Like all the best Maine film festivals, the Camden International Film Festival presents a unique challenge to a film columnist with a limited word count. The four-day nonfiction film festival, whose 13th season opens on Sept. 14 in the midcoast movie havens of Camden, Rockport and Rockland, is a uniquely immersive film experience. Apart from the 80-plus features and short documentaries in this year’s lineup, CIFF, as ever, presents festivalgoers with a rich banquet of filmmaker Q-and-As, panels of documentary industry professionals and filmmakers, world premieres, Maine-centric documentaries, works-in-progress, the occasional secret screening (this year from an unnamed, Academy Award winner) and, as CIFF founder and executive director Ben Fowlie put it, “the best parties of any festival anywhere.”
And the festival is only getting more ambitious. A year after Camden International expanded its festival activities to a year-round enterprise under the aegis of parent organization the Points North Institute, CIFF promises an even broader scope in both the types of films on view and the ways in which attendees can experience the world around them through the many eclectic lenses of this year’s filmmakers. I spoke with Fowlie, CIFF program director Sean Flynn and first-year programmer Samara Chadwick about what to expect at this year’s festival.
How has CIFF’s mission changed after going year-round?
Ben Fowlie: It’s just allowed us to think about the program we were doing on a year-round basis. The festival environment is focused on one specific event, whereas now we’re more consistently engaging with work throughout the year, and we’re more involved with the industry at large more concretely.
Sean Flynn: There’s been a big growth in terms of artist support programs, like the Camden/TFI Retreat (in collaboration with the Tribeca Film Institute), and we’ve launched a collaboration with Kickstarter and the School of Visual Arts in New York to help filmmakers of color travel here to connect with those in the industry. Just more projects and more support for artists in their creative process.
Samara Chadwick: Half the festival this year is made up of first-time participants. It’s amazing for me in my first year to be privy to conversations on the filmmaker side about supporting new works we envision showing up on Camden’s screens a few years down the road.
You have a whole program of VR (virtual reality) films this year. Is VR becoming a viable avenue for documentary films?
Fowlie: We launched the VR component (called Storyforms: Remixing Reality) last year as an experiment. It allows people to explore right at the edge of what’s possible with new technologies and documentary storytelling.
Flynn: We have a film called “Tree” that is one of the more remarkable VR experiences I’ve had. No spoilers, but there are a lot of different sensory elements to it — it’s a fully immersive experience of being a 150-year-old-tree in the rainforest.
Chadwick: Creators are still finding their language of what VR can accomplish. There’s a political element to rethink what documentary means, the places where it can be shown.
Flynn: The overall trajectory is for more immersive media being part of our everyday lives. Historically, as we’ve developed new ways of communicating, artists have experimented with more creative and eye-opening ways of expressing their vision.
What are some of the films you’re most excited for people to see at this year’s festival?
Flynn: “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars” (directed by Lili Fini Zanuck) is as it sounds, but is a large, well-researched, beautiful portrait. Anyone interested in that era and that musical golden age will be absolutely fascinated.
Also, “Heroin(e)” is a short documentary by Elaine Sheldon that’s been picked up by Netflix about three women on the front lines of the opioid crisis in West Virginia. It’s the best film in years on this story, it has parallels to what’s going on in Maine, and we’re bringing in front-line leaders in Maine for a discussion about the novel conversations and solutions being done already in the state.
Chadwick: The collaboration between the festival programming and the forum programming is remarkable. We’re putting together films that have synergies, with Q-and-As, where we don’t just slate a film but see the films as part of a larger conversation on the art of the real.
Fowlie: “This Is Congo” is from a journalist-turned-first-time-filmmaker named Daniel McCabe. It’s a complex portrait of the M23 Rebellion that is just a remarkable achievement for someone so early in his career. He had incredible access, and it articulates both sides really well in a very cinematic way. McCabe will be here along with his Congolese “fixer,” who had to leave the country due to his participation in the film.
As CIFF has grown, how has the filmgoing experience changed?
Fowlie: Immersion is what you can have here. With a festival pass, you can bounce from a film to a master class to a reception to a party. It’s one community built up around all this programming, and the pieces are more integrated than ever before. But there’s also a reason why we decided to start the festival in a small town and then grow it — we wanted to provide accessibility. We’re growing larger, and deeper, with more filmmakers and more strands of different types of filmmaking, but we’re still where anyone can plug in — for one or two screenings or for the whole festival — and have a transformative experience.
The 13th season of the Camden International Film Festival runs from Sept. 14-17 in screening venues in Camden, Rockport and Rockland. For the full schedule of films, information, directions, and ticket information, check out the CIFF website at pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Monday, Sept. 18 & Wednesday, Sept. 20: “Whose Streets?” If you can’t get to Camden (where this searing documentary is featured), then at least check it out at Space. Filmmakers Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis were on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests after the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown and captured the long-simmering racial tensions that erupted – and gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Co-presented by the Maine ACLU, with Folayan in attendance.
Friday-Sunday Sept. 15 to 17: “I, Daniel Blake.” The ever-uncompromising British indie filmmaker Ken Loach (“The Angels’ Share”) returns with another slice-of-life working-class drama. An unemployed carpenter turns his resentment against the system into an uplifting course of helping others in the same predicament.