Festivals: Camden International Film Festival
On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in late September, I was second-guessing my choice to remain in the faintly mildewed Bay View Cinema in Camden, Maine while a delicious, mid-60s breeze was drifting in from the Atlantic outside. The film up on the screen had already played at numerous festivals since its premiere back in March, rendering it unlikely to be worth the real estate in my festival coverage, and thus in direct competition with the formidable specter of that mid-60s breeze, not to mention the fresh shellfish that never seemed more than a few feet away. But then something happened that I’d never experienced before in a movie theater.
The subject and protagonist of Bending Steel, Chris Schoeck, performed a feat that had seemed physically impossible (I’ll not spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film). The camera was positioned behind him on a stage facing an audience in Coney Island, and at the moment of triumph, the spectators in the film and in the theater erupted in unison. In all the applause, it was impossible to distinguish what was live and what was on film. I presumed that a similar phenomenon had occurred at the film’s previous screenings, and thought about the predictability of spontaneity, of Pavlov and his dog, of the mechanized sorcery of cinema. Yet it was also a moment, a happening, a live event unique to these people in this room on this day at the Camden International Film Festival. The transference seemed somehow more magical here, in a soon-to-be-razed old theater in Camden, where time, and the outside world, could be briefly banished.
Expedition to the End of the World
From Cedar Rapids to Castle Rock, and from Sacramento to Staten Island, North Americans throw nearly 200 film festivals every year. Many of these are basically civic-minded affairs, offering local residents an opportunity to see otherwise hard-to-see films. At the other extreme are a handful of massive, zero-vacancy-at-the-Marriott productions that invite an itinerant community of international filmmakers, journalists and industry folk into the locality. Either way, the production tends to benefit not just local businesses and politicians but the culturati and casual cinemagoers (for all of their industrial import, even Sundance and Toronto become audience-oriented by their second weekends).
But what of the festivals trying to navigate between these two models? What of the small-town festival that dreams a bit bigger, that caters to its specific community while also reaching out to the larger artistic one, that sees a festival not just as a chance to stoke the economy and throw a good party, but to contribute to the ongoing development of and conversation around the cinematic arts? Presided over by founder and executive director Ben Fowlie, the Camden International Film Festival (which is actually a Justice League–style team-up between the towns of Camden, Rockport, and Rockland) has gradually become a vital stop on the international documentary festival itinerary.
A lot of things go into the growth of a festival, not least the funding that allows for better guests, better and bigger venues, and big-think initiatives. But as festivals of all shapes and sizes have learned, what really matters—and what can’t be manufactured or fabricated—is strong programming. It should be said that the Camden International Film Festival is not, and has never been, a discovery festival. (Last Dreams, an elegiac Danish film about women in hospice care, was this year’s only world premiere.) Like True/False, Camden impresses not by being a first responder but by giving select films an ideal context in which to be seen. And through the Points North Documentary Forum, a synchronous series of industry seminars and discussion panels, most of which was held at the 120-year-old Camden Opera House, the festival is also tilling the soil for film mentoring, funding, and production.
Running into a filmmaker on shuttle rides between far-flung venues, or at town fixtures like Cappy’s Chowder House and French & Brawn Market, or at late-night parties that nicely evoked both Happenings and hootenannies, you could never be sure if he or she was in Maine to present, pitch, advise about a film. Whatever the purpose, the sense was that there was plenty of it. This year’s Camden slate largely eschewed the Sundance-approved popularity game for a kind of accessible rigor, discretely clustering films along formal and thematic lines that nevertheless frequently and freely overlapped.
You’d think that documentaries about seafaring and fishmongering might signal pandering to coastal Maine audiences, but the actual films were among the worthiest in the festival. In Expedition to the End of the World, a team of Danish scientists and artists journey deep into the unexplored, recently de-thawed Arctic with only their own curiosity to guide them. None of the sailing vessel’s passengers have a set mission in mind, and neither does director Daniel Dencik, resulting in a casually breathtaking but also frustratingly tedious journey. Which, to my mind, was precisely the point. Freed of a familiar narrative arc or any sense of what we might encounter along the way—polar bears? stir-crazed boredom? death-metal-scored seaplane flights?—the film exemplifies the kind of exploration that modern man (and the modern cinemagoer) hardly ever gets to experience. In both subject matter and form, this is undiscovered territory.
Though it chronicles a quotidian workday, every shot of David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Night Labor is an opportunity for revelation. Mainly comprised of austerely composed tripod shots, the 60-minute feature chronicles a day in the life of one Sherman Frank Merchant, a lanky, leathery laborer in a Stone Cold Steve Austin tee who digs for clams by day and works alone in a Maine fish factory by night. We’re made intimately aware of the tedium and degradation of Merchant’s tasks—he sweeps, he slops, he sharpens, he welds, he eats a microwave dinner in eerie solitude—but we’re also invited to scrutinize it all through foreign eyes (and ears), which means seeing more intently than we otherwise would.
Rather than a subject’s self-discovery, Pablo’s Winter tracks an elderly man’s descent into mortal resignation. The eponymous subject has the cantankerous, let-me-die-in-peace comportment of a Spanish Archie Bunker, while his strong-willed wife is indeed an inexplicably affectionate Edith. Faced with multiple health issues, he relents to try to quit smoking, at which point director Chico Pereira filters in details of Pablo’s working life in the town’s since-shuttered mines, which doubtless contributed to Pablo’s physical decline—not to mention his grim worldview. Pereira’s black-and-white cinematography is observational but dramatic, with the camera often planted on the kitchen table or in the corner of their cramped apartment, soaking up every shadow. Few scenes will mean more to me this year than the one in which Pablo and his wife act as apoplectic tourists in the mine that once employed him, or when Pablo concedes to briefly dancing, and locking eyes with, a woman he’s otherwise too aggrieved to remember he’s still crazy about.
In Petra Costa’s Elena, the director goes in search of her lost sister, who left their native Brazil at the age of 20 to become an actress and dancer in New York. Costa interweaves home movies, audio diaries, interviews, and her own imperfect memories (she was only 7 years old at the time) into an achingly intimate family mystery. Before Costa strains for universality via a metaphorically overwrought coda, her ripe, incantatory visuals make an intensely inward film feel open and inviting.
One of the festival’s most memorable portraits was surprisingly tucked inside of A.J. Schnack’s Caucus, an observational, Direct Cinema doc in the Pennebaker/Hegedus mold (Primary and The War Room are evident touchstones). The film chronicles the Republican run-up to the 2012 Iowa Caucus, from Michele Bachmann’s early spike to Rick Santorum’s late surge, and from soapbox style street speeches to bouts of the catered-spread munchies. The king of the latter turned out to be Santorum, who not only goes on to narrowly defeat Mitt Romney on caucus day, but also proves to be the most authentic human on display—two developments that Schnack subtly links. It’s hard to argue with that thesis, especially in light of the fact that Santorum’s emotional transparency appeals to larger and larger crowds over the course of the campaign, and considering that every other candidate comes across as either crass, clueless or harrowingly hollow-eyed.
Yet what’s our takeaway from this compelling sketch of Santorum, a candidate that would fail to overtake Romney on the national stage, and whose personalized platform was so intolerantly hostile to the personal interests of millions of Americans? It’s a question without an easy answer, yet one at least encouraged by this swing away from the kind of leftist agitprop that dominated the doc landscape during the Bush years.
In both Caucus and Town Hall, Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot’s smart and candid bifurcated profile of two Tea Party advocates in Pennsylvania, liberal filmmakers strive to look with clear eyes at politically conservative subjects. Such commitment to inquisitiveness, to pursuing some measure of understanding, is a truly heroic impulse, and allows the filmmakers to locate and showcase humanity in characters that one might be tempted to politically demonize. In Caucus, we get to see slick Rick Perry visibly moved by an enfeebled, wheelchair-bound WWII vet, and in Town Hall we come to recognize the loneliness and frustration behind the racist rantings of a man whose conservatism has warped into intolerant radicalism, and further into a swiftly deflating life preserver. Yet though there’s great value in such apolitical observation, narrative films still hunger for points of entry, for heroes and antiheroes that by dint of charisma, candor, likeability, earn the amoral affections of the camera. Both films are wise to trust that viewers can evaluate character and rhetoric for themselves, but to some degree it also behooves viewers to recognize the complex seductions (and necessities) of a self-contained story—lest Mr. Santorum emerge as the next movie-made Stephanopoulos.
It’s hard to imagine a film more resistant to the spoils of narrative than Public Hearing, an intentionally interminable re-enactment of a real-life public hearing in which various residents of Allegheny, New York spar over a proposed Wal-Mart superstore. Shot on black-and-white 16mm and entirely in close-up, the film looks and plays like an even lower-rent Computer Chess, with director James N. Kienitz Wilkins exulting in visual manifestations of boredom—he cuts away from rambling testimony to hands nervously fidgeting, Coke fizzing in a cup, and teeth chomping the butt of pen. You’re welcome to get invested in the hustling and dissembling of corporate consultants, or the strident ass-kissing of Wal-Mart employees, or the frustrations of environmentalists and homeowners horrified by the retailification of paradise. But ineffectuality and meaninglessness cover the proceedings with the weight of a lead blanket, and Wilkins practically dares you to escape. Even a five-minute bathroom break is dutifully replicated, leaving you to stare at a black screen and ponder why, exactly, you feel obligated to remain seated. Yet the gaps that Wilkins opens between reality and performance (within both the re-enactment and the sham of the event itself) prove irresistible to contemplate, even in the face of such banality.
Public Hearing may be the polar opposite of Bending Steel, but I found enduring the former as memorable, and meaningful, as exulting to the latter. That CIFF could create common ground for such disparate films shows great faith in local audiences, who turned out in solid numbers for all of the screenings I attended, as well as a sense of formal flexibility that will serve the festival well as documentaries continue to evolve and mutate, and continue to find secure harbor on the mid-coast of Maine.