WATERVILLE — The 16th annual Maine International Film Festival opened tonight to loud applause from about 300 patrons who packed the Waterville Opera House.

They came to see the latest film by Academy Award winning director, producer and screenwriter Jonathan Demme — “Enzo Avitabile Music Life” — shot in Naples, Italy.

Demme, who won the festival’s 2002 Mid-Life Achievement Award, introduced the film after getting a hug from festival programmer Ken Eisen.

“I love you, too!” Demme crooned to the eager audience. “I love Waterville. I love the Maine International Film Festival and it’s so great to be here.”

Festival Director Shannon Haines thanked sponsors, including presenting sponsors Colby College and Bangor Savings Bank. She also welcomed guests and introduced Mayor Karen Heck.

Heck urged patrons to enjoy the city’s shops, restaurants and people during the 10-day festival, which showcases American and foreign films.

“I just hope that you enjoy this festival as much as I do because I don’t think there’s anything better for Waterville than 10 days of MIFF,” Heck said.

The excitement was palpable earlier today as film enthusiasts started appearing downtown and at Railroad Square Cinema for the festival opening.

Betty-Jane Meader, of Waterville, stopped at the cinema mid-afternoon to buy her full festival pass for $200.

Meader, 66, who has been attending the festival all 16 years, typically sees 30-plus films during the 10-day run.

“I like the variety,” she said. “I always tell my friends, ‘Just pretend I’m out of the country for 10 days.’ This is my entertainment. This is my escape and my vacation and it’s an inexpensive one.”

Meader retired last year from Thomas College. An associate professor, she taught fashion merchandising and retail management for 30 years and marketing for the last 11 years. As a child growing up in Dover-Foxcroft, she loved going to the movies, she said.

“I went every Saturday,” she said. “We used to go to Bangor to see films.”

Meader noted that she is not a film buff — she can watch a film and a short time later not even remember how it ended.

“I’m just here to be entertained,” she said. “I enjoy the moment. I like to support the local businesses and so, I want this to happen. This is a gem in our community and I really enjoy coming here. It’s like family.”

Debbie Dunn, 64, of Portland, was poring over the film schedule in the cinema lobby, looking for movies she might want to attend. She said she typically sees 10 during the festival.

“I love film — I always enjoy it,” she said. “It’s fabulous.”

Dunn said she had not had time to review the film schedule earlier because she recently returned to the U.S. from the Republic of Georgia, where she volunteered for nine months as a teacher of pre-school children with disabilities.

While there, she attended the Tbilisi International Film Festival, she said. A fine arts major in college, Dunn did not pursue a career in the arts; rather, she taught special education and was a director for many years.

“But I love the arts, so it was not wasted at all,” she said. “I love the theater.”

Dunn said she especially loves watching films at the Waterville Opera House during the festival.

“I go to the Opera House a lot because I don’t like standing in lines a lot and I don’t like not getting in,” she said. “I really like the Opera House because the seats are comfy — the seats are big. It’s almost never crowded.”

Earlier in the day, Opera House Executive Director Diane Bryan was in her office with Barbara Allen, director of donor relations; and Dick Dyer, director of marketing and development. They said people planning to attend concerts there this summer have been stopping in all week to get tickets. When they learned there is a film festival in town, they were eager to get a film schedule as well, Allen said.

“We’re doing some cross-marketing here,” Allen quipped.

She noted that a mural found on the ceiling of the Opera House near the stage when it was renovated has been restored and now is on display over the mezzanine. Patrons may view it from a 14-foot settee in the mezzanine, near the balcony stairs.

Opera House safety officer Fred Jobber said he was looking forward to the festival. Jobber, 72, has worked all 16 film festivals and is a familiar face, greeting patrons as they file in.

“I enjoy the people more than anything,” he said. “Different types of people — and the excitement of it.”

The Opera House is on the top floor of City Hall. Outside City Hall in Castonguay Square today, volunteers were placing letters on the marquee announcing the film festival. Dozens of little paper lanterns were strung between the trees in celebration of the event.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

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