“The Last Shift” features acclaimed character actor Richard Jenkins as an aging veteran fast-food cook tasked with training his ambitious young Black replacement (Shane Paul McGhie) before retiring to Florida. Image courtesy of Visit Films

The Maine International Film Festival is happening. That’s news enough in itself, as our current pandemic lockdown has claimed pretty much every beloved event and institution in this never-ending year of awfulness, 2020. But we have – somehow – made it to July, and here’s the Maine International Film Festival to greet us as usual. Well, maybe “as usual” is a bit strong.

This year’s MIFF is both smaller and bigger than Maine film fanatics are accustomed to. On the smaller side, there are less than a dozen features on the roster of films, instead of the traditional 50 or 60. A program of short films, including MIFF’s traditional showcase of Maine-made shorts, rounds out the feature lineup, but it’s still not the overwhelming breadth, depth and variety festival goers have become accustomed to in MIFF’s 23-year history. 

On the other hand, the festival is, as noted, actually happening, something guaranteed by the hard work, infinite dedication and on-the-fly creative problem-solving of the Maine International crew. As the coronavirus news continued to break very bad indeed and the festival’s scheduled dates were threatened with responsible if disappointing cancellation, the MIFF staff sought alternatives – eventually settling upon a big sky, all drive-in Maine International Film Festival at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre. For film-starved Maine film fans who mark out each year’s MIFF as the high point of our local moviegoing experience, it’s like a little miracle. A desperately needed one. 

But, in talking to MIFF programmer and Maine indie film all-star Ken Eisen, there was no choice at all. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that planning and programming the Maine International Film Festival is an all-year job,” explained Eisen, who yet admits that the prospect of simply scrapping this year’s festival was on the table — for at least a minute. “We got a sense by the middle of March that corona was really going to mess things up,” said Eisen. “We thought of postponing until August, but, even then, we couldn’t be certain that we could open safely in our usual venues (like the indoor Railroad Square Cinema and the Waterville Opera House).”

With the festival’s May drop-dead date approaching, organizers finally made the decision to transform this year’s MIFF into an alfresco affair, thanks to the willingness of the nice folks at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre. Some might have been daunted at the prospect of whittling down a major film festival to fit the capabilities of a single screening venue (no matter how big its outdoor screens), but Eisen says that, considering the options, there was really no choice. “When the alternative was not doing it at all, doing this year’s festival at the drive-in was an easy decision.”

And even in this temporarily reduced form, Maine International Film Festival is a truly momentous event, all happening right here at home. Gazing over the smaller-than-usual roster of films is still a dizzying experience, with MIFF’s mission of making Maine a major stop on the worldwide festival circuit offering up a fascinating, challenging and eclectic lineup. Plus, as Eisen notes with mixed emotions, the fact that so many other major film festivals have indeed shuttered for this benighted year means that every movie featured at this year’s MIFF is some sort of a premiere, with MIFF being the first chance for anyone, anywhere, to see it. 

As ever, I asked Eisen to give the inside track on a handful of films he’s especially thrilled to be showing to MIFF audiences, prompting Eisen to note that this year’s festival started taking a specific shape even before other recent horrible events in America. “We were deep in planning in May when Minneapolis happened,” Eisen said, referring to the caught-on-camera police murder of George Floyd and the resulting – and very much ongoing – international protests and calls to action on systemic racism and police violence.

“We had three films already in the lineup for the festival that we felt expressed a lot of what needs to be expressed, but we also decided that we needed to make this year’s festival be dedicated to and part of what’s going on.”

To that end, a statement on the MIFF homepage reveals that donations to this year’s MIFF will go to Black Public Media’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, “which provides critical support to developing, producing, funding, and distributing media content about the African American and global black experience.”

The centerpiece film of this year’s festival, “American Thief,” is the energetic tale of two teenage hackers. Image courtesy of Miguel Silveira

As to those films, Eisen urges everyone to drive on in and get ready for “American Thief,” showing on July 11. The centerpiece film of this year’s festival, “American Thief,” according to Eisen, “is amazingly timely, original and different,” the energetic tale of two teenage hackers (newcomers Xisko Maximo Monroe and Khadim Diop) whose plugged-in investigations of the American surveillance state lead to an explosive climax on the eve of the tumultuous 2016 presidential election. This is the film’s world premiere, with Eisen promising an appearance by the film’s cast and crew, thanks to a cross-country trip in the very van at the center of the film’s wild cinematic ride. 

Next to that, Eisen puts up the more subdued but no less potent two-hander “The Last Shift,” featuring acclaimed character actor Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor,” “Six Feet Under”). Starring as an aging veteran fast-food cook tasked with training his ambitious young Black replacement (Shane Paul McGhie) before retiring to Florida, the film, according to Eisen, is “an interesting back-and-forth learning experience” with the older white man and the aspiring young Black journalist spending their shared shift exposing each others’ (and their own) racial assumptions. “We’re very fortunate to have this as our closing night (July 16) film,” said Eisen. “It’s thoughtful without being arrogant, enjoyable, but not pat either in its conclusions.”

Apart from the minor miracle that it is happening at all, this year’s fresh air festival proves the strength and resilience of the Maine International Film Festival. “Other festivals just sort of stopped,” says Eisen, “And we are who we are.” 

The 23rd annual Maine International Film Festival is taking place at the Skwohegan Drive-In Theatre from July 7-16. All shows start after dark, obviously, and you can check out this year’s films and book your tickets at miff.org. 

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