Two thumbs way up! Ken Eisen is the man behind the 100-film slate — and A-list special guests — at the Maine International Film Festival. (Just don’t tell him you like superhero movies.)
By Joel Crabtree
On a muggy Sunday morning last July, as the rest of Waterville slept late or settled into pews, the lobby at the Railroad Square Cinema buzzed. Dozens of attendees of the Maine International Film Festival compared notes on the previous night’s showings as volunteers and staff rushed around with clipboards. Amid the hubbub, at the center of the room, 67-year-old festival cofounder Ken Eisen seemed relaxed — the hardest part of his job was done. An unlikely impresario in cargo pants and a 2002 MIFF tee, he greeted festival regulars and gave the staff some marching orders, then strode into a theater to introduce a new restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 black-and-white art-house film Andrei Rublev.
“This movie is three hours and three minutes,” Eisen announced. “No, there is no intermission — it will pass as quickly as Russian history.”
The joke landed with the 30 or so diehard movie buffs scattered across the 150-seat theater. But most knew that Eisen, who’s taught film courses at Colby College and the University of Southern Maine, takes his esoteric foreign cinema seriously. He takes all cinema seriously, in fact, and can wax as passionately about his love for director Robert Altman as about how modern studios have degraded the rom-com. As the film programmer for MIFF (as well as Railroad Square), he’s brought top-tier filmmakers and actors like Glenn Close, Malcolm McDowell, and Ed Harris to a college town on the Kennebec to receive a handcrafted moose statuette almost as reverently as they might accept a Palme d’Or.
The recipient of last year’s Lifetime Achievement Award (sometimes it’s a Midlife Achievement Award) was then-70-year-old French actress Dominique Sanda. In his early 20s, Eisen saw Sanda’s 1970 film The Conformist, Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotically charged, Fascist-era political drama, and the movie helped turn Eisen into the film enthusiast he is today.
“Blown away doesn’t describe one one-hundredth of what I was,” Eisen says. He remembers having five thoughts in rapid succession: “That’s the greatest film I ever saw. I want to make a film as great as that. I’ll never make a film as great as that. If I can’t make a film as great as that, then I don’t want to make a film. Then I just want to show that film.”
Eisen grew up in and around Washington, D.C., and came to Waterville as a Colby College student in the late ’60s, where he ran the campus film society and got, in his words, “super, super, super into film.” He stuck around after graduation, and in 1978, he and four other local film lovers — Alan Sanborn, Stu Silverstein, Gail Chase, and Lea Girardin — opened Railroad Square in a former beverage warehouse. They wanted to create a place where they could screen the kinds of movies they wanted to see. This was before the advent of VHS, back when old classics, art-house films, and foreign movies were hard to come by — and little shown in Maine.
“Really, the reason we started this movie theater was for our own personal gratification,” says Sanborn, now the technical director for MIFF and Railroad Square, both run by the nonprofit Maine Film Center. At 73, he’s the only co-founder other than Eisen still involved with the theater and the festival. “It wasn’t like we thought we’d make any money. And we haven’t.”
Over the years, though, Railroad Square amassed a loyal audience of central Maine cinephiles seeking out alternatives to multiplex blockbusters. In 1998, the Railroad Square founders decided a film festival was the next logical next step. They went big right out of the gate: the first MIFF in 1998 featured some 50 films over 10 days. (“I really have a problem with putting three films together and calling it a film festival,” Eisen says.) The inaugural festival attracted some 3,500 filmgoers. Today, the MIFF schedule includes around 100 films, including shorts, and attendance ranges from 9,000 to 10,000 each year, according to festival staff.
“It’s not like they come in gigantic numbers for everything, but they are adventuresome,” Eisen says. “They are really willing to challenge themselves and try things — and also not to make it all or nothing. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it! On to the next one.”
Getting the famously reclusive Terrence Malick to show up in Waterville was a shocking accomplishment.
Unlike programming Railroad Square, where Eisen has to consider both a bottom line and the community’s interest in certain films, MIFF affords him the opportunity to geek out. Where Railroad Square might play Oscar bait for a solid month, at MIFF, Eisen doesn’t hesitate to program a restoration of Bertolucci’s 5-hour-and-17-minute movie 1900. A few of his favorite foreign and indie-darling filmmakers pop up regularly: Bertolucci (he’s shown The Conformist at MIFF on at least three separate occasions), Altman, Japan’s Kenji Mizoguchi, Terrence Malick.
In 2000, MIFF honored the famously reclusive Malick with its Midlife Achievement Award, and getting the venerated American director to show up in Waterville to receive it was a shocking accomplishment. Known for weighty, sweeping films like 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Malick had never before received an award in public, and he never has since. An old college roommate who was a Railroad Square regular told Malick it was the kind of festival the director would appreciate: serious and intimate, in a setting ideal for a shy filmmaker. Malick didn’t do the traditional Q&A session, and he received his award saying little more than “Thank you,” but he did attend an after-party with some 400 festivalgoers. He was, Eisen says, “a sweetheart of a guy.”
“People go, ‘You’re kidding. You got Terry Malick, onstage and talking to people at your festival?’” he says. “It’s like you spoke to Santa Claus or something.”
Malick’s attendance raised MIFF’s profile considerably. The iconoclastic director recommended MIFF to Sissy Spacek, who starred in his 1973 film Badlands, and the next year, she came to Waterville to receive the honor. Since then, the fest has welcomed recipients like actors Peter Fonda, John Turturro, and Gabriel Byrne and director and screenwriter Jonathan Demme. The festival’s award recipients are often confirmed late — only in late June, with fewer than three weeks until the festival’s opening day, did MIFF announce indie director and writer Hilary Brougher as 2019’s Mid-Life Achievement Award. She’s far from a household name, but Brougher possesses the one trait all MIFF honorees share — she’s among Eisen’s cinema heroes.
“I get to hang out with Dominique Sanda and Terrence Malick and Jonathan Demme? There is this element of ‘I can’t quite believe this is happening,’” Eisen says. “On the other hand, they’re all really just wonderful, unique, individual people.”
What most excites Eisen about this year’s MIFF, the 22nd, isn’t the award recipient; it’s that it includes more world-premiere films than ever before. A jazz nut, he’s particularly excited about a documentary called The Gathering: Roots and Branches of Los Angeles Jazz, and the festival is bringing in musicians from the film for a concert to accompany the July 16 premiere. For all the buzz around celebrity guests, Eisen is still in it first and foremost to help projects he loves find an audience.
A few years before he and the Railroad Square founders began MIFF, they founded Shadow Distribution, a company that discovers and distributes independent films throughout the country. In 2005, he met his now-wife, Karen Young, after Shadow picked up a film she starred in. These days, the pair spends winters in Argentina, where Eisen does much of his work, watching digital screeners and selecting the films that play at MIFF and Railroad Square and six other theaters, including the Harbor Theater in Boothbay Harbor and theaters as far away as Ohio. (Young, meanwhile, has traded in acting for programming MIFFs live and animated shorts.) It’s a far cry from the early days at Railroad Square, when Eisen and his cofounders spent almost every night at the theater serving popcorn, running reels, changing out posters, and recording showtimes on the cinema’s answering machine.
Though he now often watches on computer screens, Eisen is adamant that movies are meant to be viewed in darkened theaters, and he has vivid memories of showings that have affected him. In 2010, in a tiny theater at the Toronto International Film Festival, he watched Silent Souls, a 75-minute Russian road-trip movie about a man’s journey to cremate his deceased wife. Eisen is a widower; his first wife, Beth, had died that year of ovarian cancer. When the film ended, he sat alone in the theater and wept. Later, he acquired the film for Shadow Distribution, knowing it likely wouldn’t make money, but hoping it might make a similarly powerful impression on those who saw it.
Eisen is still in it first and foremost to help projects he loves find an audience.
Silent Souls didn’t make money, but it did get rave reviews from critics like the late Roger Ebert. Under Eisen’s leadership, Shadow Distribution has released some 30 films, including a few commercial successes like 2003’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which grossed more than $3 million, and 2005’s Heading South, which brought in nearly $1 million. Other Shadow Distribution films include Oscar nominees The Weather Underground, nominated for Best Documentary in 2004, and Under the Sun, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1999.
At last year’s festival, the marquee event was a showing of 1972’s Best Foreign Language Film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, an Italian drama starring Dominique Sanda. After the lights went up, Eisen walked on stage with Sanda, having swapped his cargos and T-shirt for dress pants and a patterned button-up shirt. In his intro, he’d noted that the film had actually played in plenty of non-art-house theaters back when it was first released, that his wife had told him she’d seen it as a teenager in a small town in New Jersey.
“Which is amazing,” Eisen said. “You think about that now, and there’s no room for that with all the superhero movies taking it up.”
Onstage with Sanda, Eisen turned reflective.
“I have admired, loved, and been so impressed by the intelligence, the beauty, the brilliance of acting, and the elegance of Dominique Sanda ever since I first became serious about wasting my life showing movies,” Eisen told a packed house. “I won’t repeat my boring story about The Conformist.”
For that, he said, they’d have to attend the showing of The Conformist later that week.