“The Catch” is one of the several Maine-made films being featured at the Maine International Film Festival. Photo courtesy of MIFF

Currently, in the midst of screening a carefully curated selection of the world’s best movies, through Sunday, the venerable Maine International Film Festival is officially back. Of course, the hard-working film folks at MIFF ensured that the Maine movie institution never really left, despite the world and a pernicious pandemic’s most strenuous efforts. 

“We spend all year planning, with a dedicated team that’s watching movies all fall and winter,” said Executive Director Mike Perreault about a mission that’s been especially fraught these last two, eventfully troubled years. Noting how last year’s 23rd annual festival was quickly scaled down from the customary slate of ever-impressive films, in-person events and filmmaker appearances to a more modest, socially distanced outdoor festival at the Skowhegan Drive-In, Perreault is guardedly delighted (if that’s a thing) that Maine International is welcoming people back to the movie theater. 

“At first, we were planning for screenings with strict attendance limits and mandatory masking,” he said of the ever-watchful and adaptive planning process. “But when the governor lifted the emergency COVID order back in May, it allowed us to open the festival up.” Noting responsibly that MIFF is following all CDC guidelines concerning COVID safety, Perreault said, “There are a lot of moving parts to the calculus of a global pandemic, but we’re committed to providing a safe and enjoyable movie experience for everyone … We wouldn’t be running things if it weren’t safe.”

Of course, simply declaring things back to normal isn’t the same as making it so, and Perreault admits that the process of ramping up this year’s 24th annual MIFF to something resembling its old, moviegoer-bedazzling splendor is still a work in progress. While this year’s roster of 50-plus films (with an even more generous helping of Maine-made movies than usual) easily outdistances last year’s stripped-down drive-in roster, that’s still only about half the size of the traditional Maine International Film Festival. Said Perreault of his colleagues’ heroic efforts to cobble together yet another pandemic-hobbled film fest of the fly, “This has been the opposite of last year when we had to scramble to scale the festival down. It turns out that it’s easier to scale down than to scale back up.”

“The Bride in the Box” is showing Thursday at 7 p.m. at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville as part of the Maine International film Festival. Photo courtesy of MIFF

Still, MIFF is MIFF, and the movie offerings for this 24th iteration of what’s become the jewel on Maine’s movie calendar are typically varied, ambitious and eclectic. (See the MIFF website to get suitably bedazzled.) I’m especially excited to see Maine-made features “The Catch” and “The Bride In The Box,” alongside the festival’s continued dedication to the works of late auteur Robert Altman in a revival of Altman’s oft-overlooked 1996 Jazz Age gangster tale “Kansas City.” (Former MIFF Mid-Life Achievement Award winner and frequent Altman star Michael Murphy will be in attendance to introduce the film, for added fan pleasure.) The inclusion of two separate, all-Maine short film programs is another delight, as is MIFF’s decision to offer a limited number of virtual streaming films for those movie fans not quite ready to bust out of quarantine just yet. 

“Maine International never really has a theme, as such,” explained Perreault of this year’s slate of films, “We’re always looking to program something for everyone. It’s something we pride ourselves on, and it’s really the point of film festivals.” And while, for the second, travel-challenged season in a row, MIFF will not be presenting its cheekily titled Mid-Life Achievement Award to another of its illustrious cinematic honorees (like Sissy Spacek, Gabriel Byrne and Glenn Close, among others), Perreault is thrilled that MIFF’s live element will include a festival-long art and soundscape experience entitled “The Kneeling Art Photography Project,” which presents a multimedia portrait of “the narratives of our neighbors in Waterville and beyond who kneel to advance anti-racist social action in their communities.” 

Citing the always-tireless efforts of MIFF Programming Director Ken Eisen and crew, Perreault says that the unexpected shifting of the distribution landscape these past two years has meant that this year’s MIFF represents the tentative but unequivocal reopening of the film festival season.

“We’re one of the first film festivals of the season, nationally, and we were, out of necessity, one of the first to shift to a drive-in format. Now we’re one of the first to open up – we’re always the first ones up to bat, it seems,” Perreault said, laughing. Praising longtime MIFF venue Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville (which will blessedly reopen itself for its regular schedule of in-person screenings on July 23), Perreault said of this year’s MIFF, “We’re cautious, but we’re ready to show people movies the way they’re meant to be seen again.” 

The 24th Annual Maine International Film Festival started Friday and runs through Sunday, with in-person screenings taking place at Railroad Square Cinema, The Waterville Opera House and the Skowhegan Drive-In. Virtual screenings are also available through the MIFF website, where the movie-hungry among us can get directions, buy tickets and festival passes, and check out this year’s impressive roster of films from Maine and around the world. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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