LOCATED ROUGHLY HALFWAY between Portland and Bangor on the Maine coast, Camden is the very definition of a picturesque New England seaside town. The prim harbor is gaily dotted with spruce vessels, the last rays of setting sun lighting the declivity atop Mount Battie form a vision of beauty, and so forth. For these reasons and others, little Camden’s population swells over the summer—and since 2005, at the tail end of Vacationland season, it has been host to the Camden International Film Festival.
In nine years, CIFF has found a place among the elite of documentary fests. It draws an audience made up of townies, summer colony stragglers, filmmakers, industry figures convening for the Points North Documentary Forum, and University of Maine students. One of the last group warily informed me that he’d watched the festival become more polished and posh, less mom-and-pop, through the years. I can’t speak to this point—this was my first outing—but it still seemed a ways off from corporate despoliation.
About as mom-and-pop as you can get, CIFF is the brainchild of one Ben Fowlie, a Camden native whose father owns the convenience store that you pass when coming into town on Route 1. By all accounts, CIFF has grown significantly in both ticket sales and scope through the years, and with this have come inevitable growing pains. The venues for screenings and events are spread among the towns of Camden, Rockport, and Rockland. This in turn spreads around experienced personnel, leading to at least one unforgettable AV blooper—a Satanic voice interrupting the emotional climax of a Danish film about people dying in hospice care. (If intentional, it would’ve been a helluva stylistic gambit.) To zip between venues, the pedestrian visitor relies on a mysterious, down-to-the-wire, but improbably efficient shuttle system. Despite the bucolic surroundings, the four nights and three days of the festival were hectic. I didn’t meet a soul who wouldn’t come back in a heartbeat.
The tight program, including thirty-four features and a selection of shorts, shows an active curatorial intelligence and trust in audience intrepidity, evidently rewarded. Even films obviously programmed with local interest in mind couldn’t be belittled as “concessions.” Jillian Schlesinger’s Maidentrip, pitched to local mariners, follows Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Composed largely of Dekker’s selfies-at-sea home video, Maidentrip follows a predictable coming-of-age arc, although it would take a true grump to resist its total earnestness. Night Labor, by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (Girl Model, Downeast), is a collection of vignettes from the life of a rangy, raw-boned Mainer who leaves his hermit’s hollow to work the lonely night shift at a lobster processing plant. Save for the sound of its subject’s Popeye-like under-his-breath muttering as he goes about his rounds, the film is almost entirely free of dialogue, though it has a simple but totally engrossing, process-oriented hook—watching the preparation of a factory floor, we see the readying of mysterious implements whose use will only become evident at the film’s climax.
A formally shot, black-and-white character study filmed in Almadén, Spain, Chico Pereira’s Pablo’s Winter is also, after a fashion, a hymn to a working man’s fortitude. Curmudgeonly seventy-year-old Pablo is introduced as a doctor warns that his chain-smoking will be the death of him. Through Pablo’s season of nicotine withdrawal, Pereira observes his subject’s interactions with his wife, friends, a local boy, and a contemporary world which he finds disappointing in every respect. As the film progresses, Pereira slowly pulls back the curtain on Pablo’s personal history, revealing the origins of the obscure wound that still rankles. Almadén is home to the world’s largest mercury mine, source of all prosperity, strife, and sickness. Pablo spent his best years in the mines, and left something of himself there. While absolutely sculpting every scene, Pereira was unobtrusive enough to catch moments where his guarded subjects let their stoic masks slip. His shooting of Pablo and wife at a Saint Valentine’s Day dance highlights his admirable balance, peering over the brink of sentimentality without ever taking the tumble. When Pablo finally lights up again, we understand how completely he’s earned it.
Pereira’s film makes no secret of the fact that it has been directed. The same care evident in the precision editing and sound design shows in every oblique composition. There’s scarcely any handheld camerawork, and many scenes are intricately constructed from multiple setups. This is in accordance with an ongoing movement by filmmakers of every stripe to acknowledge that binaries like nonfiction/fiction or documentary/narrative have always been problematic at best, and a new willingness to further complicate that problem rather than smooth it over or ignore it.
James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s Public Hearing is a case study in neither-fish-nor-fowl filmmaking. A self-described enthusiast of “Internet archaeology,” Wilkins pulled the transcript of a real 2004 hearing over the expansion of a Wal-Mart in Olean, New York, off of a town hall website. This artifact would become his film’s script, to be reenacted by a large, mostly amateur cast performing at wildly disparate levels of believability. The corporate hired guns representing Wal-Mart talk in an inscrutable patois of acronyms and abbreviations—SEQUA, DOT, FEIS, FAIS—while the assembled townsfolk, speaking for both sides of the issue, are many of them quite eloquent. The material would seem to demand institutional blandness of the visuals, but Public Hearing, shot in textured 16-mm black-and-white, is rendered in a series of close-ups, all landscape-like faces and fidgeting, impatient hands. Wilkins cited Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as an influence, but the menagerie of American types represented within align it with the best of native satire—as well as the community theater tradition.
Another certain tendency in documentary filmmaking was on display in two noteworthy films, A. J. Schnack’s Caucus, and Town Hall, by Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot. Both are empathetic portrayals of perhaps the last despised subjects that even a liberal festival-going audience will automatically recoil from—that is, Republicans. (I was picked up at the Portland airport by no less a personage than a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives.)
Raucous Caucus follows the various hopefuls in the months leading up to the finish-line squeaker at the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus—by the end, indefatigable underdog Rick Santorum’s crooked visage has come to look downright noble. Made of unguarded moments captured on the fringes of the spotlight—an unexpectedly human moment with Rick Perry and an eighty-seven-year-old veteran, general weirdness from Michele Bachmann’s creepy-chummy husband—Schnack’s film looks at the national stage. Town Hall concentrates on the local level: Pettengill and Wignot follow two Tea Party activists in southeast Pennsylvania from their first euphoric breath of power in the 2010 general election to the comedown of the 2012 presidential defeat. The subjects are Katy Abram, a housewife who received notoriety for dressing down Democratic Senator Arlen Specter at a town hall meeting, and John Stahl, a former lingerie-outlet owner, fairly dripping with melancholy, preoccupied with caring for his ancient, disabled mother.
Visiting an Occupy Harrisburg meeting, Katy has the self-awareness to recognize a bizarro version of her own disenfranchisement—and watching these films, the leftish viewer can see obvious analogies between the apocalyptic rhetoric of the right in 2012 and that of the left in 2004. Drive-time right-wing radio is the refrain on the Town Hall sound track, immuring the true believer in a bathysphere of reinforced opinion, but both this film and Caucus pull a viewer out of the political comfort zone. This across-the-aisle curiosity is a move away from the didactic, “amen corner” movie-tracts of the “Buck Fush” era. (Also on hand, continuing a long festival tour, was Our Nixon, Penny Lane’s found footage chronicle of the thirty-seventh president’s travails, its emotional crescendo Nixon’s slurry goodbye to H. R. Haldeman.)
The filmmakers reported that both Santorum and Abram were pleased with how they appeared on-screen, and it’s not hard to see why, for both subjects are shown, at least in glimpses, at their best. This is undercut in Caucus by a wry bemusement, and in Town Hall by a hang-back-and-give-’em-enough-rope shooting style. (The observed material tends to be far stronger than the direct-address interview.) Nevertheless, Caucus and Town Hall both run the risk of confusing curiosity with advocacy—but what’s the point if you’re not taking risks?
Rachel Boynton certainly ran her share in making Big Men, a sprawling tale of oil industry cupidity that moves among an upstart energy company in Dallas; a newly discovered offshore oil field in Ghana, the country’s first; and the heavily armed guerrillas sabotaging pipelines in Nigeria, with whom the filmmaker rendezvoused. Tribal violence and corporate skullduggery join a weekend of dying Danes, the Mexican cartel wars of Narco Cultura, suicide by cigarette, and doom-and-gloom conservatism. Yes, Camden is a small town, and CIFF is a mom-and-pop festival—but it definitely ain’t quaint.
The ninth Camden International Film Festival ran September 26–29, 2013.