June 06, 2020

On location> 10-day event puts focus on Elm City

WATERVILLE — When the Maine International Film Festival opens Friday in Waterville, the event will be more than an extravaganza of hot screenings and buttery popcorn.

Past the cultural and junk food considerations, the festival comes with a promise to the city of Waterville. With an economy that doesn’t quite qualify as booming, Waterville is part of a trend in many small towns across America. That is, when technology replaces industry, both tourism and cultural arts step in for a stab at bringing the green stuff back into the local economy.

It’s not that Waterville, population 17,008, needs revitalization, says Mayor Ruth Joseph. “There are many, many happenings in Waterville,” she assures, and even talks about the “richness” that comes with having two colleges, two medical centers and nearby lakes and skiing resorts. The city’s unemployment rate, says Joseph, is 6.2 percent, which is less than 2 percent higher than the national average.

But, she agrees, the city could use an injection of something new, something cultural, something lively.

So you have to admire the chutzpah of Friends of Art and Film in Central Maine, a private, nonprofit corporation that has been around for a dozen years and has been thinking about this film festival for about as long. Its goal is “to stimulate and enrich the artistic climate” of the area. With sponsorship from State Cable and backing from the Maine Community Foundation, The Maine Arts Commission, the Maine Office of Tourism and the Maine Humanities Council, the Friends decided this year to take the big step of organizing its dream in the center of the state.

“Why Waterville?” asks Ken Eisen, one of the founders of Railroad Square and an organizer for the festival. “Waterville is, besides its own virtues, central to the state. People from Portland don’t think the rest of the state exists. Well, we do. We’re here. Railroad Square is here and it’s an ideal facility for the festival.”

For the past 17 years, Eisen has attended film festivals throughout North America and knows they have an effect on both the success of filmmakers and on the communities that host them.

“We want to develop a film festival that everyone in the Maine community could find a lot to get excited about and that would open the world to those of us here in Maine,” says Eisen, who is also president of Shadow Distribution, a Maine-based distributor of indy films. “It is our hope that the festival helps the economy. But that’s not why we’re doing it. A film festival can bring the absolute best that the world has to offer right to our doorsteps. You can’t always get the best in the performing arts, but you can with film.”

As if fearing a jinx on the event, no one really wants to predict the number of people who might attend. Festival director Joan Phillips-Sandy, a lawyer and arts supporter, reports that calls have come in from as far away as California.

“Will 10 or 10,000 people come? We don’t know,” says Phillips-Sandy. “Realistically, we’re figuring about 5,000 admissions.”

Jon Laitin, who runs a Waterville advertising agency and is a consultant for the Kennebec Valley Tourism Council, says he hasn’t seen a significant rise in hotel reservations in the area around the festival dates. He speculates that most participants will come from Waterville and about an hour’s radius away. With the help of a $5,000 grant from the state’s Office of Tourism, Laitin sent ads out of state, primarily in Massachusetts.

When it comes to film festivals, Laitin knows, the competition is thick. There are more than 1,000 internationally, and more than 40 just this month. Like the bubbling up of microbreweries earlier in this decade, film festivals seem to be popping up by the dozens.

But Waterville has two aces in the hole. The first is location, location, location (an hour away from the coast, Bangor, Portland, Belfast and the mountains).

The second is gift shops.

Laitin jokes when he says there are more gift shops per capita than in any other town within 50 to 100 miles. But there’s some substance to his comment.

Waterville is a crooked town in terms of its roadways. Main Street is host to jewelers, bankers, cafes, a bridal shop, a stationer’s, a large American flag and a central park. It is a straight shot from Interstate 95 — about 50 miles, or an hour away from Bangor.

Just before hitting the bustle of the downtown, however, is Railroad Square Cinema, off to the left and in a scruffier business area with a shoe store, art gallery, a family practice and a parking lot that is a pothole adventure. Overlooking the funky mall is a large mural expounding the graces of mixed messages and promoting concepts such as “infinite limitations” and “unnecessary necessities.” It is a fit mascot for the grass-roots sophistication of the movie house’s place in this part-rural, part-urban spot.

George Gordon, proprietor of the Maine Made Shop in the center of town, says there are six shops in the downtown area, which, he adds, is “one gift shop away from being gift-shopped-out.” Gordon is an active citizen, a native Mainer and a busy merchant. He also owns stores in the Belgrade Lakes area and Boothbay Harbor, is the former acting director of the Opera House and a supporter of the film festival.

“Obviously, with it being a first-time event, we really have no idea what to expect,” says Gordon. “Other film festivals in other cities have had a positive effect on merchants and restaurants. We have — especially this time of year — all the infrastructure to host a fairly large event.”

Gordon means hotels, restaurants, shops and other attractions. But he also means the interest in cultural provocation. He knows from his tenure as a leader in the arts community that Waterville is poised to support good art.

“For a lot of people, the festival is going to put Waterville on the map,” says Alan Sanborn, co-founder of Railroad Square and, with Eisen, one of its two full-time employees. He is also vice president of Shadow Distribution. “If you have any interest in film, this is the place to be in July.”

Sanborn guessed that most people haven’t been to a film festival before and may be shy about attending one. It’s impossible to attend every film, he says, but filmgoers should treat it as an educational opportunity. Pick out a few films, talk to people in line, watch the films, talk some more. And take a few days off work if you can manage to, says Sanborn.

Afterward, it’s a short walk to the downtown area, where the enlightened might also find themselves hungry. At least, that’s what David Jorgensen is hoping.

“Of course, we are all thrilled something like this is coming here because it puts us on the map again,” says Jorgensen, owner of Jorgensen’s Cafe, which sells gourmet sandwiches, bagels, fresh breads, wines, specialty foods and coffees. Jorgensen, who calls his business “booming,” has donated both food and money to the film festival cause. He expects, too, that the event will be a success.

“We have invested in the downtown with a mix of profit and nonprofit groups that have breathed life into the downtown area,” says Mayor Joseph, who grew up in Waterville. “We say: Waterville is open for business. And we do everything we can to make that happen. I think it’s very exciting.”

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