A Peek Inside the Documentary Factory

How the Camden International Film Festival allows nonfiction fans to feel like most movie fans.
By  · Published on September 19th, 2017

How the Camden International Film Festival allows nonfiction fans to feel like most movie fans.

These days, movie fan culture includes everything from the announcement of a project through release and then the afterlife of reviews, analyses, discussions, and more. Documentary doesn’t usually get such an extensive span. Most nonfiction films don’t find life with the fans until just ahead of their festival premiere, and then maybe they have some later life through social action campaigns and maybe placement on Netflix.

At the Camden International Film Festival, though, in conjunction with the Points North Institute, we’re able to look inside the sausage factory of documentary filmmaking in a way unlike we’re usually privy to. Docs do still tend to start production without much fanfare because it takes a while for filmmakers to plant seeds on a project and get it going where it’s on the right track toward eventual completion — which even then can be many years off.

But when documentarians are at a place where they’re well into filming but need extra help, they might pitch an organization, foundation, or distributor for assistance, whether advisory or financial or both. Many documentary film festivals hold special pitching events for filmmakers, but they tend to be behind closed doors. Camden opens theirs up to the public, and this year’s took place before a sold out crowd at the Camden Opera House.

The only thing is — and this actually makes it more of an essential event to attend for doc fans — the pitches can’t be reported on at all, not even on social media. This is because the projects are at sensitive stages where the filmmakers might still be attempting to gain trust and access or continue to capture certain things under the radar. In very rare cases, the docs are ready to begin post-production, but a lot of them are at a much earlier point in their making.

Here’s what we get to see: directors and/or producers stand in front of a panel of many powerful people in the doc community, representatives from the Ford Foundation, Sundance, Tribeca, PBS, Cinereach, and more. The filmmakers have a time limit to sell their docs, all of which are accompanied by a brief teaser trailer offering the look, tone, and most important content compiled so far. Then the panelists offer congrats, advice, and hopefully interest.

All I can say about the majority of the six pitches this year is that some involve serious issues from around the world, some offer character-driven reality, and some offer visuals unlike anyone in the audience had ever seen. There was one pitch that isn’t under any sort of embargo, though, as it’s a pressing journey of a documentary filmmaker on the run from a Taliban death sentence in Afghanistan, a unique refugee crisis that hit the doc community in attendance so personally that tears were shed by many just from a few clips.

The director of the project, titled Midnight Traveler, is Hassan Fazili, and of course he couldn’t be there in person. He did offer an introduction in his video, before sharing a whirlwind of footage shot on phones of him and his family trekking across the globe to his current location in Serbia. Producer Emelie Mahdavian set it up in person, and later the film won the low-key award of post-production services that the Points North Institute bestows.

Midnight Traveler also received an additional $10,000 on the spot from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms. It was an overwhelming crescendo to an exciting event. With so much talk over the following couple days being focused more on the Points North Pitch than the films, it won’t be a surprise if next year’s event becomes an even hotter ticket than normal. All in attendance felt they’d seen something special happen throughout the course of the showcase of teasers and spiels. Now we can’t wait to see these projects actually become films.

No, it’s not the same thing as all the movie site coverage that every fiction film project receives, nor is it as revealing as a set visit report (I’ve been trying to propose set visits for documentaries for years, but the format doesn’t really allow for it) or as widely shared as most movie teaser materials (because these are so hush hush), but that’s also part of what makes the Points North Pitch so cool: if you’re there, you’re in the know, exclusively one of a few hundred to witness a memorable part of the documentary making machine.

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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.