WATERVILLE — Starting on Friday, Mainers will be taken back two generations or more as the films of John Ford are displayed on big screens throughout the state in honor of the celebrated moviemaker’s 125th birthday. The nostalgia invariably induced by exposure to a lost era will be met with some healthy criticism this week as a host of local speakers guide post-screening discussions about the films’ meanings in today’s world.

Programming for Maine’s first-ever Ford-themed film festival, titled “John Ford | 125 Years,” will span 10 days. It has been organized by the Maine Film Center in association with several arts and education organizations and independent cinemas in Portland, Rockland, Bar Harbor, Brunswick, Lewiston, Damariscotta, Belfast and Waterville.

The city of Waterville will catch the festival action for two nights in a row on Feb. 9 and 10. On Saturday, Feb. 9, there will be a screening of the 1935 film “The Informer” at the Waterville Opera House, starting at 7 p.m. The following night, also at 7 p.m. at the Waterville Opera House, Jules Dassin’s 1968 feature “Uptight” — a re-imagining of Ford’s “The Informer” — will play. Each screening will be followed by a conversation led by Steve Wurtzler, a cinema studies professor at Colby College. The events at the opera house are free, but other venues in the state will charge ticketing fees.

Mike Perreault, executive director of the Waterville-based Maine Film Center, helped coordinate the lineup.

“I think it’s a really interesting program (in Waterville) because Ford’s film was an adaptation from a written work, and ‘Uptight’ is a re-framing of John Ford’s work that was filmed 30 years earlier but with completely different contexts,” he said. “You can tell a similar story with so many changes and evolutions in genre and style and form, and so I think it’s just a really interesting pairing cinematically that I think will stir up a lot of good discussion among our audience.”

“The Informer” is based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel of the same name, set in 1920s Dublin amidst Ireland’s battle for independence from England. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1935 and won for best director, best actor, best screenplay writing and best musical score. It follows Gypo Nolan, a man who has been kicked out of the Irish Republican Army and decides to turn in a fugitive IRA soldier to the British for a bounty large enough to secure his and his girlfriend’s immigration to America. In the aftermath of this decision, he must face his own guilt — and the growing suspicion of his peers.

“Uptight” comes decades later in the late 1960s after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. A young black revolutionary at the center of the film, Tank, finds himself in a position similar to Ford’s Nolan. Throughout the movie, Tank grapples with whether to rat out one of his peers for a crime and deals with the internal and external consequences of his eventual decision.

“It strikes me as interesting that at two historical moments, the American Depression and, next, essentially during the civil rights movement, the same story gets told by two different filmmakers,” said Wurtzler, reflecting on topics he will highlight in discussions next Saturday and Sunday. “It’s less about connection than it is about contrast.”

Wurtzler said that he hopes that “in addition to intellectually engaging with these films, that the audience that shows up has fun.” He added that he thinks “The Informer” and “Uptight” can be good conduits for conversation about our current political climate.

“I think the audience can’t help but bring a present-day context surrounding — at least in the Ford film — personal honor and integrity and, with ‘Uptight,’ race,” Wurtzler said. “I don’t think that contemporary audiences can help but bring our current moment into contact with films. I think we do that any time we look at a film.”

Ford was born Feb. 1, 1894, in Cape Elizabeth and grew up in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood as the son of Irish immigrants. Though he directed over 140 films throughout his career, he was most famous for his Westerns, which often starred John Wayne.

“It’s really kind of inspiring that someone who came from Maine built this body of work that we can talk about and reflect upon in today’s environment,” Perreault said, later adding, “Ford is definitely a towering Maine figure.”

Not all of Ford’s films have stood the test of time, however. “The Searchers,” a 1956 film that will play on Saturday in Rockland, and “Stagecoach,” which was released in 1939 and will be screened Sunday in Bar Harbor, have each been criticized for racist portrayals of Native Americans. Perreault said that he hopes bringing in local experts from various fields and experiences will help audiences thoughtfully engage with and analyze their messages.

“There’s definitely some problematic treatment of indigenous people, and I think our position in the future allows us to look back and say, ‘Are these the stories that we still want to tell ourselves about ourselves as a culture?'” Perreault said. “The fact that this film festival is bringing in so many different viewpoints, so many local arts and culture and community-based organizations to reflect on the stories that are being told through Ford’s films is just really a unique and incredible opportunity for the community to weigh in on how they view those stories.”

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, CEO of the Abbe Museum, will lead a discussion after “Stagecoach” in Bar Harbor that will address ethnic stereotypes in film and media as well as the negative effects that the public’s fascination with the Wild West has on Native Americans today. The Abbe Museum focuses on the history and culture of Maine’s Wabanaki people.

Experts who will speak at some of the other screenings in the festival include Michael Komanecky, chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum; Fowsia Musse, director of Maine Community Integration; Michael C. Connolly, who penned “Ford in Focus”; Matthew Jude Barker, author of “The Irish of Portland, Maine”; and Joe Mosier, a maritime historian and retired U.S. Navy master chief petty officer. Professors from Bowdoin and Bates colleges also will facilitate conversations in Brunswick and Lewiston.

“Just about every event, we’re partnering with local organizations … (and) bringing in experts who are going to reflect on themes and stories told in each individual film,” Perreault said. “They’re all so different that each of them is going to be a standalone piece, which is really exciting.”

Perreault said he is looking forward to fostering spaces for people to hear differing responses to Ford’s historic films.

“I think that’s the beauty and power of film — that few people will take the same thing away from a film,” he said. “The power is that it asks the question and allows people to fill in the blanks for themselves, regardless of political affiliation in today’s supercharged political climate.”

Perreault encouraged people to attend at least one of the screenings in the coming week.

“It’s going to be an experience that’s rare, unique, and it’s a great opportunity to see films projected the way they should be projected, which is on the big screen and in a room with other people,” Perreault said. “We’re hoping for a really good turnout for this nearly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this collection of really historically important body of work.”

The opening event, a lecture on Ford’s life and his family’s immigrant roots, will take place at 4 p.m. Friday at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, located at 489 Congress St.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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