An audience watches “The Conformist” at the Waterville Opera House during last year’s Maine International Film Festival. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Ryan Cook grew up taking for granted that his hometown, Waterville, had a film festival.

When he made a film in high school, in 2004, he decided to enter it into the student section of the Maine International Film Festival. He won and was on his way to a career as a filmmaker. Twenty years later, he’s back for the world premiere of his latest movie, based on an iconic Maine story.

“Lost on a Mountain in Maine” will play the festival on Saturday, before a theatrical run scheduled to begin in November. The new film is based on the book of the same name and is the true story of Donn Fendler, who was 12 when he got lost on Mount Katahdin for nine days in 1939.

“This movie being based on such an iconic piece of Maine history, with such a fan base for Donn Fendler in Maine, this is really the best way to celebrate him and his story,” said Cook, one of the film’s producers. “There are so many festivals today; sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are the good ones. But this festival has a reputation of being really selective and celebrating quality. A lot of festivals now are just run like a business.”

The Maine International Film Festival, now in its 27th year, has a long history of bringing Mainers sneak peeks of movies they might not otherwise see. This year’s festival features about 100 films – features and shorts – from 43 countries, with screenings at the Maine Film Center in Waterville and the Waterville Opera House. More than 60 filmmakers are expected to attend, with many scheduled to do Q&A sessions at screenings.

The festival has been able to attract filmmakers and films from all over the world. The impressive list of guests who’ve appeared in Waterville over the years includes actors Lili Taylor, Sissy Spacek, Peter Fonda, Malcolm McDowell, Glenn Close and Ed Harris, as well as directors Terrence Malik and Jonathan Demme.


At this year’s festival, starting Friday and running through July 21, Dutch director Jos Stelling is coming for a second time, for the North American premiere of his latest film, “Natasja’s Dance,” and to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Canadian director Mary Harron is also scheduled to be at the festival to get a Midlife Achievement Award and screen several of her films, including “Daliland” (2022) with Ben Kingsley as Salvador Dali and “American Psycho” (2000) with Christian Bale.

“We were not sure how this was all going to work when we started,” said Alan Sanborn, one of the festival’s founders. “To see how it’s grown is very gratifying.”

Ryan Cook, producer of “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” stands inside the Waterville Opera House. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel


Ken Eisen says the Maine International Film Festival was started in 1998 for somewhat personal reasons. He and the four other people running Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville wanted to bring movies to Maine that were even more innovative and daring than the ones they could show at their art house movie theater – the kinds of movies they’d like to see. The theater, after all, had to draw audiences to stay in business.

The idea of a festival in Waterville seemed a little iffy. So much so that organizers debated whether to call it the first annual or not, Sanborn said. They gambled on adding it to the name, and it worked out.

Eisen is the festival’s longtime film programmer, the person who books the films. Eisen, Sanborn and three others – Gail Chase, Lea Girardin and Stu Silverstein – started Railroad Square Cinema as a nonprofit theater in 1978 for the same reason they started the festival, to bring the kind of films they’d like to see to central Maine. For years, it was the only place to see a steady stream of cutting-edge or foreign films in the area.


After the festival’s first year in 1998, Eisen said its reputation grew by word of mouth among filmmakers and performers. The festival got its first big American film name in 2000 in Malick, whose critically acclaimed films included “Badlands” (1973), “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The Tree of Life” (2011). Film festival organizers were able to connect with him through a Harvard classmate who was a regular moviegoer at Railroad Square Cinema.

“He never went to film festivals. So having him here really legitimized us to other directors and actors,” Eisen said of Malick. “I’m pretty sure Sissy (Spacek) came to us through Terry.”

Ken Eisen introduces Matt Cascella, director of “Hangdog,” at last year’s Maine International Film Festival. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

This year’s honoree, Stelling, 78, has been making films for 50 years and has traveled to film festivals around the world. He says he’s happy to see MIFF has survived this long – most festivals don’t – but he’s not surprised. He says the festival’s success, in his opinion, is mostly about the selections made by Eisen.

“In my opinion, Ken Eisen’s special taste makes the festival special: opinionated films at an opinionated film festival. That’s the main reason for the existence, anyway, for every film festival,” Stelling wrote in an email. “The nice thing is that the audience gets to see films that they would not have had the opportunity to see without this kind of festival. When I tell my fellow filmmakers that I’m going to Maine for the MIFF, they’re jealous.”

In 2022, Railroad Square Cinema moved into the new Paul J. Schupf Art Center in Waterville and became part of the Maine Film Center, which produces the festival.

The festival not only attracts well-known actors and filmmakers who might not otherwise come to Maine, it can often give Mainers a first look at films that go on to wider prominence. The HBO film of Richard Russo’s Maine-set novel “Empire Falls” was shot in Maine and featured Hollywood stars Paul Newman, Ed Harris and Robin Wright. At the 2004 festival, Harris showed up to introduce a short, not-yet-finished version of the film before it aired on HBO.


“The Weight of Water,” starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley, played the festival in 2001. It was based on the book by longtime Maine summer resident Anita Shreve and set on the Isles of Shoals, near the Maine and New Hampshire border.

The 2004 documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” screened at the festival shortly after it came out. The film, about a man in San Francisco who takes care of parrots, became something of an art house hit, getting a rave review in The New York Times. In 2007, it aired on PBS TV stations across the country on the series “Independent Lens.”

Filmgoers walk along a red carpet at last year’s festival. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel


Many Mainers are familiar with Fendler’s story, but “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” is the first feature film based on it.

Shortly after his rescue, in 1939, Fendler and Joseph Egan wrote “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” which made Fendler a national figure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared him the outstanding youth hero of 1939, and he was featured in Life magazine. Fendler spent much of his life talking about his ordeal and the lessons to be gained from it, especially in Maine schools. When he died in 2016 at the age of 90, at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, his obituary appeared in The New York Times.

Like many Mainers, Cook read about Fendler as a youngster and was enthralled by the story. Cook left Maine to study film production at Emerson College in Boston and has worked on many films over the years, including “The Boston Strangler” (2023) with Keira Knightly and “Ted” (2012) with Mark Wahlberg.


But he never forgot Fendler’s story. He and fellow filmmaker Derek Desmond made an hourlong documentary film about Fendler, which screened at MIFF in 2011. The two decided to make a feature film about Fendler as well, and worked on it over the years while also working on other projects.

The film stars Luke David Blumm, who had a featured role in the recent Netflix series “The Watcher,” as Fendler. Paul Sparks, who played a gangster in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a writer in “House of Cards” on Netflix, plays Fendler’s father. It was filmed mostly in the forests of upstate New York, for budget reasons, since that state offers more financial incentives for filming than Maine does, Cook said. But for him, the Maine International Film Festival is the perfect place for the film to premiere.

Donn Fendler chats with a young reader at a book signing in Bangor in 2011. Michael C. York/Associated Press, file

Eisen is also excited to be screening a documentary on opening night called “Every Little Thing,” about a woman in Hollywood dedicating her life to rescuing hummingbirds.

The festival features nearly two dozen films made by filmmakers with Maine ties. Each year the festival organizers present the Tourmaline Prizes (named for Maine’s state gem) to the best Maine-made films to screen at MIFF. Last year’s feature winner was “We Are The Warriors,” a documentary about the Wells High School mascot.

Some of the films vying for the Tourmaline Prizes this year include: “The Ghost Trap,” a story focused on lobstermen based on the novel by Maine author K. Stephens and filmed around Rockland; “Carlo … and His Merry Band of Artists,” about Maine artist and activist Carlo Pittore, who died in 2005 at the age of 62; and “The Ruse,” about the disappearance of an in-home caregiver assigned to an elderly patient, filmed in Blue Hill. One of the stars is Veronica Cartwright, whose long career started with roles on TV shows of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Route 66” and includes such films as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), “Alien” (1979) and “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987).

The festival will also host the New England premiere of “Dance First,” starring Maine resident Gabriel Byrne as Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett. The Irish-born Byrne, who has lived in Rockport for a decade and is best known for “The Usual Suspects” (1995), came to the festival in 2016 to receive a Midlife Achievement Award. He was invited this year but is filming in Europe this summer, Eisen said.

“When I was making films, in high school, I just took it for granted my hometown had a film festival, and I could take my work there,” said Cook, the Waterville native. “As I’ve gotten older and worked in films, I’ve come to appreciate what a great opportunity and outlet this festival is.”

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