Essays · Movies

The Camden International Film Festival Brings Stories of Courage and Clapton

You should be watching documentaries in Maine this weekend.
By  · Published on September 14th, 2017

You should be watching documentaries in Maine this weekend.

The Toronto International Film Festival hogs the spotlight for documentary this time of year thanks to big premieres and admittedly excellent nonfiction programming. But there’s another place to the North, yet not over the border, celebrating documentary cinema in a smaller but no less important capacity. The Camden International Film Festival is among the notable doc fests to spring up a little over a decade ago as the sort of event where community is strong and niche interest in nonfiction rules. This one is located on the Maine coast, and the 2017 edition begins tonight.

Unlike a bigger festival, Camden doesn’t crowd with too much choice in the program Held only through the weekend, the event screens more than 80 works of nonfiction, with a near-equal number of features and shorts plus a dozen virtual reality projects. Of course, it’s not easy to see everything, especially with the festival also being home to the Points North Forum, consisting of daily panels, masterclasses, and more. Ahead of the fest, I’ve got some highlights for everyone heading to CIFF — and anyone I can make wish was attending this year.

Must-See Films

In addition to the world premiere opening night showing of Dustin Nakao Haider’s new basketball doc Shot in the Dark, which I’m looking forward to seeing, other features I plan to catch for the first time include Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the music icon, this new work straight from its Toronto debut is interesting for being helmed by Lili Fini Zanuck, whose last movie as a director was the 1991 drama Rush, which gave us the hit Clapton single “Tears in Heaven.”

Also intriguing: Let There Be Light, which “follows the story of dedicated scientists working to build a small sun on Earth.” A small sun on Earth! And then there are the secret screenings, which are hard to miss just as a matter of curiosity.

There are a number of doc features I have already seen and can endorse. For the most part, they share a common theme of courage among their subjects. The Family I Had presents clashing perspectives from a mother and grandmother of a young man who murdered his four-year-old sister when he was 13. It’s a tough story to get through as a viewer, but one can only imagine how hard it is for these women to not only be dealing with such painful drama, including their conflict with each other, but to discuss it all in full. It’s also, to appease true crime fans, well-structured to slowly reveal all the details.

Another favorite is Bobbi Jene, about dancer Bobbi Jene Smith. Director Elvira Lind, who previously gave us the beautiful teen love story Songs for Alexis, now offers another documentary involving a romance narrative. Smith is followed as she returns to America following a nine-year stint at Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, going solo as a performer and trying to make a long-distance relationship work in the process. Lind has crafted an incredibly moving film about an incredible moving artist. It’s one of the most fitting film portraits of a creative talent ever, honest and bare, often literally, in its expression of Smith’s life and work.

Whose Streets?, which is currently in theatrical release, is one of the most engaging docs of the year. Giving us a first-hand chronicle of the 2014 Ferguson protests from the inside, there’s a thrill to the subjectivity of the film, a powerfully empathic experience (see my full review here). Quest takes us back to the eight years of the Obama presidency, following an African-American family in Philadelphia through all sorts of dramatic ups and downs, a daughter’s coming-of-age story at its center. It’s hard to classify as any one thing because it’s full of music, politics, tragedy, activism — life unfolding, thick with substance and daily courage and hope. I’ve seen it once (read my review here), yet I expect it to be a different experience seeing it again many months later.

There are some tremendously brave moments and years to be encountered in Cocaine Prison, which puts us inside Bolivia’s overcrowded San Sebastian prison, focused on two men serving for their small-time involvement in the cocaine trade. Director Violeta Ayala also takes us through the intense journey of a drug mule, as the sister of one of the inmate characters attempts to help him out. The doc is obviously quite harrowing in its subject matter but is surprisingly upbeat throughout, making it like Quest an inspiring work in its tone and in the treatment of its characters as more than tragic figures (see my full review here).

If the idea of Willem Dafoe poetically narrating a documentary about neglected donkeys sounds essential to you, then it is. Directed by Girl Model duo Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, Do Donkeys Act? is something to behold, a unique kind of nature film crossed with an arty issue doc promoting animal rights, shot at sanctuaries in North America and Europe. Finally, there’s Steve James’s latest, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Show, both now available to stream but certainly worth watching on a big screen with a festival audience.

Must-Experience Films

One of the increasingly essential parts of any film festival these days is the virtual reality showcase, and that’s especially true for the less-hyped crop of nonfiction VR projects making the rounds. Many of the doc features highlighted above are experiential works to a degree, but VR feels truly immersive. CIFF’s Storyforms VR program will put you under the sea, alongside one of the fastest cyclists in the world, on a tour of the architecture of Buckminster Fuller, and in a rainforest, at one with a tree.

I’m particularly interested in the stuff that Frontline is bringing to the festival as a sneak preview, as they begin their new venture in walk-around VR. One project they’re sharing is a partnership with NOVA presenting NASA’s studies in climate change and rapidly melting glaciers (on a similar issue, Netflix’s Chasing Coral has a VR component here, too). Also, two-time Oscar nominee Marshall Curry (Street Fight), who just released a VR doc about The National and their new album via the New York Times, has another at CIFF, Funeral for a 747, offering an experience of the destruction of a Boeing jet.

Must Experiences

Watching and virtually exploring documentaries is all fine and good, but with a smaller community based festival like CIFF, you also want to be a genuine part of what’s going on. For that, there’s the Points North Forum, through which there seems to be a panel for everyone, for every filmmaker, for every film. You can take in a discussion of archival filmmaking or one on the relationship between filmmaker and subject or one on sound in documentary. There’s also a special conversation between doc legend Steve James and effects artist turned documentarian Jeff Unay.

And then there’s the fact that the festival is by the seaside in Maine. There has to be some lobster eating, of course! Preferably with some nice folks from the community, whether it’s locals, documentary filmmakers, or visiting documentary fans. And then, yes, screenings are an experience in and of themselves, with the right sort of audience that is best to see docs with, many of them shown in a Victorian opera house downtown. When you have the time, also check back in with Film School Rejects for continued coverage during the event. It’s going to be a beautiful weekend in Camden.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.