A great documentary film festival makes reality more interesting. Sure, perhaps most of us wish current reality would settle into a nice, boring, insanity-free groove these days, but the Camden International Film Festival takes our shared experience – good, bad, and, yes, insane – and presents it filtered thrillingly through the lenses of some of the finest documentarians in the world.
Captured and transformed by these visionary filmmakers, reality might still be unsettling (as well as joyous, meditative, heart-wrenching and life-affirming), but it’s never going to be dull.
Kicking off its 14th season Thursday and running through Sunday, the Camden International Film Festival yearly transforms the neighboring Knox Country communities of Camden, Rockland and Rockport into the unlikely hub of the world documentary scene. I talked to festival founder and Camden native Ben Fowlie about what to expect from this year’s festival, and all things documentary.
As ever, it’s dizzying looking over the sheer number and variety of films showing at this year’s festival. What’s CIFF’s mission in choosing your films?
We’ve got 30-plus members who are extremely active in helping us make sure no film falls through the cracks. They’re all so dedicated, and the process really works for us. As an example, I’d point people toward a film like “Island of the Hungry Ghosts,” from director Gabrielle Brady. It’s about the world refugee crisis, but it focuses on this one place in Australia which acts as a holding area for refugees whose expected short time there has turned into a long process with no end date. Meanwhile, the director juxtaposes this annual crab migration where millions of crabs invade this same place. It’s really a master class, in the sense that you’re able to look at the film in terms of scoring, editing, cinematography. It’s a hard film but beautiful in the same breath, and for creative nonfiction, it’s one of those films that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
Speaking along that line, what are some others must-see gems in this year’s lineup?
There’s “Communion Los Angeles” about two visual artists documenting Sunset Boulevard from the mountains to the Pacific and examining what the road does to communities along the way. There’s “The Ancient Woods” about an old growth Lithuanian forest, where the silence is as mesmerizing as the imagery; fans of “Blue Planet” or “Planet Earth” will love it. “Young Men and Fire” is one of three world premieres this season. It’s about kids growing up and becoming young adults, a really beautiful film about young men searching for adventure and what comes next in their lives training to become firefighters. It’s extremely cinematic. I’m honored to have it here.
As noted, reality has become so chaotic since last year’s festival. Have any patterns emerged in the films submitted to CIFF?
A couple. Political themes, certainly, although they’re more about the abuse of power in general. A film like “Divide and Conquer,” about Fox News founder Roger Ailes is about power in a way that’s sort of slowly snuck its way into the festival. We don’t ever want to be bludgeoning people over the head as far as political content, but it boils down to how filmmakers are looking at what’s happening. Also, for the first year, we’ve really committed to gender parity, which is really exciting for all of us. Out of all our features, shorts, VR (virtual reality), juries – all are either directed or co-directed by females. A lot of film festivals, including us, have been thinking this way, because there is plenty of incredible work out there. But we just thought we’d speed the process up a little bit.
In your 14 years in the area, how has your relationship with Camden, Rockland and Rockport evolved?
We wouldn’t exist without community support early on; there’s no question about that. Starting a documentary film festival is hard, but starting one in a small town in Maine is just silly. (Laughs.) It’s not the advice I would give anyone right out of film school. What’s been great is the way the community has rallied behind the idea right from the start, everyone just saying, “Look, we like this, we like you, and we want you to be a part of our community.” And that’s carried through all 14 years, where we’ve grown up from being this little organization to being the big event of the year. It’s great for hotels, restaurants – they’re always chock-full. Although there’s still room for more! In addition, this year, Showtime Documentaries is sponsoring a free shuttle that will take attendees and filmmakers from one screening venue to another, in all three towns, which really allows us to expand the connection and conversation between audience members and filmmakers. It’s really exciting.
Since there’s so much to see at CIFF, what advice do you have for people who want to experience the festival at its fullest?
Well, there are a few ways to go. You can come in with a plan and stick to it, or you can sort of go off-trail. I’m more of an off-trail kind of guy – that matches my personality. As far as the festival passes go, if you want to go to all the parties (which are super fun), then an all-access pass is the key. If not, but you still want to get the content and engage in deeper conversation about the films, then a forum pass would be fine. And, of course, you can buy individual tickets, too. What’s so great about a film festival like ours is that, however much you put into it, however deeply you invest yourself, that’s how much you’re going to get out of it. Basically, you should carve out the time and really jump in, especially if it’s your first time. The experience sticks with you far beyond a four-day film festival.
The 14th annual Camden International Film Festival takes place Thursday to Sunday in Camden, Rockland, and Rockport. For tickets, passes, film information, directions, screening venues and more, check out pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff.
Friday-Sunday: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” A teen (the always-great Chloë Grace Moretz) is sent by her parents to one of those “gay conversion” camps that Maine’s governor is, unsurprisingly, so fond of.