The Maine International Film Festival is under way up in Waterville, which is – for all the sun and outdoor summer things Maine is supposedly known for – a very big deal indeed. Apart from being in its impressive 21st year (“Finally old enough to drink,” jokes MIFF programming director Ken Eisen), the festival is, once more, the annual destination for film fans from Maine and away.
As ever, this year’s roster of films, speakers and visiting cinematic dignitaries presents a delightfully daunting challenge for moviegoers – and poor film writers who have to cram all MIFF’s glories into one piddly article. So I did my yearly drop-in with the always enthusiastic Eisen for a rundown of some of the festival highlights.
Q: One signature feature of Maine International is its “Mid-Life Achievement Award,” which, this year, goes to French acting legend Dominique Sanda. Apart from the obvious, what led you to choose Sanda as this year’s honoree?
A: I am so thrilled to have her here, I can’t tell you. Some people might not realize that having Dominique Sanda here is MIFF’s greatest coup since we got (2000 Mid-Life Achievement Award winner) Terrence Malick to attend. She’s not as reclusive, but this is the only U.S. lifetime achievement award and career retrospective she’s received, and she’ll be here for the entire festival. (Sanda) is one of the greatest European actresses of the ’70s and ’80s – in her first three films, she worked with Robert Bresson (“A Gentle Woman”), Vittorio De Sica (“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”) and Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Conformist”). And she’s just as beautiful, elegant and charming as ever. We couldn’t be prouder to have her in attendance.
Q: As a fellow film fanatic, I’m always fascinated by which films and directors MIFF chooses to honor, and this year’s choice of late director Hal Ashby is just the right sort of retrospective.
A: Ashby (who died in 1988) is really quite good, with a lot of qualities in common with someone like Robert Altman, but he’s never quite gotten the recognition. This year, we’ve got the new documentary “Hal,” which is put together in a way that’s really enlightening about the filmmaker. He was a complicated figure – sort of hit-or-miss, but, like Altman, he was a truly political director in interesting ways, plus being an iconoclast and a real actors’ director. In addition to “Hal,” we’re showing “Bound for Glory,” with a truly great performance by David Carradine (as folk legend Woody Guthrie), which also features amazing cinematography from Haskell Wexler, including the very first Steadicam shot. And we’re also showing “Being There” (about Peter Sellers’ TV-obsessed blank slate who ascends to the highest levels of American politics). I’d say the film anticipates the present moment in some ways, and leave it at that. (Laughs.)
Q: Did you see any themes common to some of the films that came in this year?
A: Strangely, yes, especially considering the recent veto (upheld, unfortunately, by the Legislature) by our governor of a particular bill. It just worked out that we have two films quite clearly against so-called “gender reassignment conditioning camps.” We never had any preconceived notion of featuring the issue, but both (Maine writer and actor) Bobby Keniston’s “The Reprogramming of Jeremy” (its world premiere), and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (starring Chloë Grace Moretz) deal with young people being sent to these places. In addition, we’ve got representatives from various groups and Maine legislators coming to speak out about the issue. On the subject of unintentionally good things, I’d also point out that – despite it not being our accomplishment, or anything we set out to do – we have an almost perfectly even split of female-male directors this year.
Q: What are just a few other films this year that you’re particularly excited for people to see?
A: Our World Filmmakers Forum centered this year on South and Central America, as it turns out, and I loved the Brazilian film “Good Manners.” Without giving away too much, I’ll say that it engages in a sort of revivification of a lot of different film genres just effortlessly. It’s fantastic.
“Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland” (about a black woman’s mysterious death while in police custody after a traffic stop) is one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. And I’m also excited about out closing night film, “Support the Girls,” which – while about a sort-of Hooters-like bar (called “Double Whammy’s), and directed by a man – has a great, all-female cast and is, in its way, a very “Me Too” kind of movie. It’s wise, crowd-pleasing, and political in the best way.
The Maine International Film Festival continues through Sunday. For more information about showtimes, tickets, passes and films (we’ve really only scratched the surface here), check out miff.org.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday-Sunday: “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf.” Those with green thumbs looking for inspiration should flock to this documentary about legendary designer and “plantsman” Odolf as he travels the world transforming nature according to his own singular vision.
MAINE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL/WATERVILLE OPERA HOUSE
Saturday: “Modified.” Partially shot in Maine, this in-depth look at the potential dangers of genetically-modified foods (GMOs) takes a long, hard look at just what we’re putting into our bodies.