On September 26, while many in the independent film community paraded around in ball gowns and tuxedos at opening night of the New York Film Festival, others donned flannel shirts and rubber elk masks to dance the night away at the Camden Film Festival.
And while the former took place at the newly revamped Tavern on the Green in Central Park, the latter went down at the Bicknell Building, a studs-out industrial space down by the docklands of Rockland, Maine. Now, there’s room in this world — not to mention our wardrobes — for both approaches. But it’s sometimes hard, especially on nights when David Fincher and Ben Affleck walk the red carpet, to recognize that film culture can be just as vibrant beyond the twinned meccas of New York and Los Angeles. In fact, the vitality of film culture may depend on it.
Even though it celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, CIFF is still, in a sense, arriving. That’s not meant to diminish its accomplishments or reputation within the documentary community, but rather to underscore how the larger film industry has changed and continues to change, which invites festivals like CIFF to evolve apace. All throughout the parties, dinners, panels and presentations, at screening rooms in neighboring towns Camden, Rockland and Rockport, CIFF wore its decennial laurels honorably. But it also seemed a little beside the point, like a perfunctory glance backwards while the train rushes thrillingly, frighteningly ahead. There’s little time to look in the mirror when others are looking to you for guidance.
“Festivals have, by and large, replaced the arthouse circuit in terms of where people go to gather and watch and talk about and think about new independent films,” said True/False co-founder David Wilson on a panel Saturday, and it’s a sentiment widely echoed these days. As the theatrical model falters, festival culture, and its financial model, holds steady; and as live, big screen, people-in-the-seats screening opportunities grow scarcer for indies, festival showings become the main event rather than merely a buzz-generating opening act.
So how has Camden, a small local festival seven hours north of New York, become such a significant showcase for new documentaries? It starts, as it must, with the programming.
1) By programming with personality and curiosity.
For a festival based in an idyllic New England town, to which people travel just to look at its boat-dotted harbor and outrageously color-saturated fall foliage, CIFF has a serious case of wanderlust. Of the 31 features in this year’s program, more than a third were made by non-Americans, and more than half were filmed abroad. Along with tragicomic festival veteran “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” two of the best films I saw at Camden parachuted into town from foreign lands.
In Teodora Ana Mihai’s “Waiting For August,” seven siblings are left to fend for themselves in a Romanian flat after their mother relocates to Italy for work. While the younger kids test boundaries and long for mommy, roost ruling eldest daughter Georgiana, 15 (going on 35), is imprisoned by myriad responsibilities. She’s also a nonfiction superstar, interplaying the roles of self-conscious teen, world-wearied caretaker, and moral conduit. Romanian-born, Belgian-raised Mihai shot her footage over nine months, and her construction boldly eschews scene making in favor of elliptical fragments. Her strategy may alienate some viewers, but I found it to be an uncanny articulation of what it’s like to live within an absence—to wish time away while also remaining stuck, often intensely, within it.
Adults are largely absent from Jean-Francois Caissy’s “Guidelines” as well, at least visually. For most of the film’s running time, a stationary camera locks on Quebecois high schoolers as they confess misbehaviors to off-screen guidance counselors. One kid can’t fathom an argument that doesn’t involve a physical altercation. Another admits to harassing a fellow classmate. We’ve been trained, thanks to documentaries built to morally agitate, to assume that these are lost children, and that the adults are only making matters worse — but “Guidelines” consistently captures counselors who seem to know what they’re doing, and kids who seem to know what they’re doing as well (whether or not they’re capable of stopping it is another matter). We’re not discovering full characters, but instead glimpsing adolescents at a specific moment in their lives — when they’re young enough to fuck up without really fucking up, yet old enough to cop to, and sometimes even laugh at, their missteps and deviousness.
2) By opting out of the premieres game.
Like True/False, its kindred spirit out in Missouri, CIFF doesn’t bother with the premieres game. Rather than insist on tilling virgin territory, festival founder and executive director Ben Fowlie — along with managing director Caroline von Kühn — simply stacked the slate with films that seemed like a good fit. Some had played basically everywhere (“Happy Valley,” “The Overnighters”), while others were just starting out (“The Iron Ministry”).
In principle, programming premieres is important and alluring, but in practice risks serving vanity instead of audiences and worthy filmmakers. Which is not to say that Fowlie and Co. couldn’t have dug deep for a few more never-before-seen titles, or that there’s little purpose in screening a film like “E-Team” mere weeks before it premieres nationwide on Netflix. But there’s frankly more to be gained by calling attention to non-premieres that have been under-seen, such as the aforementioned “Waiting For August” and “Guidelines,” as well as Sara Dosa’s “The Last Season,” Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara’s “In Country,” and Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber’s “Tomorrow We Disappear.”
All of these debuted in bigger international festivals, and all were much better served — in terms of both audience and attentive press — at the more compact and manageable Camden. Yes, a first wave of press coverage can be dependent on premiere status, but what happens when that coverage is muted or nonexistent due to the sheer volume at play in a Tribeca or Hot Docs? It’s at places like Camden, True/False and Little Rock — smartly programmed pocket doc fests — that these films can be spotlighted and prioritized. Programming lesser films simply for the sake of premiering them would steal oxygen from these worthier non-premieres, not to mention drag down the overall quality of the slate. Festivals, big and small, that go the premiers route would be well served to at least consider the benefits of Camden’s approach.
3) By welcoming and nurturing both the documentary and local cinephile communities.
Thanks to the coterminous Points North Forum, an annual, two-day program filled with panels, masterclasses, workshops, and pitch sessions, Camden has become an essential stop on the festival circuit for film professionals who don’t even have a film in circulation. On Saturday morning, while films screened in all three participating towns, the Camden Opera House was packed with a panel of 13 preeminent, and opinionated, doc funders (Catapult, LEF, Ford), broadcasters (POV, ITVS, Al Jazeera America), and producers, faced off by seven pitching teams (including eventual winners Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill for their project The Reagan Years)—and that’s not even counting the standing room crowd. It’s 150 minutes of inside baseball, but it’s gripping theater nevertheless.
Much like the festival proper, Points North performs a dual function of serving the itinerant doc community while illuminating the midcoast Maine community on what it takes to fund, make and release a documentary film. While towns like Park City tend to become colonized by coastal interlopers during the run of a festival, Camden seems to merge with its guests. The majority of seat holders at screenings have All Access or standard Festival passes, and are collared with lanyards just like filmmakers, industry pros and press.
4) By putting on a good show.
Two-thirds of the features in the fest had filmmakers and/or subjects attending, which is an impressive show of force considering films only screen once, and there’s rarely more than 20 minutes available for post-screening discussion. It serves to make every screening, and every appearance, into an event.
That said, for a festival with the amplifying reputation and gathering clout of CIFF, greater efforts could be made to ensure a smooth and theater-worthy presentation of films. If we’re to put stock in David Wilson’s notion that festivals have replaced arthouses in terms of theatrical projection and spectacle, festivals great and small need to dedicate resources toward presenting films in the very best light. Considering these are some of the most crucial, welcoming, and best-attended screenings of these films’ lives, troubleshooting to reduce the chances of corrupt or stuttering files, missing subtitles, low-res pixilation and blown-out sound, should be made a top priority.
I’ve encountered some of these same issues in far fancier settings, and I’d never wish away CIFF’s homemade qualities — the $1.25 popcorn at the sadly soon-to-be-defunct Bayview Street Cinema in Camden, the ultra-local sponsors (Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors Magazine) and ever-present and giddily enmeshed members of the festival’s Board of Directors — but the grace period for transitioning from film to digital probably should be ending soon. For filmmakers, the stakes for these festival screenings continue to increase.
5) By knowing how to have a good time.
Every festival wants to say that they throw a good party, but few festivals throw a party better party than CIFF. It’s one thing to rent a fancy space and put free drinks in everyone’s hands. It’s another thing entirely to turn ordinary local spaces into canvases onto which the festival can paint a picture of itself. Thanks to special events gurus Erin Molitor, Ethan Kiermaier, and Colin Sullivan-Stevens, locations like the Brewster Point Barn and the earlier mentioned Bicknell Building become enveloping, approachable art installations overflowing with personality. Everything has a handmade feel, from lanterns and decorations to backlit false walls.
With only a long weekend during which to present and establish an identity, Camden doesn’t squander these extra-curricular hours. At midnight on Friday, while the NYFF crowd craned around corners to catch site of movie stars grazing a buffet, Camden’s party was a blur of filmmakers, trustees, programmers, grad students and critics. They were talking about “The Iron Ministry,” stressing over the next morning’s pitches, dancing to Beyoncé, taking smoke breaks on makeshift haystacks under the autumn Maine moon, and generally, actually, coming together.