Festivals: Camden International Film Festival
Located midway between the cities of Portland to the south and Bangor to the north, Camden is a snug little harbor town in Maine set off against the mountains which cradle it against the sea, the whole scene as adorable as a miniature diorama. The area’s scenic beauty—the peak of Mt. Battie! the steeple of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church!—has not escaped the attention of those who make movies, and so, depending on your misfortune as a moviegoer, you may have seen Camden in such films as the Stephen King adaptation Thinner and Grown Ups 2.
Happily, the abovementioned titles aren’t the sole contribution that Camden has made to the world of cinematic arts. For the last decade, at the very end of September, while the summer residents are tarping up their boats, the town has played host to a four-day documentary film festival, the Camden International Film Festival. (The acronym is “CIFF”; spoken aloud, it sounds like hip slang for syphilis.) On the two occasions that I’ve had the pleasure of attending, CIFF has fallen opposite the opening weekend of the New York Film Festival, but this is less important than the fact that it falls approximately half a year after True/False—the Columbia, Missouri boutique fest that is to supporters and practitioners of formally ambitious documentary what Burning Man is to granolaheads and tech zillionaires—and so CIFF has become the nearest thing to T/F on the Eastern seaboard. Which is not to say that CIFF hasn’t established an identity very much its own, thanks in no small part to the Points North Documentary Forum, now in its sixth year, which includes a pitch award, and which this year was joined by “AJ+ Pitch,” a live pitch sponsored by Al Jazeera’s AJ+ channel.
Ne Me Quitte Pas
Aside from screening a smattering of obvious crowd-pleasers, the CIFF slate tends towards material that demands a fair amount of viewer sophistication, and is therefore lucky to take place far from NYU. The fest also asks for a certain measure of organizational discipline from attendees: each film screens once and only once, with venues spread between Camden and nearby Rockland. For Mainers, it’s an opportunity to catch up with various documentaries that have been picking up festival buzz through the year—Actress, Art and Craft, Rich Hill, Happy Valley, Ne Me Quitte Pas, The Overnighters—but for anyone who’s already pretty much caught up, there are additional inducements, and the occasional happy surprise.
The Iron Ministry
My first screening of the fest was J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, fresh from Locarno, next stop the NYFF. Here the co-director of People’s Park has mixed together scores of trips on the Chinese rail system, through all regions and in all levels of comfort, into one 82-minute journey. The film begins by buffeting the viewer with abstracting close-ups while exploring the nooks and crannies of a violently tremoring car: cigarette butts sloshing in black-as-tar water, raw meat being stored in the open air. The opening sets the table for a purely observational Sensory Ethnography-style catalog of “experiential” details, but Sniadecki doesn’t bind himself to any preordained template. This allows for one standout scene which begins when the filmmaker, a fluent Mandarin speaker, initiates a conversation with two Hui Muslim Chinese traveling for a holiday. They’re joined by two non-Muslim Chinese who ask the Hui questions about their lives, and as they do an undercurrent of tension becomes evident beneath the pleasant curiosity, a subtle back-and-forth in which the questioners encourage the Hui to say something—implicitly, for the camera—about the great liberties afforded to minorities in China, and the Hui politely demur, until finally the conversation drops off entirely. Similarly, The Iron Ministry doesn’t so much conclude as fall away: because Sniadecki is constantly revising his approach, by the time his film pulls into the proverbial station, there is no established style or theme to break with for accent. (The logical-if-perhaps-too-obvious end point would be the brief detour into a posh bullet train which once and for all banishes the illusion of this material coming from a single train ride.) Sniadecki’s free-form openness is winning, and he has gathered a handful of irresistible scenes together here, but when The Iron Ministry wraps, one has precisely the impression of having watched a handful of scenes rather than a fully realized work.
Jean-François Caissy’s Guidelines certainly can’t be accused of being too freewheeling. A favorite at the festival but to my mind too hemmed in by its own, uh, guidelines, the film’s subject are at-risk students at a secondary school in rural Quebec, and its various fixed-camera long-take tableaux are shot on and off school grounds. Time and again it returns us to dreary, dun-colored counselors’ offices, the frame in most instances set firmly on kids shot from an off-center perspective while they’re being interrogated and instructed by school authorities, vaguely reminiscent of Antoine Doinel at the head-shrinker in The 400 Blows. We never see the same student in the spotlight twice, which is a pity because some are simply more interesting than others—I’m thinking particularly of a husky-voiced girl, seemingly entirely free of empathy, who shows up within the first half-hour to be confronted over her bullying of another student, and is never heard from again. The rigidity of the school scenes is, I suppose, meant to contrast with the scenes of footloose outdoor idyll, but no real relaxation of the formal strictures is ever evident. Still, there’s enough here to mark Caissy as one to follow: he has an unfailing compositional eye, and a measure of visual wit, mostly evident in observation of improbably elastic young bodies.
Against the visual rigor and conceptual stiffness of Guidelines, I’ll pit Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara’s In Country. It’s a film that too often falls back on banal or predictable images, but it’s astir with material that prods at the ambivalences that many of us feel about the American martial tradition, and is at times greatly moving. Attie and O’Hara embedded themselves with a group if Oregon reenactors who, on weekends in their state’s verdant forests, keep on re-fighting the Vietnam War with blanks. Copping lingo learned from repeat viewings of , these guys first appear as figures of fun, though as the filmmakers follow them on their civilian rounds and dole out backstory—many are actual veterans or on active duty, and one is a Vietnamese national who fought with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—their psychological need for these war games becomes increasingly apparent. Reenactment footage is deftly intercut with the veteran’s home movies from the field and well-chosen archival material from Vietnam; the contrast never serving the purpose of simple mockery, but rather creating disquieting echoes along the corridors of history.
Waiting for August
On awards night, Guidelines earned a Special Jury Mention, while the same jury gave their Emerging Cinematic Vision Award prize to Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant, which documents the first year in the life of a New Jersey “Free School” in which young students are invited to create their curriculum on equal footing with their instructors. I should like to add an honorable mention of my own for Teodora Ana Mihai’s Waiting for August, which shares more than its gerund title with Approaching the Elephant—they’re both films about kids trying to work things out by themselves. (A comparison to Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’s Rich Hill is also apt, as both are films about striving for the appearance of domestic stability against staggering odds.)
In Mihai’s film, unobtrusive in style and cumulative in effect, the children are a brood of seven living on the top floor of an apartment block in Bacau, Romania. During the absences of their mother, who has to work in Italy 11 months out of the year in order to support them, 15-year-old Georgiana has emerged as something like the de facto caretaker, cooking, laundering, and supervising the running of the surprisingly functional household. (Eldest boy Ionut comes off as mostly useless, seen playing first-person shooter games on the shared antique PC, which is also used for choppy cam-chat sessions with mom.) Mihai’s film has already had its token New York run at the Quad Cinema, but it deserves some kind of afterlife, for it achieves a rare mixture of total access and respectful distance which made Georgiana the most compelling subject I encountered at this year’s CIFF.