WATERVILLE — Waterville’s “all-you-can-see movie buffet,” as guest Joel Johnson called it, is here.

The Maine International Film Festival, which promises to screen close to 100 movies over the next nine days, kicked off Friday night with a screening of locally made “Blow the Man Down” at the Waterville Opera House.

People fill the Waterville Opera House on Friday for opening night of the Maine International Film Festival. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Area residents and visitors typically turn out in droves for the event, which has just entered its 22nd year. If Friday is any gauge, 2019 will be no different. The 810-seat opera house was packed and buzzing as moviegoers settled in for the first feature.

“As soon as I saw this film, I knew it had to be our opening film,” Ken Eisen, a festival programmer who chose many of the selections, said to the audience. The suspense-meets-dark-humor film was shot in Harpswell, Cundy’s Harbor, Bailey Island, Orr’s Island and Phippsburg during the winter. Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, it follows two sisters through a series of complications that arise after their mother’s death. Producers Drew Houpt and Alex Scharfman held a question-and-answer session after the screening.

Veteran festivalgoers Joel and Alice Johnson, of Augusta, said their love of movies has kept them coming back to MIFF for each of the 22 years of its existence. While Alice Johnson said she is looking forward to the handful of coming-of-age stories in the program, Joel Johnson said it’s the Argentinean films he’s most excited about. This year’s festival features an entire section — “New Argentine Cinema” — devoted to films from Argentenia that have never before aired in the United States. Eisen said there are more international, national and Maine premieres showing this year than ever before.

Moviegoers fill the lobby Friday at the Waterville Opera House. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I like films from Argentina because they deal with things in different ways. It’s a different place,” Joel Johnson said before settling in for “Blow the Man Down.” “The people in them aren’t necessarily familiar, so we don’t have preconceived notions of who they are. The types of connotations we’re used to aren’t at play.”

Alice Johnson agreed.

“They are familiar stories, through a different culture,” she noted.

Clif Graves scans the film schedule of the Maine International Film Festival on Friday, the opening day of the 22nd annual festival, at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Eisen said this is exactly the kind of mentality he hopes festival attendees will embrace. Not everyone is going to like every film, he explained, but that’s OK.

“Did you know that you were going to fall in love with that person you fell in love with?” he jokingly posed to the audience. “It’s the same thing for movies. So I encourage you to take the same kinds of risks, and that way you’ll fall in love. It’s a good thing to do.”

Several people waiting in the lobby of the opera house Friday expressed gratitude for the festival and what it has brought to central Maine over the years. Waterville resident Tony Karter said he thinks the festival started to become a real destination about four years ago.

“I knew it was getting big four years ago because as the train would come by Railroad Square, people would get out of the line, stand at the edge of the platform and gawk at the train,” he said. “So we knew they were from away, because we natives would all seek an alternative route to avoid the train.”

“It’s just exciting to have this in our area,” said Martha Stafford Campbell, of East Madison. Campbell’s first-ever short film, “Deciduous Impotence,” was accepted into the festival and will screen during the “Maine Shorts” program on Monday, Wednesday and next Saturday.

Erik Thomas works backstage Friday before the opening night of the Maine International Film Festival at the Waterville Opera House. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The festival features a robust range of programming from short films such as Campbell’s to re-mastered classics. For a full schedule and list of special events and to purchase tickets, visit miff.org or Railroad Square. All films will be screened at one of Railroad Square’s three theaters or the Waterville Opera House.

On the opening night, Festival Director Mike Perreault thanked over 30 local businesses that helped sponsored the events. Perreault is also executive director of the Maine Film Center, of which the festival is an offshoot. Jim LaLiberty, chairman of the Waterville Creates! board, announced that the community has raised $500,000 toward the $2 million capital campaign goal to finance the  downtown arts center at 93 Main St.

“This campaign shows the power of what a community committed to the arts can do,” LaLiberty said.

The festival will continue through next Sunday. The highlights will include the centerpiece film, “The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz,” which debuts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the opera house. The film’s showing will be followed by a jazz concert from the performers featured in the documentary, also held at the opera house. An after-party will then follow at the newly opened Me Lon Togo restaurant on Main Street. The movie was directed and produced by Tom Paige and salutes the musical legacy of jazz artist Horace Tapscott alongside an unforgettable day of performances by a handful of South Central African American artists who grew up under him near Leimert Park in Los Angeles.

A screening of director Julius Onah’s “Luce”— followed by an after party — will conclude things. The dramatic feature stars acclaimed actors Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts in a story about the dangerous stereotypes that threaten a high-achieving black high school student when a teacher finds something shocking in his locker. It will play at 7 p.m. July 21 at the opera house.

 

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