A scene from "The Last Shift," directed by Andrew Cohn, which is the Closing Night Film at this year's Maine International Film Festival.
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The pandemic may be keeping movie theaters dark, but it’s also bringing fresh light to a certain retro film-going pleasure: the drive-in.

And so while Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema remains shuttered, this year the Maine International Film Festival will see you at the movies at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre – as well as online in your own living room – from July 7-16. 

MIFF celebrates its 23rd season in a year of not a few challenges and upheavals. In response to the ongoing protests here and abroad for Black lives and racial justice, MIFF has dedicated this year’s festival to all lives lost to racist violence. In that spirit, all of this year’s MIFF donations will go to Black Public Media’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, in support of media works by diverse voices about the Black experience in America and beyond. 

“American Thief,” a film by Miguel Silveira, the Centerpiece Film of the Maine International Film Festival.

This year’s festival presents nine feature films at the drive-in over the week, plus two features and two shorts programs online: “Maine Shorts” and “From Away Shorts.” (And “Maine Shorts,” I’m glad to say, will also have a night on the big outdoor screen.)  

In keeping with MIFF’s dedication, several films in the festival program speak to race and racism, Program Director Ken Eisen said: “White Riot,” “American Thief” (the festival’s Centerpiece Film), and “The Last Shift” (its Closing Night Film). 

Will any films be a particularly special solace for us in these difficult times? Eisen points to MIFF’s Opening Night film, the Argentine heist comedy “Heroic Losers.’ Like a number of recent films across genres, it rallies behind a band of underdogs fighting back against an entrenched and corrupt class of capitalists.

And for pure joy, Eisen said, look to “Latcho Drom,” the U.S. restoration premiere of this 1994 musical, which is told exclusively through the music of the Rom people. Eisen calls it “one of the most joyful, stirring, fierce, beautiful music films ever made. (It) gladdens my heart big time.”

Sounds like good cinema medicine for our troubled times.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

Maine International Film Festival runs July 7-16 online and at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre. Tickets and full festival passes, as well as a full schedule, are available at https://miff.org. Advance tickets to films at the drive-in may be purchased online; virtual screenings are rentable on demand.

Rubika Shah directed “White Riot,” about the “Rock Against Racism” movement in the UK in 1976.

Films on race, racism

• Rubika Shah’s “White Riot” (July 13, at the Skowhegan Drive-In) has particular relevance for Americans as it looks back on the incendiary United Kingdom of 1976 when National Front racism and anti-immigration sentiment fueled “Rock Against Racism,” a musically energized civil rights movement spearheaded by groups like Steel Pulse and The Clash (whose oft-misunderstood song “White Riot” called for solidarity between poor Blacks and whites). 

• Presented in its world premiere screening as MIFF’s Centerpiece Film, “American Thief” (July 11, at the drive-in) is a documentary/narrative hybrid thriller about Black and mixed-race teen hackers and hacktivists who wind up at the center of a drama involving artificial intelligence programming, rogue vlogging, and a conspiracy to derail the 2016 election. Filmmakers Miguel Silveira, Michel Stolnicki, and Missy Hernandez filmed and scripted around actual events, with a climax on that fateful election night.

• In its Northeast Premiere and as MIFF’s Closing Night Film, Andrew Cohn’s “The Last Shift” (July 16, at the drive-in) follows two co-workers at a fast-food joint – a young Black man on parole and a white man about to retire – as the older man (played by the marvelous Richard Jenkins, of “The Shape of Water”) is forced into some difficult self-reflection.

— Megan Grumbling

“Represent” is a film by Hillary Bachelder, who was raised in Maine.

Tough women

• Bob Dylan said she “had a voice like Billie Holiday and played guitar like Jimmy Reed.” He was talking about Karen Dalton, a trailblazing musician of the 1960s Greenwich Village scene, who has been largely lost to popular history. Emmanuelle Antille sets out to recover her story in the documentary “A Bright Light: Karen and the Process” (July 9, at the Skowhegan Drive-In).

• An all-female cast of “King Lear” tours rural Turkey, and is documented by a female film crew, in “Queen Lear” (July 12, at the drive-in).

• And three Midwestern women fight entrenched power structures to be part of the political system in “Represent,” a film by Hillary Bachelder, who was raised in Maine (online, July 6-17).

— Megan Grumbling

Maine shorts

The long-beloved MIFF program features eight short films by Maine filmmakers, screening on July 8 at the Skowhegan Drive-In and online from July 9. This year brings: 

• Two stop-motion films: Gordon LePage’s “Say Cheese,” about a girl rescuing a mouse, and “The Space Between Words,” by M. Stanford Campbell and Peter B. Campbell, about a couple’s daily life in rural Maine. 

• Two documentaries, one about a vision of sustainable food and community (Joey Searle’s “Meridians”) and another that limns the winter solace of a dodgeball league (“Shoulder Season,” by Halle Johns and Lucy Green). 

• Sci-fi about a man-robot hybrid (Joseph Ahern’s “Felix the Robot”), the thriller “The Caller” (by Thomas Barzilay Freund), an actress from the big city taking the edge off in Maine (Peter Rohan and Laura Darrell’s “Oh For a Muse of Fire”), and a girl who’s about to become a mermaid (“The Bold Coast,” by Camille Howard.

— Megan Grumbling

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