CIFF 2017

Accessible love, on the big screen(s)

By Dagney C. Ernest | Sep 06, 2017
“A River Below” reveals the murky waters plied by two very different activists intent on saving the Amazon pink river dolphin from being hunted to extinction.

The 13th Camden International Film Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 14 through 17, in Camden, Rockport and Rockland. Screening 37 features and 35 shorts, the documentary film fest also showcases the emerging medium of virtual reality filmmaking and runs concurrently with the Points North Forum, dedicated to supporting up-and-coming filmmakers via master classes, workshops and funding opportunities.

Filmmakers who have completed projects are coming to CIFF 2017 in droves. Typically, about a third of the festival’s films are screened sans their creators, but this year, all but a handful are accompanied.

“Essentially, all the filmmakers we’ve invited are coming, so almost every screening will have the filmmakers present, which is pretty crazy,” said programmer Samara Chadwick, a few weeks before opening night.

Sean Flynn, Points North Institute program director, agreed, citing the increase in the number of filmmakers coming with finished work, coming to pitch their projects and filmmakers “just coming because they’re coming.”

“It’s exciting for us, obviously, because we’re in this world, but for anybody who not only wants to experience a film but meet these filmmakers, you’ll be bumping into them everywhere you go and have a chance to interact directly,” he said.

Ben Fowlie, Points North executive director and festival founder, said the filmmakers’ presence creates some extra scheduling challenges, as almost every screening will be followed by a Q&A session. And he expects the audience also will expand, given the accessible nature of many of the film selections this year.

“In a lot of ways, it’s the program we’ve been trying to build towards for a long time,” he said. “We’re able to highlight some very new work, which is always exciting for us … and I’m really excited about these large, kind of biopics we have.”

Those include “Love Means Zero,” Jason Kohn’s film about famed tennis couch Nick Bollettieri; and Lili Fini Zanuck’s “Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars,” which will make its United States premiere at CIFF shortly after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s not the only film coming from TIFF to CIFF. The fall film festival cycle is something Fowlie, Flynn and Chadwick have been discussing since spring. A third of this CIFF's films are premiering for U.S. audiences.

“That for us is a big kind of mark of recognition from the filmmakers’ side, but also just the industry understanding that we’ve become a platform where this work can come straight from Toronto, before it even comes to New York,” Fowlie said.

That means Midcoast residents have the opportunity to see some of the best new documentary work before much of the rest of the country has access to it. This year, CIFF attendees also get a sneak preview of a new investigative documentary by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, who will be in attendance — and those are all the details that can be shared about the Secret Screening Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Camden Opera House.

In addition to the hometown opera house, CIFF screenings will be held at Rockport Opera House; and Rockland’s Strand Theatre and Farnsworth Art Museum. The Points North Forum’s master classes, panels and artist conversations have outgrown the town of Camden Meeting Room, so the fest will be using the Tucker Room, the parish hall of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church and the upstairs space of High Mountain Hall this year.

“It’s a gorgeous spot … a beautiful environment,” said Fowlie.

The CIFF Hub, where volunteers check in and out, passes can be purchased or picked up and programs and fest merchandise are available, tends to move around; this year it's right on Elm Street/Route 1, in the storefront once filled by Prince’s Furniture. The new spaces “create more of a walkable footprint in Camden,” said Fowlie.

Festival attendees will be walking around Rockland, too. In addition to the Farnsworth’s auditorium and the Strand Theatre, the “barn” on Winter Street, diagonally across from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, will again host Storyforms. Introduced last year, this is CIFF’s virtual reality venue, dedicated to a medium that is evolving quickly.

“There are a lot more VR artists here this year and it’s a really exciting year: some of the technologies are really maturing, and some of the artists we’re working with are really figuring out new ways of using it as a medium for expression,” said Flynn.

For example, there are several projects that are “not just sitting in a chair looking at a 360-degree video, but you’re actually able to put on a headset and sort of walk around a virtual environment,” he said.

“Tree” by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter is a case in point, offering the haptically enhanced experience of being a rain forest tree, growing from a seedling to a 150-foot giant in less than 10 minutes.

“It’s sort of a multi-sensory experience,” said Flynn. “Different components that get triggered throughout play with your sense of touch and smell. It’s really unique, it’s really trying to play with a new paradigm that is becoming more integrated.”

Last year’s Storyforms featured VR journalism by The Guardian and The New York Times; the latter now offers a “daily 360” on its smartphone app. And PBS’ long-running documentary series “Frontline” is back, building on The Guardian's "6x9" solitary confinement work at the barn last year. “After Solitary” takes a more interpersonal approach as it follows an ex-con. Another “Frontline” walk-around VR work, offered as a Sneak Peek, focuses on climate change and glacier melt in Greenland.

“Both are pretty fascinating, I think, because ‘Frontline’ has this reputation for sort of old-school broadcast journalism with narration and talking heads; and they’re really trying to find ways of being on the cutting edge of emerging media, so they can develop new models for doing investigative reporting, kind of placing people inside the story,” Flynn said.

Many of this year’s films place viewers inside a story via the heart — even when the subjects have large societal implications.

“There’s the politics of following a protest and there’s the politics of just creating a work engaging with humans as you tell their story,” said Chadwick. “I think the tendency in the last 10 years has been to analyze and to dissect … there’s a lot less cynicism this year. I keep saying, there’s so much love in these stories!”

One of the larger issues tackled in both analysis and character portrait modes is the Syrian refugee crisis. While last year’s films on the subject were gritty, on-the-ground documentation, this year’s program offers work by refugee filmmakers who ended up in Europe and are beginning to create work that reflects on the journey and where it has led for those who survived it.

Friday's full day of programming at the Farnsworth focuses on the Syrian crisis. The films take different approaches; one, “69 Minutes of 86 Days,” follows a young girl on her refugee journey from a Greek refugee center to Uppsala, Sweden, literally filmed from her vantage point — director Egil Håskjold Larsen only shot from a 3-year-old’s low-to-the-ground perspective. It’s an example of the many films that take a strong directorial approach, said Chadwick. “Taste of Cement,” which Fowlie called "gut-wrenching," is another such film.

“He’s a refugee who, like many Syrians, was working in Beirut, building these crazy skyscrapers. It’s shot from the point of view of all these construction workers, who are building this city that is not their own — their own, in Syria, has fallen and is awaiting their return,” Chadwick said.

“You could spend the day there, just absorbing,” said Fowlie of the refugee-focused day. “All three films are completely different; one ["Sand and Blood"] is all archival; ‘Taste of Cement’ is a cinematic, meditative film; and ‘69 Minutes of 86 Days’ offers that kind of emotional attachment.”

The 2017 film festival is especially rich in short subjects, a number of which are making premieres and whose filmmakers come from more than 30 countries. As always, the Shorts First programs that open each morning are free, offering everyone a chance to see what documentary storytelling is all about. Fowlie admits that in past years, the short programs have been “a bit of a hodgepodge — a grab bag of shorts,” but this year’s offerings are more curated.

“When Samara came and joined, it’s the first year I’ve ever really had a programmer that I could bounce ideas around or argue with; it was such an important part of the process, like happens with Sean,” Fowlie said.

Chadwick also has created what Fowlie calls an experimental sidebar shorts program of films from all over the world. For another shorts lineup, CIFF is partnering with Field of Vision, part of First Look Media, on a collection of work about visual journalism.

“It takes kind of the OpDocs model, but having it be much more cinematic in scope, working with some of the most acclaimed directors out there today — many of which have come through outdoors in some capacity — as feature filmmakers,” Fowlie said.

Of course, the Dirigo Docs program is in place, featuring “a really awesome collection” of short films shot in Maine, albeit not always by Maine filmmakers. Another Maine-made film is the feature “Maineland,” which is about Fryeburg Academy and its Chinese student exchange.

“Miao Wang is an incredible filmmaker we’ve been tracking for years. We’ve been following this project through the Forum,” said Fowlie. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring another Maine community to our community.”

The CIFF team wants to make sure the Midcoast community is aware there are plenty of opportunities to take in a film without buying a festival pass. The aforementioned Shorts First programs are free and open to the public, as is the Points North Pitch session Saturday morning at the Camden Opera House; and one can walk up to the box office for most screenings and get in for $10.

“For some of the highlight screenings, Friday or Saturday nights, you might need a pass for that; and if you want to go to the parties, you definitely need a pass,” said Flynn.

“That said, we’ve added a lot of venues over the past two years to accommodate the congestion around Saturday night,” said Fowlie.

It promises to be a creative congestion around the Midcoast Sept. 7 through 10, thanks to all the filmmakers bringing their work to CIFF. And it may not just be the love of storytelling that brings them here.

“I just want to say that word’s gotten around that the Camden film festival is the funnest festival in the world,” said Chadwick.

To peruse all the film selections for the 13th annual Camden International Film Festival, see the schedule and purchase tickets, visit

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