville. I love the Maine International Film Festival, and it’s so great to be here,” said Academy Award-winning director Jonathan Demme.

While in Portland on his way to Waterville, Demme dropped in to hear the hip-hop band Indigenous Immigrants. They were totally unaware that Demme, who enjoyed their music because it challenges social norms, won an Academy Award in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs. The next day, Demme asked the band if they could perform live after Stop Making Sense. Throughout their performance at MIFF, Demme was behind a video camera recording them.

“We have a solid audience of regulars, and some travel long distances. One woman traveled up from Boston, and she told us, ‘I can still get tickets, and I can see more movies because it’s reasonable. And I can meet directors, producers, and even the actors,’” said Sanborn, who has only missed one film festival in the past 16 years because she was too young to attend her family’s business adventure.

“I love that we are bringing new cultures and other places to people with movies in central Maine,” she said. “With great movies, you see through someone else’s eyes. Here, you’re seeing through the eyes of people in different cultures. And that’s a valuable thing.”

Some said that is why they come back every year.

“I figure I probably will never be able to travel around the world, so I focus on going to as many foreign films as I can,” said Ilene Adams of Wilton. “I just love it.”
Then there are the movie discussions that are palpable in restaurants and cafés during the festival. MIFF brings people together.

“I seriously love to see the communities that develop around MIFF. The staff is like a giant family and is just such an inspiring example of volunteerism and commitment to creating a more vibrant arts scene. The audience members are enthusiastic and adventurous and so open to discussing ideas and feelings raised through the films,” said Shannon Haines, MIFF director. “The whole community is just abuzz during the festival, and I just love to see that happening.”

This year’s annual MIFF featured nearly 100 independent, international, and Maine-made films. This year’s Mid-Life Achievement Award honoree was actor, songwriter, and producer Keith Carradine, who won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for best original song for “I’m Easy” from 1975’s Nashville. He was on hand to receive the award at the Waterville Opera House, and a party in his honor was held later that night. He had nothing but praise for MIFF and Maine.

“I’d absolutely love do a movie here. You have a beautiful state and the festival is a treasure,” said Carradine in an exclusive interview after he received the award (see more online). “The organization of the festival stands out. It’s really well conceived and well run. It should stand as an example to festivals everywhere.”

Academy Award winner Ernest Thompson shared his life experiences with a workshop of 40 guests at the Waterville Public Library where local actors, writers, and producers were encouraged to ask questions.

“Part of our job as writers is to be as authentic as possible so we don’t lose our audience,” said Thompson. “When I wrote On Golden Pond, I didn’t know I was writing an Oscar-winning story.”

During the two-hour workshop, Thompson revealed personal stories he felt helped his career and had local actors read a scene to facilitate discussions.

Botso: The Teacher From Tbilisi had its worldwide premiere at MIFF and was overwhelming voted the winner of the Audience Choice for Best Film. The documentary focused on a musician who was forced to dig ditches for the Soviets after Stalin executed his father. Then the Germans captured him, and he became a translator during his time as a POW. After the war, he immigrated to California where he still teaches music and is a renowned artist. The film shows how Botso has given the gift of music to thousands of children.

“Botso’s story is an amazing example of human resilience — how someone can turn something horrific into something positive,” said Tom Walters, the co-producer and director.

Walters was impressed by Maine and MIFF.

“I can’t say enough about the way this film festival was run. It’s been fantastic. We’re so honored to have been chosen for the best film, especially since this was our world premiere,” he said.

It’s quite a long process choosing the movies for the festival and sorting through hundreds of submissions. First, festival programmer Ken Eisen gets them from other festivals. Then, MIFF staff sort though the selection.

“We’re a close-knit community working together to choose the films that we start previewing in November,” said Jak Peters “A small percentage is made up of the hundreds of submissions that we get. The Maine films are really quality productions. You have a great chance of making it into the festival if your film is Maine based.”

MIFF continues to evolve —

This year, MIFF hosted a special show at the old post office that integrated other art forms with film.

“MiffOnEdge was very well received and added a whole new dimension to the festival. We had over 200 people pass through the space, which not only challenged visitors to think about the moving image in a new way but also inspired people to think about new uses for underutilized buildings in the downtown district,” said Haines. “We are really proud of the inaugural effort and plan to continue it in the future.”

An exhibit was also held at Common Street Arts of paintings of movie scenes.

“I really feel as though — between the Maine Film Center and Common Street Arts — there is sort of an art renaissance starting in the city, and I think it is incredibly exciting. I think that the energy this year has just been incredible,” said Bevin Engman on the closing night.

This year, a new ticketing system and digital movie equipment was used for the first time. The festival also stays loyal to 35mm films.

“One of the big things about our festival is that 35mm is still a part of our programs. We have enthusiasts that can really tell the difference,” said Sanborn.

Community support makes it all possible —

Alan Sanborn, Serena’s father, was taken into another world of adventure and wonder with movies as a youth. When he decided to move to Maine in the late ‘70s he found that there was a deficit of cultural entertainment. Not deterred, he and five friends started the Railroad Square Cinema, and the Iron Horse Bookstore and the café.

After he shared his experiences growing up in a golden age of cinema with his friends, who had similar tales, the idea of MIFF was born in 1998. They wanted others to have the opportunity to experience movies as they had.

According to Haines MIFF had over 8,600 in attendance this year.

“We’ve made contacts with more filmmakers over the years, and more people come and continue to come,” said Alan. “But I never imagined it would get this big. We couldn’t have done it without community support. They brought Railroad back from the ashes.”

A fire devastated the bookstore, café, and movie theater in 1994.

“We thought we were licked,” said Alan. “But then the Iron Horse Bookstore put out a jar for donations and someone wrote a check for $1,000.”

The idea snowballed.

“With the community support, bake sales at the high school, and businesses pitching in, we raised 125 to 150 thousand dollars and rebuilt,” he said.

Now the movie house has three theaters instead of one, which are all packed during the festival, and the Opera House is another venue for MIFF. A few years back, Railroad Square Cinema became a nonprofit as well.

“Now that we’re a nonprofit, we can show some edgier films during the year at Railroad, which is great,” said Serena Sanborn.

And the community spirit that helped Railroad is still ever present as MIFF relies on community donations from businesses, patrons, and sponsors for films. Sponsors choose a movie from a list Haines sends them and then attend their sponsored feature. Judy Bielecki sponsored Haute Cuisine with her husband.

“This one was amazing. It was sold out,” said Bielecki. “I don’t like really big events and festivals where you have big crowds and it is hard to park, and this is not like that. This is so user friendly. The people and staff do wonderful scheduling. They make it so you have time to eat between the movies.”

That time helps businesses in Waterville. The Maine Arts Commission did a study that estimated MIFF’s economic impact to the area at over $750 thousand. The study was based on surveys of audience members and included retail and restaurant sales, stays at hotels and inns, and other spending habits of attendees.

“We pack the hotels,” said Serena Sanborn.

MIFF’s future —

“MIFF is a celebration of film, filmmakers, and film lovers, and we will thrive as long as we continue to focus on the exploration of film and nurture a sense of community and creative dialogue,” said Haines.

And the staff is committed to keeping the festival’s integrity intact.

“It’s a place for people who really love movies and a place to fall in love with movies,” said Serena Sanborn. “And as long as that continues to happen, we’ll be here.”

She stressed that they would only grow organically, in a balanced community-supported way.

“It is cinematic, social, intellectual, gastronomic — it’s fun! This is one of the most intimate, friendly film festivals — a real treasure,” said Bob Ingalls, who has attended every MIFF. “I hope it never really gets big. Everything can’t be measured by magnitude.”

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