WATERVILLE — There’s a good chance that without Ken Eisen, one of the founders of Railroad Square Cinema and programming director of the Maine International Film Festival, neither the theater or festival would be here. Yet, Eisen, 62, would never take the credit.

While he’s adamant that starting the cinema in 1978, maintaining it and adding a film festival 20 years later is a community endeavor, those involved in the festival say that Eisen is the quiet puppeteer behind the scenes, pulling the necessary strings, choosing high-quality films and forging the connections that make the 10-day, 100-film festival possible.

“Ken is a brilliant programmer, he truly is,” said Joan Phillips-Sandy, the festival director of MIFF for its first five years. “It’s an amazing talent he has.”

Since first moving to Waterville in 1969 for freshman year at Colby College, Eisen has marveled at the growth of the artistic culture of the small central Maine city, while declaiming credit for helping it thrive.

“The growth of this culture is a collective achievement, as a lot of film is,” Eisen said. “It’s a community that supported this festival and cinema. There are a lot of towns with populations literally 10 times of Waterville that don’t have theaters like Railroad Square and cities 100 times the size of Waterville that don’t have a film festival.”

Eisen lived the first 10 years of his life on Staten Island, before the Verrazano Narrows Bridge connected the island to the heart of New York City.


After moving from the shadow of Gotham at 10 to the shadow of Washington, D.C., the draw of rural New England took hold.

“I knew I wanted to get as far from Washington as I could, and for some reason at the age of 16 when I made that decision, I couldn’t think of anything off the East Coast,” Eisen said.

“I knew I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school in New England, and that left Middlebury (College, in Vermont) and Colby.”

Coming in to Colby in 1969, Eisen had an interest in film through his parents, who took him to a variety of foreign films, but he didn’t grow up longing to be the next Stanley Kubrick or even Roger Ebert.

“Growing up, I thought reading subtitles was a normal thing to do in movies,” Eisen said. “I guess I had a somewhat different rearing in that way.”

The interest in film stayed with Eisen as he attended Colby, though there was little film to study.

The moment that moved film from a hobby to lifelong career for Eisen came in a little theater in Provincetown, Mass., in 1973. Two years after it was released, Eisen watched “The Conformist,” a critically acclaimed Italian-based political drama.

“That film just blew me away. To me, it was a revelation,” Eisen recalled. “I said ‘I want to make a film like that.’ That was my first thought. My second thought was ‘I’ll never make a film as good as that – I can’t.’ “My third thought was ‘Well if I can’t make a film as good as that I don’t want to make a film,’ so my fourth thought was, ‘Well then what I want to do with my life is show that film and films anywhere near that good.’ It’s not exactly a deep thought process, but here I am.”

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