Coming full circle: CIFF 2017

Sep 13, 2017
Although he promises his wife and daughters he will not return to competitive mixed martial arts fighting, a man secretly begins training for the dangerous sport that gives him a sense of purpose in Jeff Unay’s “The Cage Fighter.”

Dagney C. Ernest — The “lucky 13th” Camden International Film Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 14 through 17, in Camden, Rockland and Rockport, but luck is a small part of its success. Its focus on nurturing emerging filmmakers has led from the initial film festival format to the concurrent Points North Forum and, last year, to the nonprofit Points North Institute to encompass them both and more.

“The whole mission for the institute to become a platform for launching this next generation of storytellers … is really apparent in the program this year,” said Ben Fowlie, executive director of the PNI and CIFF founder. “More than half of the projects we’re screening are from first- or second-time filmmakers, and we’re really thrilled with the opening night film.”

That film, “Shot in the Dark,” is from 27-year-old Dustin Nakao Haider. It’s his first feature, and the Thursday night screenings at the Camden Opera House is the world premiere.

“It’s a really powerful portrait of several high schools in West Chicago, using basketball as a means to stay out of trouble and stay off the street,” Fowlie said. “It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story that packs an emotional punch, and this is a big part of our mission. It’s not just with the residencies and the retreat programs we’re doing, but also with the program.”

The 2017 CIFF’s program of 37 features and 35 shorts reflects the work of Fowlie, Points North Program Director Sean Flynn and programmer Samara Chadwick to shape the fest to reflect the expanding dynamic of documentary storytelling in subject matter, directorial approaches and technologies, while staying true to the commitment to supporting emerging artists.

That commitment provides one of the most interesting options for the public, on that is free to all: The Points North Pitch, presented this year by SHOWTIME Documentary Films, in which six selected Fellows present their works before a live audience and receive critical feedback from a panel of funders, broadcasters, distributors and producers. Each filmmaking team gets intensive pitch training workshops and one-on-one meetings leading up to the Pitch, which has become one of the most respected pitching events in North America. The winner receives the Points North Pitch Award and Modulus Finishing Fund.

“We got over 200 applicants and some really big names, but we chose the ones that were relatively unknown and had received relatively little support from, at least, the American funding community,” said Chadwick.

A number of films on the CIFF schedule are finished projects that got early exposure via the Pitch. One of them, “Whose Streets,” is among a number of films that address the beginning of what has become the Black Lives Matter and other current social justice and political movements in America.

“She pitched here two years ago; it was one of her first introductions to the industry; her name is Sabaah Folayan and it’s a really extraordinary account of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, from the ground up in Ferguson,” said Flynn.

“Whose Streets” ended up premiering at Sundance, got picked up by Magnolia and is now seeing theatrical release, “so we’re thrilled to bring her full circle to Camden. She’ll be here and on a panel discussion, as well, to kind of grapple with these questions,” said Flynn.

Another CIFF selection infused with the race politics that have become front and center is David’s Byars’ “No Man’s Land,” which chronicles the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by the alt-right free-trade movement.

“He got access to these guys while they were behind the barricades, waiting for the FBI to start circling in. So these are two examples of films that deal with these kind of movements at that level — people trying to assert their voices and make change — and yet, there’s a lot of other really sort of reflective and poetic films,” said Flynn.

“Whose Streets” and “No Man’s Land” are two of eight films that have passed through the Points North program, either the Fellowship or the Camden/TFI Retreat, a June collaboration with Tribeca Film Institute and CNN Films. Last year saw the launch of an editing residency for short subjects, in collaboration with Maine Media Workshop. These films have had premieres at major festivals, are picking up awards and getting distribution, so returning to CIFF has a full-circle resonance.

“I think it’s really nice that all of them feel like it’s a homecoming for them,” said Flynn. “They’re not from Camden, but they have a sort of emotional attachment to this place, because oftentimes their experience on the stage of the Camden Opera House was the first time introducing themselves to the industry,” said Flynn.

The returnees include “The Sensitives,” about people suffering from the mysterious condition called multiple chemical sensitivity, from filmmaker Drew Xanthopoulos. “The Reagan Show,” which won the 2013 Pitch, is coming to CNN as well as CIFF. “The Cagefighter,” titled “Gray Water” when pitched, is about an aging mixed martial arts fighter approaching his 40th birthday.

“It’s just an incredible kind of family drama that no other filmmaker could have captured besides Jeff [Unay],” said Flynn. “These are all part of our family and definitely fills us with pride to see how well these films have turned out and to bring them back here!”

Also returning is Elaine McMillion Sheldon, who pitched a feature-length doc last year. This year, she is bringing a powerful new Netflix Original film that will be given a free, public Points North Impact screening Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Camden Opera House.

“This is a 30-minute short film that we’re beyond thrilled to screen,” said Fowlie. “I think it’s going to be, as far as a conversation starter, the film we’ve been waiting for to tackle this issue, like we did with aging.”

That issue being the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis, which has hit Maine harder than many states. The screening of “Heroin(e)” will be followed by a panel discussion with leaders from across Maine working on the frontlines of the epidemic; confirmed panelists as of Sept. 11 include Kenny Miller, executive director of the Health Equity Alliance; and Rosanna Boyce, a Maine resident in recovery and advocate for improved treatment.

Maine’s Sen. Angus King expressed approval of the free public event at CIFF, saying the opioid epidemic continues to destroy lives and tear apart families in Maine and across the country.

“This is a crisis, plain and simple. I’m glad to see efforts to shine a light on both the impact of opioids and the way communities are rallying to battle this epidemic — because if we’re going to save lives, we need all hands on deck,” King said.

Fowlie said “Heroin(e)” truly showcases the power of nonfiction storytelling. And its appearance at CIFF reflects the festival, and now institute, focus on artist support programs.

“Elaine is someone we’ve been supporting for many years, even before the Fellowship,” said Flynn. “She did some really groundbreaking work in interactive documentary early in her career, and we showcased some of that.”

She also was at the fest a few years ago, producing a podcast of leaders in film and media.

“I think she’s just one more example of somebody who kind of has become part of the community and this network that’s been cultivated here, just doing bigger and bigger things every year and really making a name for herself,” Flynn said.

The other film/discussion in the Points North Impact Program is Ky Dicken’s “Zero Weeks,” which explores the crisis around America’s lack of paid leave and the cost of doing nothing. Confirmed panelists include representatives from the Alzheimer's Association, Down East magazine and Family Values at Work.

The Points North Impact screenings build on the success of last year’s CIFF screenings and panel discussions highlighting gun control and the impact of climate change on the local fishing economy; as well as the popular Aging in Maine film series, which has reached nearly 60 communities across Maine since 2013.

For complete festival information and to peruse all the film selections for the 13th annual Camden International Film Festival, visit pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff. The Camden International Film Festival Box Office, located at 56 Elm St./Route 1, is open noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 13 and 14;  9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16; and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17.

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