James Harmon is a high school communications teacher, film club advisor, independent filmmaker, and new dad. Three years ago he started The Sanford International Film Festival in response to the breakdown of another Maine festival, and it has grown in popularity and reputation since. This is the third year of Sanford IFF, which runs five days from May 25-29th across Sanford and Springvale Maine.
Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?
James Harmon: We’re putting together an amazing showcase of some of the best independent films in the world. We’re presenting our city as a great place to make films, and building a community of passionate, creative, fun people. Filmmakers who make it to their screenings can expect great picture and sound, an attentive and appreciative audience, and respect from film festival staff. We appreciate the sacrifices our filmmakers have had to make to get their films to us, and I take our stewardship very seriously. We pay tribute to our city, our filmmakers, and their films.
MT: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?
JM: Our five days will be packed with high-quality experiences. We have local restaurants, ice cream makers, and brewers contributing their best work as well, so expect great movies, great people, great food, and great beverages, and don’t expect to pay a lot! I must insist that everyone buy up tickets to our award ceremony as soon as the ticketspice site goes live. Admission will come with lots of food and drink tickets, and it’s going to be MCd by a local comedian with ties to the film scene.
MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?
JM: We have ten judges who all have been assigned about twenty hours of films to review. That includes overlap, so each film will be reviewed by at least two different judges, but likely three by the time we’ve made our final decisions. The highest rated films will be programmed first, and we’ll fill our schedule up. There aren’t clear and specific criteria, but our judges have diverse and good taste in movies, so expect quality films. Some might not be your cup of tea, but every one will have something to admire.
MT: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?
JM: Last year we were overwhelmed with over a thousand submissions. It was insane getting through all of them, but decided to charge a submission fee, which is a promise to give every film our undivided attention, and we did. Being on the filmmaker side, I knew from the get go that five, ten, or fifteen bucks isn’t chump change on a micro-budget film. When they put that money to SIFF, we have a duty to the filmmaker. I can’t say that I’ve ever been turned off by a genre, but programming feature films is much more difficult than shorts–when you put a 100 minute film in your festival, you’re picking one long film over ten shorts, which means you’re turning more people away. I think that Experimental Feature films don’t always get a fair shake, but that’s a mistake that SIFF doesn’t make. Last year we showed an incredible one called “Encouragement” by Devin Terrence McAdam and it was one of the scariest films in the festival. Experimental filmmakers aren’t bound to narrative to make you feel. I think our festival also does a great job of showcasing the local film scene without oversaturating the program in it. We balance genres, locals, and internationals.
MT: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?
JM: I love film, and I love the experience of watching and thinking about all of these films, and then communicating with the people who made them, and then celebrating the films with some of those people. It’s incredibly hard work keeping a team together that cares about this, but when you have that, it’s so rewarding to make it happen. It also helps that immediately after the festival locals start asking about the next one. It’s a beloved event around here, and it’s hard to imagine my life without it!
MT: How has the festival changed since its inception?
JM: This festival came to be under very strange circumstances! I had worked with about twenty students on a feature film that was supposed to premiere at the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival in April 2013, and two weeks before our screening, that festival fell apart. The director was arrested on some unrelated unsavory charges, and all of a sudden, I had to cancel a field trip that my filmmakers had been looking forward to all year. When I got word that the festival was cancelled, they CCd all of the filmmakers, and I thought it was a great opportunity to screen films in Sanford, so I contacted our newly-elected Mayor, and he got back to me right away in support of the idea, and I invited all of those filmmakers to come screen in Sanford; we scheduled a meeting and then six weeks later we held The Sanford International Film Festival. It was an amazing effort by so many facets of our city, and we knew that given more time, more thought, and more money we could do it even better. Last year we exploded from two days to five days, from forty movies to one-hundred forty movies, and we judged every submission (adding unbiased judging, a unique 3D printed trophy https://youtu.be/BTEb65PpN6w?list=PLYznuvGuYZb6qp_41sHrryXlX37VE7-t- , and cash prizes to the mix). It has always been about paying tribute to our films and filmmakers, but I think we’ve gotten better at making the process fun for staff as well, and we’ve thought long and hard about what our filmmakers want and what they expect from a festival, and we’ve gotten better year after year delivering on those expectations.
MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020?
JM: I hope we’ve become the festival of the northeast. I think we have the infrastructure in place to grow and refine what we do so that we become more and more attractive, so each year we’ll examine our work and our feedback, and we’ll grow and refine until May in New England means SIFF.
MT: What film have you seen the most times in your life?
JM: Probably Aladdin, Jurassic Park or a Nightmare on Elm Street. I try not to rewatch movies since there are so many amazing ones I have yet to see, but we’re in the dozens on those three. I wouldn’t even necessarily call them my faves, but or whatever reason, they made the cut for question 8!
MT: In one sentence, what makes a great film?
JM: There are three things that need to come together. The technical aspects (does it look and sound good), then I think even more importantly for me, it’s the realistic details… Does everything add up the way it should? Do I believe every bit of dialog and more importantly the non-verbal interaction among characters? The last thing is does this movie need to be? Sometimes a movie can have the first two, but it falls flat because it’s just an average day in an average life. I think a good movie needs to command your attention; why it is should be self-evident.
MT: How is the film scene in your city?
JM: Sanford, Maine is a great place for film and filmmaking. I’ve shot two features and dozens of shorts here, and a few years ago I found out about another film production company that was also doing great work in Sanford after a couple of people mistook them for us, and I read about them in the paper. Neo Phoenix studios is cranking away at a dystopian web series (I DPd their first three episodes: http://www.entertainmentexperiment.com/#!dystopia/l6f7p ) and we have restaurants, local businesses, schools, and city departments all willing to lend a hand, as long as you ask them at the right time, in the right way, for the right thing. I think another great part of filming here is the variety of locations. We’ve got all the natural and rural stuff you can imagine. Sanford can’t double for Metropolis, but you can locate urban scenes in some of the more dense neighborhoods or downtown areas, and our police, fire department, and even the hospital are all very film friendly.