WATERVILLE — About a dozen protesters gathered on Wednesday night outside the Waterville Opera House to voice their opposition to the Maine International Film Festival’s screening of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 controversial film “Last Tango in Paris.”

The protest, which was led by former Waterville Mayor Karen Heck, was a public objection the decision to include the film in the festival because of the real-life sexual assault on actress Maria Schneider that is depicted on screen.

Meanwhile, the directors of the organization that puts on the film festival, the Maine Film Center, issued an unusual statement saying “we disagreed strongly with the inclusion of this film in the MIFF lineup” and declared the film would be shown free and that prior ticket proceeds would be donated to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The statement on Wednesday by Mike Perreault and Jessica Shoudy, director and co-director of the Maine Film Center, was a rebuke of the choice by Ken Eisen, the festival’s director, who’s responsible for scheduling the event’s feature films. Perreault and Shoudy said not only would the film be shown free, but all money that was made during ticket pre-sales as well as at donation jars at the opera house and railroad square would now be donated to the coalition. An official for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, however, said that it could not accept such a donation. The Film Center later said it would seek to donate the money to another organization supporting sexual assault victims.

Festival officials didn’t immediately have an estimate of how much money would be donated.

“At the Maine Film Center, we are proud to present challenging, provocative, and world-class programming throughout the year, and we recognize our responsibility to present these works in their proper context as we fulfill the tenets of our mission: to educate, to entertain, and to build community,” Perreault and Shoudy said in the statement. “We are aware that our industry is particularly vulnerable to instances of oppression and assault, sometimes even on a systemic level, as we have seen with the unraveling of certain Hollywood institutions. We all have a responsibility to keep each other safe and healthy. … As directors of the Maine Film Center, we disagreed strongly with the inclusion of this film in the MIFF lineup and do not believe, given the context, that the film or its director are aligned with the values we hold true. We are proud to present additional programming during the festival that interrogates issues of consent.”

But the small protest before the 9:30 p.m. showing was barely matched by the movie’s attendance — about 20 moviegoers were there for the start — and no formal discussion about the issue happened for the film’s introduction or afterward. The screening of the film also acted as a tribute to Bertolucci, who died in November 2018 at the age of 77.

Heck distributed informational handouts before the Wednesday night showing that highlighted the protesters’ goal as well as an article from the Guardian newspaper that explains the assault and ensuing fallout in greater detail.

Former Waterville Mayor Karen Heck speaks with a woman about the sexual assault shown in the 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” before its showing Wednesday night at the Waterville Opera House during the Maine International Film Festival. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The mission statement on Heck’s handout says, “We are protesting the decision by MIFF programmer Ken Eisen to show this film that uses an actual workplace sexual assault of 19 year old actress Maria Schneider by her supervisor Bertolucci and her co-worker (Marlon) Brando. Ken was advised by staff that they were not in support of this decision. In an era of #MeToo and Harvey Weinsten, it is inconceivable this was his choice for a tribute to Bertolucci.”

In a video released in 2013, Bertolucci admitted to conspiring with Brando to add another graphic element to the film’s controversial “butter rape” scene without the consent of Schneider, who said she felt raped by the director and her co-star in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail.

Heck made it clear that her goal was only to educate people about the assault that occurred during the film’s production and work place assault in general.

“I’m not here to convince people not to go watch the movie. I just want to provide a broader context on workplace assault and the back story behind what happened to Maria Schneider,” Heck said.

Heck also said she thought Eisen’s decision was able to be upheld because of his long tenure with MIFF.

“Ken has been with MIFF since the beginning,” Heck said. “He’s been seen as the programmer. I know the directors at the Maine Film Center made it known that they didn’t agree, but they’re young and Jess is a female. I think this all speaks to what happens when men have power and use that power to squelch objections and people who speak up against them.”

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider appear in a scene in the 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris.” Photo courtesy of Maine International Film Festival

But according to Eisen, the protesters were welcome and encouraged to express their opinions publicly, even if it opposed his decisions.

“I spoke with Karen and I knew she was going to protest and I told her she should,” Eisen said. “She should let her opinion be known and I’m happy to the support the discussion around this movie.”

Eisen spoke with protesters before entering the theater in order to defend his position once again.

“The film is screening because of the digital restoration and it paired well with another film in the lineup,” Eisen said.

The estimated 15 to 20 moviegoers who attended Wednesday’s 9:30 p.m. screening didn’t appear too intrigued with Heck’s message. One unidentified man was approached in conversation by Heck and he cut her off to tell her that he simply wasn’t interested in what she was talking about, and then he entered the opera house.

Eisen said Thursday morning that the screening lacked anything out of the ordinary. The night went as planned and after the film ended, no official discussion surrounding assault or the protesters concerns occurred.

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