The line-up of this year’s Camden International Film Festival, the Maine all-doc fest now in its 14th year, tackles some phenomena that have been lately on the brain: Fox News. Putin. Race. Democracy. Wildfires. Then there’s the stuff we don’t even know we don’t know: Common ground between evangelical Christians and drag queens in Arkansas. A Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. A tree that, when hugged, broadcasts sounds and words. This year’s CIFF runs September 13-16. Here’s some of what’s up.
CIFF is highlighting the good news that half or more of this year’s films were helmed by women filmmakers. It’s a balance that came about organically, rather than through any intentional process, and executive and artistic director/co-founder Ben Fowlie is clear that “the work speaks for itself.” So why talk about gender at all? Well, documentary tends to be farther along in the gender parity department than much of film and television, and CIFF programmers hope to model what inclusion can look like industry-wide. “We want to encourage other institutional structures to be programming at parity,” says senior programmer Samara Chadwick. “It’s important to acknowledge that every actor in the film community needs to be responsive to new voices telling stories.”
And now, since the ultimate goal is that we no longer have to talk about gender parity at all, let’s talk about some films.
No one will be shocked to hear that one recurrent theme this year is politics, or, as Chadwick puts it, films “exploring how we got to our current state.” One of the more stupefying questions in this category involves the ascendance of Fox News, which may make required watching of Alexis Bloom’s much-anticipated Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes; while, meanwhile, Vitaly Mansky takes an unparalleled look up close behind the Russian curtain in Putin's Witnesses. Challenges of war and displacement are also much on screen, as in James Longley’s Angels Are Made Of Light, about the lives of Afghan students and teachers; and Dorottya Zurbó’s Easy Lessons, in which a young girl adapts to life in Hungary after emigrating from Somalia.
Elsewhere, big questions surface about politics, reality, and being human: Astra Taylor dives into origins, theories, and practice in What is Democracy; while Dominic Gagnon looks at the ominous interconnectedness of “the post-truth era Internet” in Going South; and a scientist believes she’s solved a universal human dilemma in Lana Wilson’s four-part series The Cure for Fear.
Environment and landscape take the screen in a range of contexts, from an old-growth Lithuanian forest, in Mindaugas Survila’s The Ancient Woods, to the spaces and communities along California’s oldest freeway, in Adam Levine’s Communion Los Angeles, while Vitaly Mansky follows the epic Trans-Siberian travel route of natural gas in Pipeline.
Characters and feats are sometimes epic. Morgan Neville looks at the outsized cinematic ambition of Orson Welles, in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (which opens the fest Thursday night); while Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, in Free Solo, chronicle the first successful free solo climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan. And there are enough formidable women protagonists, Chadwick notes, that one of the official CIFF “trail maps,” or subgroups curated by theme, is called “Badass Women”: subjects include a female Syrian rebel fighter, in Alba Sotorra’s Commander Arian; a young sailor in the first all-woman crew to race round the world, in Alex Holmes’s Maiden; and, in Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders, a survivor of sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS.
STORIES BEYOND THE SCREEN
CIFF’s Storyforms, a program told via a range of digital technologies, has been steadily expanding; this year includes twenty works. The line-up includes not just VR, Chadwick reminds us, but rather diverse means of visual, aural, and spatial storytelling. Works this year include Rachel Lee Zheng’s LED and monofilament sculpture rack/pull focus; Gershon Dublon and Edwina Portocarrero’s series of “audio-haptic” installations that invisibly “situate sound” into trees; and virtual immersion in, among other things, PTSD, bipolar disorder, teachings of Native American spirituality, the silence of Olympic National Park, and a quest against illegal logging in the Amazon.
Though Chadwick takes some issue with the conventional trope of VR being, as she puts it, an “empathy-machine,” she thinks tech innovation does gives us access to stories that wouldn’t be possible on a flat screen. She points to Anote’s Ark VR, by Matthieu Rytz, which viscerally immerses viewers in a Pacific Island’s rising-sea fate. Different modes of storytelling allow different depths of interaction, as with Asad Malik’s Terminal 3, which, in Chadwick’s gloss, “allows you to embody a border protection agent, encounter someone, and determine whether they’ll gain entry across the border.”
And the very process of gathering stories changes with new technologies. Especially exciting is the beta version of a collaboration of the Brownsville (Brooklyn) Community Justice Center and Brownsville youth, who used VR video-game technology to document and transcend the social and systemic barriers between their rival housing developments.
Some of the most rewarding CIFF experiences happen in person and real-time. This year sees a master class and filmmaker talks on such topics as sound and scores, collaborative editing, narrative construction, and the ethics of documenting children of war. At Saturday’s “Points North Agora” (named for the ancient Greek public spaces for free assembly and debate), filmmakers and filmgoers can engage in series of dialogues about “non-fiction approaches to the current state of reality” – namely, on the topics of “The Public Sphere,” “Media Manipulation,” and “Documentary as Co-Creation." The Points North Pitch, in which filmmakers talk up their films-in-progress to an industry panel, is a thrilling look into the process. And at the parties, there are new film friends to meet over abundant alcohol and maybe a little karaoke. Because after all, “films are foundation blocks for engaging with media in interesting ways,” as Fowlie says, “but also with people.”
PHOENIX EDITORS' PICKS
(See these if you can)
A film that couldn't be made without a ton of incredible access and trust, Stephanie Wang-Breal's film captures what it's like to be a sex worker caught in the court system in Queens County, New York, where the overwhelming majority of defendants are undocumented Asian immigrants, Black, Latina, or transgender. Surprisingly hopeful, Blowin' Up focuses on a network of women lawyers, advocates, and judges whose work have created new opportunities for rehabilitation and freedom among their clients and defendants, whether they're victims of trafficking or of arcane laws that corral them into categories of prostitution.
Sun 5:30 pm | Rockport Opera House, 6 Central St, Rockport | 97 min | filmmaker in attendance
Among the travesties committed against First Nations people was the state removal of children from their homes and cultures. In Dawnland, Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip follow the work of the United States’ first government-endorsed Truth and Reconciliation Commission — right here in Maine — as it gathers the stories of Wabanaki survivors. Dawnland (which won a slot for Mazo and Pender-Cudlip in the 2014 Points North Pitch) documents excruciating trauma, moments of hope and healing, and tensions that serve as object lessons in how, in confronting the legacy of white harm, even the most well-intentioned white people should expect to sometimes step back.
Sun 3 pm | Camden Opera House, 29 Elm St, Camden | 86 min | filmmaker in attendance
We heartily recommend this compendium of seven short films made by Maine filmmakers. It's got Charlotte Wilder and Lee Feiner's "Hit Me, I Like It," a film about the demolition derby at Maine's annual Union Fair; Daniel Quintanilla and Hanji Chang's "Not A Citizen," a film about 28-year-old Portland resident Abdi Ali who was targeted for deportation by ICE officials in 2017; and Caroline Losneck and Christoph Gelfand's "Good News," a film about Edgar Gatto, owner of the Good News Thrift Shop, who finds himself at an unlikely facilitator of a public service and safe haven for those struggling with poverty, homelessness, and opioid addiction.
Sun 10 am | Rockport Opera House, 6 Central St, Rockport | free
DIVIDE & CONQUER: THE STORY OF ROGER AILES
If America's current predicament had to be whittled down to the work of one person, you'd have a hard time finding a better candidate than Roger Ailes, who founded Fox News with the intention of profiting from the re-packaging the politics of fear as a 24-hour entertainment platform and calling it news. Filmmaker Alexis Bloom's doc examines his rise and fall — a #MeToo moment that would have precipitated Harvey Weinstein's except for the conspicuous absence of howling from mainstream conservatives — in what should be one of CIFF's most highly attended screenings
Sat 8:30 pm | Camden Opera House, 29 Elm St, Camden | 108 min | filmmaker in attendance
THE FEELING OF BEING WATCHED
Filmmaker and journalist Assia Boundaoui grew up in a close-knit Muslim community in a Chicago suburb, where paranoia about government surveillance was universal. Both director and protagonist of The Feeling Of Being Watched, Boundaoui chronicles her journey from family interviews to microfilm to FOIA requests, as she seeks the truth behind her community’s longstanding fear. Boundaoui held the whole Camden Opera House breathless with her Pitch for the film as a Points North Fellow in September 2016, and what happened a few months later (i.e., the election) only deepened the urgency of her search. The finished film – part investigative thriller, part self-examination of Boundaoui’s own m.o. as a Muslim-American, part neighborhood portrait — is a rousing paean to a community that, despite all the reasons not to, persists in believing in democracy.
Sun 12:30 pm | Camden Opera House, 29 Elm St, Camden | 87 min | filmmaker in attendance
HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING
The poignant Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the work of RaMell Ross, a former basketball coach turned photographer, whose trim film spans thousands of hours of material accumulated over nearly a decade. Ross's film weaves a brilliantly poetic thread of gestures, physical actions, and instincts, as though documenting a sort of Black Southern gothic subconscious. The result is a groundbreaking achievement of nonfiction filmmaking, resisting the aesthetic frameworks and white-gaze stereotypes that have restricted the portrayal of Black American life on the screen, and one that invites interpretation and repeated viewings while reveling in quiet, intimate celebration.
Sun 3 pm | Rockport Opera House, 6 Central St, Rockport | 76 min | filmmaker in attendance
OF FATHERS AND SONS
One of the most unforgettable documentaries you'll ever see, the Berlin-based Talal Derki constructed Of Fathers and Sons from several years' worth of footage after returning to his homeland of Syria and earning the trust of a radical Islamist family at the head of Al-Nusra, a Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda. Shot in close quarters at a large compound in the Syrian desert, the film centers around Abu Osama, a 45-year-old bomb specialist, and his two sons Osama (13) and Ayman (12) as they're sent to military training camp. (In a Q&A at True/False Film Festival, Derki said that he wasn't permitted to record footage of women). While the film serves as a harrowing examination of religious radicalism, it's most engrossing as a meditation on how the ideology of war is forced upon unwitting youth as a foundation story, as Derki's camera follows the young boys' uneasy adaptation to the lives of soldiers joining the fight for a radical Islamic Caliphate.
Fri 3:30 pm | Strand Theatre, 345 Main St, Rockland | 99 min | filmmaker in attendance