Dispatches from MIFF: Part 1

Ken Jones

I’ve been a movie fan all my life, but it’s only in the last few years that I got heavily involved in wanting to see more movies and actually review them. Being from Maine, I don’t always get a chance to experience many films outside of the mainstream until they come to Netflix or Amazon. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Maine has a film festival. The Maine International Film Festival (MIFF) has been an annual event in Waterville, ME (between Augusta and Bangor) since 1998.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, MIFF is screening 100 films over 10 days; these films range from independent features and shorts from around the world to classic rediscoveries to films from an honoree’s filmography. In the past they have honored various talents behind and in front of the camera with awards and recognitions, including Terrence Malick, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Demme, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, John Turturro, Malcolm McDowell, Glenn Close, and Gabriel Byrne. This year, they are presenting a Mid-Life Achievement Award to actress/model Lauren Hutton and a Karl Strauss Legacy Award to cinematographer Roger Deakins, as well as honoring the career of the recently deceased Jonathan Demme.

This year was my first attending the festival and while I could only make it for two days, I managed to maximize my time and get in seven viewings over the course of those two days. The films are screened at the Railroad Square Cinema and the Waterville Opera House. Here are some brief reviews of the films I saw during my first day at my first film festival.

Day 1 (Sunday July 17th):

The Nile Hilton Incident (12pm)

The Nile Hilton Incident is the first of four films I saw on Sunday. It’s a Swedish, Danish, and German produced film set in Egypt that is a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the Egyptian Revolution in January of 2011. Noredin, a corrupt detective in a corrupt police precinct, tries to solve the case of a murdered prostitute in a hotel room. Over the course of the investigation, he slowly rediscovers his principles as he gets more involved with the investigation. Things slowly spiral out of control for Noredin as things spiral out of control for the Egyptian government in the last days of the Mubarak presidency. The film is pretty standard police procedural with a political component escalating the stakes of the investigation. What really stands out is how the corruption of the police department and the government in general saturates so much of the film. In addition to Noredin’s story, there is a parallel storyline involving the hotel employee who stumbled upon the murder.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Force (3pm)

The Force is a documentary about the Oakland Police Department, a department that has been under federal oversight since 2003. This documentary covers a period of time from 2014 through the end of 2016, in a cinema verite format. It’s a fascinating look behind the scenes as cameras ride along with police officers, observe their academy training, and are given extensive access to the various interactions Chief of Police Sean Whent has with the community. This was an interesting film to follow up The Nile Hilton Incident with, because of the rampant police corruption in that film and the attempts to rehabilitate the image of the police in this film. Whent is a figure who comes across as very willing to be involved with the community, as well as be transparent with them, and willing to hear from them. With the backdrop of protests due to police shootings across the country during this time, it’s a frustrating film to watch, because you see people trying to make a difference and how much of Sisyphean task it can seem like because the actions of just a handful of people can undo all the hard work. The film at one point chronicles a shocking nine day stretch where the police force is sent into chaotic upheaval with a series of firings and resignations. The film does a very effective job of showing how complex the issues of race relations are in this country and it puts a face to the people that can get lost in the sea of protests and riot gear on both sides. It’s sobering and illuminating.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sunrise (6:30pm)

Sunrise is a classic silent film of director F.W. Murnau from 1927. It’s a fable-morality tale about a country man torn between love for his wife and the lustful temptation of a city woman. The Woman From the City and The Man devise a plan for him to kill The Wife and make it look like she drowned, only when the moment of truth comes, he can’t bring himself to do it. Terrified of her husband, The Wife flees from him and he pursues her. They spend a day in the city as he slowly wins her back and they rediscover their love for one another. One thing I have discovered about the few silent films that I have seen is that the emotional core of the story is of greater significance than the content of the story. On its face, a husband nearly threatening to kill his wife in the middle of a lake would be a bridge too far; no amount of wooing after the fact could/should win her back. And yet, for whatever reason, it works here. Aside from the beginning, there are also very few title cards in this silent film. So much is conveyed by their faces and without words. His regret and her gradual softening are palpable. The film pulls you into this couple’s relationship and it’s incredibly sweet and touching, and becomes incredibly emotional when there is a hint that things might turn tragic. The film was accompanied by a live score from Mark Tipton and Les Sorciers Perdus, which really added to the experience.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One-Eyed Jacks (9:30pm)

My first day closed out with One-Eyed Jacks, the only film ever directed by Marlon Brando. It’s a western that stars Brando and Karl Malden, who also worked together in On the Waterfront. After robbing a bank together, Malden’s Dad Longworth leaves Brando’s Rio stranded in the desert to be caught by the Mexican authorities. Five years later, Rio escapes from prison and goes in search of Longworth, only to find that he has become the sheriff out on the coast of California in a town with a bank worth robbing. Apparently this film took nearly two years to shoot and Brando, an inexperienced director, eventually had the reins taken away from him. The film is a bit of a mess, and it meanders a bit, but there is no denying the on screen charisma of Brando, whose character is morally ambiguous and a little self-destructive throughout the film. In fact, none of the characters are outright protagonists or antagonists, per se. There are also some beautiful shots of the ocean as a backdrop for several scenes as well. It’s not necessarily a classic worth seeking out, but if you ever stumble across it, it’s worth a look.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Part 2 to follow.