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Positive disruption: CIFF 2018

By Dagney C. Ernest | Sep 11, 2018
Tracy Edwards and her all-female sailing crew take on the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race in “Maiden.” CIFF announced Sept. 14 that this film cannot be screened as the closer; a second showing of "Free Solo" will take its place Sunday night.

The Camden International Film Festival “arrived” some years ago and has always championed big-tent nonfiction storytelling via a variety of approaches. This year, in some ways, the form has caught up with the festival.

“Last year, we said, you know, we really feel like we're starting to get the kind of the work we've been striving to get for a long time,” said Ben Fowlie, festival founder and Points North Institute executive director.

And this year?

“The floodgates opened,” said Sean Flynn, Points North’s program director.

The 2018 CIFF opens Thursday, Sept. 13, and runs through Sunday night, the 16th. Screenings are at the Camden and Rockport opera houses; and, in Rockland, the Strand Theatre and the auditorium of Farnsworth Art Museum. It will be easier to get to the venues this year, thanks to a two-school-bus shuttle loop that will run every 35 minutes all day Friday and Saturday; and half of Sunday. The shuttle is funded by Showtime Documentary Films, back for another year as headlining sponsor of CIFF and presenting sponsor of the Points North Fellowship.

“They're really excited about finding ways to kind of elevate the CIFF experience. Even locals who want to jump on and meet people and have conversations about the work will be able to do so,” said Fowlie.

He, Flynn and programmer Samara Chadwick attend a number of other film festivals in the course of each year and can attest that “you never know who you're going to meet!” on the shuttle rides. But that’s part of CIFF’s draw, rubbing shoulders with both emerging and established filmmakers … and falling in love with films you might never see otherwise. This year’s program, however, opens with a documentary by a director whose work has been seen all over this year … and he will be here in person for the screening.

“We're going to open the festival with the latest film from Morgan Neville, who did the Mister Rogers doc, this year, and ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom.’ It’s about the greatest film never completed, a film by Orson Welles,” said Fowlie. “It's really big!”

“They'll Love Me When I'm Dead” premiered in Venice Sept. 2, so the CIFF screening — Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Camden Opera House and 8 p.m. at the Rockport one — will be one of the first in this country. Chadwick describes it as the career backstory of someone known as the creator of the best film ever made (“Citizen Kane”), “… of his life, his relationships and his disillusionment with the industry. It’s also is just a supremely touching film that sets the tone for the whole festival — it’s about friendship and creative collaboration,” she said.

It also comes on the heels of the second-highest-grossing documentaries of all time, so the CIFF team wonders if Morgan might not be the first to be Oscar-nominated twice in the same year.

“He's so supremely talented, represents the caliber of filmmaking we look for at CIFF so well, and yet it also is just so universally enjoyable,” said Chadwick.

The closing film is likely to be another barnburner, especially in a coastal town that just hosted a classic sailing regatta and a windjammer festival. CIFF will present the U.S. premiere of “Maiden,” Alex Holmes’ film about then-24-year-old Tracy Edwards and the first all-female sailing crew (1989) to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race.

“It just seemed like a beautiful, uplifting, positive way to end. The festival has a lot of really intense stuff in the middle, but we’re sandwiching it between some really big crowd-pleasers,” said Fowlie. ** NOTE: "Maiden" will not be shown; a second screening of "Free Solo" will take its place. **

The CIFF team is pleased that the 2018 programming reflects true gender parity, across the board — features and shorts; Points North master classes, workshops and classes; StoryForms; and jury. And that’s not all.

“We've got indigenous filmmakers coming in. We have our North Star program that's bringing in filmmakers of color. There's a lot going on about who gets to tell stories, a certain way that is being disrupted right now and in very positive, energizing ways,” Chadwick said. “It's not about opposition or antagonism, it's just about inviting in new voices and embracing this moment where a lot of new possibilities are emerging.”

While CIFF always promotes its home state via a Dirigo Shorts program, one of this year’s highlighted films is also Maine-based … and it’s an alum of the Points North Fellowship, one of four such films in this year’s program. “Dawnland” tells the tale of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the first such commission in the country. It’s a documentary about a documentary process, said Chadwick.

“The TRC mostly focuses on the forced relocation of Wabanaki people and delves into some very sensitive and kind of traumatic territory, in a way that I think is itself very sensitive,” Flynn said.

The filmmakers and programmers address the inherent questions around white intrusion into nonwhite communities that have been traumatized by past interactions. There’s “a deep conversation” to be had, said Flynn, and “Dawnland” will be used as a way to open it. There will be discussion after the film with the filmmakers, as is the case with many a CIFF selection.

“But mostly we're bringing quite a few people in the community to lead the conversation, and also an indigenous rights activist coming in from Seattle who's going to be involved in different stages of the programming, including the North Star residency,” said Chadwick. “The idea of what indigeneity means — how to decolonize our approaches in, again, inviting ways, not antagonizing, while also acknowledging the history.”

Hidden history comes alive in “Putin’s Witnesses,” a new film that completes a trilogy by acclaimed Russian director Vitaly Mansky, now self-exiled in Latvia and headed to CIFF from TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival runs through the 16th). CIFF will present all three documentaries, released five years apart, in what is the fest’s first retrospective.

“To have someone of that stature, that experience and talent, it seemed really appropriate,” said Fowlie.

Mansky has been making films for 30 years; Chadwick described “Putin’s Witnesses” as a home video of sorts, filmed in the Kremlin in 1999 and featuring Putin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

“It's a film that would never be made today, but all his films are like that … he just has this grit and this humor and this color, this very cinematic way of approaching his world,” she said.

Another film that offers how-did-they-get-that footage is “Free Solo,” which documents Banff Mountain Film Fest favorite Alex Honnold’s preparations for his 2017 free (i.e., no ropes) ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall. The latest film from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin is a Nat Geo production and will premiere at TIFF; the CIFF screening is 9 p.m. Friday at the Camden Opera House.

“We’re still figuring out who is coming … we’re obviously talking about cinematography that is pretty special,” Fowlie said. “But Alex is still living in a van, so they can't get him to come.”

One of CIFF’s three world premieres, “Young Men and Fire,” also follows its subjects into death-defying adventure.

“I would call them people who were discarded in some ways … people who have felonies and can't get jobs, who are recovering addicts, boys who were lost trying to figure out what their next steps are in life. They all end up in Oregon training to become firefighters,” Fowlie said.

The CIFF team has known about the project for a few years; the recent fires in California have made the film even more powerful.

“It's one of those really heartbreaking things to say this film is coming in at the right time, but it really is,” Fowlie said.

Other films also reflect the events of recent years.

“No surprise at all a lot of films are tackling these very difficult issues and are kind of exposing the machinery that has led to our world being where it is right now — and done with a lot of creativity,” said Chadwick.

A couple of brand-new, TIFF-premiered docs lead the way. “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes” is directed by Alexis Bloom and produced by CIFF regular Alex Gibney. "It’s about media and the way that stories propel through media," said Chadwick. "That’s something people in the nonfiction world think a lot about," said Flynn.

“How these images are received and how people are primed to either trust or mistrust certain kinds of information is a big kind of background for some of the conversations at the Forum,” he said.

Making its U.S. premiere will be “What is Democracy,” directed by Astra Taylor, who was active in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Chadwick describes her as a major activist filmmaker who works the intersection of politics and philosophy. And another direct-from-TIFF film is Maxim Pozdorovkin’s “The Truth About Killer Robots,” about artificial intelligence, of course, “but also touches on this world of misinformation and how through user-generated media these entire communities are created and live in alternate worlds,” said Flynn.

The fest’s StoryForms barn in Rockland — this year offers a one-day pass to explore what had been festival-passholder-only programming — continues to demonstrate that virtual reality does not have to be “living in alternative worlds.”

“Everything in the StoryForms program in some ways points towards how can we use new technologies to creatively represent the world in new ways — the world that we live in, not a world we're going to escape to and detach ourselves like you see in a lot of other kind of immersive media,” said Flynn.

The StoryForms barn, across Winter Street from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, will have a “slow cinema” projection space for four major installations; and another dozen or so 360-degree cinema options.

“So there’s a cluster of headsets … it's kind of choose-your-own-adventure. You can go anywhere in the world for the first five or 10 minutes,” Flynn said.

For a free and truly unusual not-on-a-screen experience, the public is invited to hug a tree on Camden’s Village Green. Flynn has been trying to get a friend from the MIT Media Lab to create what he calls “the Easter egg of the festival,” and this is the year. Gershon Dublon will install the audio-haptic “ListenTree,” conceived with Edwina Portocarrero, via trees in the park, in collaboration with the “Dawnland” team and the town of Camden.

“He’s built a technology that allows trees to become a medium for recorded sound … using a principle called bone conduction, you can essentially press your face to the tree and hear sound coming out,” Flynn explained.

The sounds to be heard are Wabanaki traditional songs and perhaps stories.

“It’s just another example of all these new ways of representing, but also transmitting, nonfiction,” said Flynn.

For all the fest’s international cred, the Midcoast figures in a number of films. The Dirigo Shorts program includes “Underwater Rockland,” directed by David Pottle; “Angelo the Shepherd,” filmed in Sicily by North Haven’s Cecily Pingree; “Alan Magee: art is not a solace,” directed by David Berez and David Wright; and “Not a Citizen,” taking on ICE’s intent to deport a Maine permanent resident, directed by Rockland’s David Quintanilla and Hanji Chang of O’Chang Comics. “Hit ME, I like it!,” directed by Charlotte Wilder and Lee Feiner, is about Union Fair’s demolition derby.

And Academy Award-winning director Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect”) has longstanding local roots; his new film, “The Price of Everything,” is sure to be of interest to the local art community. Flynn called it a serious yet playful look at “the commodification of contemporary art: the rarefied world of art collecting.”

There are a number of films the programmers recommend as family-friendly, including “Science Fair,” “The Ancient Woods” and “Ceres.” The latter was the first film selected for the 2018 fest.

“I'd never seen anything like it! It's really from a child's perspective and very macro lens — really close-up views of the textures and really bright colors of these kids living on these rural farms in the Netherlands,” said Chadwick. “I watched it first thing in the morning and that's when we programmed it; it's a beautiful way to wake up!”

Chadwick’s programming of shorts has been a hallmark of her arrival at CIFF; this year’s blocks are themed by elements (Air, Water, Earth, Metal, Fire). She describes the process as creating a journey.

“You set the tone and then you bring it up one way and then, if something comes in kind of like in conversation, and there's just this network of meaning that's created,” she said.

To create a roadmap of the 2018 CIFF journey, peruse the films at pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff. Also open to the public is the Points North Pitch, a free opportunity to see snippets of six works-in-progress as part of filmmakers’ 7-minute pitches of their projects to a panel of funders, broadcasters, distributors and producers, followed by 12 minutes of feedback. This year, audience members can become documentary funders via a weekend crowdfunding campaign; the results will be split among the Points North Fellows teams.

The Shorts First programs also are free and open to the public; and one can walk up to the box office for most screenings and get in for $10, as long as a seat is available. Passes ensure same and are available online, for pickup beginning Sept. 12 at the festival hub, located this year below 16 Bay View in the former Gilbert’s Pub space.

NOTE: Nathaniel Kahn is the Academy Award-winning director whose new film “The Price of Everything” will be screened. An incorrect first name appears in the newspapers, due to reporter error.

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