Camden International Film Festival Welcomes Doc Filmmakers Out Of Pandemic Hibernation, Awards Prizes

EXCLUSIVE: The documentary community, a loose assemblage of independent creatives under the best of circumstances, has labored under the absence of in-person gatherings during the pandemic. For well over a year, most all-documentary festivals have been forced to go virtual, hardly a respite for filmmakers inured to hermitry.

The Camden International Film Festival in coastal Maine took a big step toward reinvigorating the doc community over the last several days, convening what it called “the largest documentary-focused industry gathering since the start of the global pandemic.” Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmakers, emerging talents and industry insiders joined documentary fans for screenings of new work, discussions and other events beginning on Thursday.

“There’s just nothing more valuable than human interaction,” Ben Fowlie, CIFF’s founder and the executive and creative director of the Points North Institute, told Deadline. “It’s just a reminder over the past four days of one of the many reasons why festivals are vitally important.”

CIFF has carved out an identity characterized by a lack of pretension, deemphasizing the kind of FOMO atmosphere that can rule Sundance. Telluride, which takes place earlier in September, might be called a spiritual cousin; besides beautiful settings, the festivals share an ethos of filmmaker focus, with the artistic possibilities of the medium generating the excitement and energy. 

“Where the mountains meet the sea, Telluride-Camden,” Fowlie mused. “That’s clearly a model that we’ve been looking at for a while because it’s really exciting to be in a place where you don’t have to spend your entire time having to figure out who’s here and where they’re at and ‘Are you on the list or are you not on the list?’ We had lists this year, but it was because of Covid.”

Camden has become an increasingly important stop on the awards campaign trail, a September swing that encompasses Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival. Liz Garbus’s Becoming Cousteau opened CIFF after hitting Telluride and TIFF. It was a similar itinerary for The Rescue, the Oscar hopeful directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Robert Greene’s Procession debuted at Telluride before coming to CIFF.

Fowlie recognizes that for theatrical distributors, streamers and other entities with eyes on prizes, Camden has “become a more significant part of the awards season strategy. I’m really grateful that we found this nice little home in the calendar to be able to be presenting the U.S. premieres of films that are premiering at TIFF or secretly premiering at Telluride, so to speak, and being another little push for the work to find audiences. The timing is important.”

Vote counters hoping to land films on the Oscar documentary shortlist, and then secure a nomination, might be forgiven for taking a ravenous interest in the roster of CIFF attendees.

“The work [program director] Sean Flynn and his team have done around artist development has really impacted the growth of industry coming to the festival. And with that comes a lot of Academy voters, obviously. As the Academy expands its reaches and the diversity of individuals coming onto the Documentary Branch, a lot of those folks are spending time in Camden to see the films.”

The Rescue and Becoming Cousteau, both from National Geographic, are unlikely to struggle for attention this fall. They played out of competition at CIFF, in the Spotlight section. But Camden hands out awards in three main categories, with the intent of elevating the profile of some worthy documentaries.

“We’re trying to use competition still as a spark for films to either take off or be re-recognized,” Fowlie said. “That’s a big consideration for the Harrell Award, knowing that we want to make sure that the award does do something positive for the film. And if the film’s already been produced or picked up by a distributor I’m not sure what the value would be necessarily. I’m really proud that we’ve stuck to that commitment.”

The Harrell Award, which Fowlie equates to a grand jury prize, went to North by Current, directed by Angelo Madsen Minax. The three person jury including Penny Lane (who also showed her new documentary, Listening to Kenny G, at CIFF), filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes, and new IDA executive director Richard Perez saluted the documentary “for its visionary spirit and willingness to tackle deeply emotional themes, displaying a radical and raw intimacy and spirit of experimentation in the face of unthinkable trauma.”

Minax, pressed to say a few words after the announcement, commented, “I’m so honored… I’m so glad I could share this film here with so many people that I love and respect and that have seen it unfold over so long… I’m just really happy.”

A special jury mention went to Ostrov – Lost Island, directed by Svetlana Rodin and Laurent Stoop. The film, set among Russian inhabitants of Ostrov Island in the Caspian Sea, was making its U.S. premiere at CIFF. 

A Night of Knowing Nothing, directed by Payal Kapadia, also held its U.S. premiere at Camden, following the film’s debut at Cannes, where it won that festival’s top documentary prize. A Night of Knowing Nothing earned CIFF’s Cinematic Vision Award, with a three-person jury hailing it for “remarkable filmmaking that shows how a work can be heady, militant, and empathic at once.”

The jury granted a special mention to Faya Dayi, by Mexican-Ethiopian director Jessica Beshir, describing it as “an elegant, visceral, and visually mesmerizing work.”

Shared Resources, directed by Jordan Lord, won CIFF’s 2021 Contemporary Ethnographic Media Award, supported by the Documentary Educational Resources organization.

Fowlie, a film school grad and native of Camden, founded CIFF in 2005 at a time when few U.S. festivals were devoted entirely to documentaries.

“True/False [in Columbia, MO] was established around the same time. Full Frame [in Durham, NC], similarly. So you had a number of U.S.-based organizations that were outside of the New York/L.A. environments that were supporting regional filmmakers, that were building regional audiences around documentary,” Fowlie said. “There’s no question that those festivals and organizations have helped buoy the industry and also I think cultivated the growth of a lot of extremely talented filmmakers.”

Points North Institute programs, in addition  to CIFF, include fellowships for “early- and mid-career filmmakers to accelerate the development of their feature documentary.” This year’s fellows presented their works in progress at a public pitch fest judged by Poh Si Teng of the IDA, Kathryn Everett of XTR, Jeff Seelbach of Topic Studios, NBC News Studios head of documentary Molly O’Brien and American Documentary executive director Erika Dilday. 

CIFF partners with the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival on the 4th World Media Lab, a program “supporting career development for indigenous storytellers.” CIFF also provides mentorship opportunities for young filmmakers to learn from documentary veterans of impressive pedigree.

“The industry is really about who you know and the relationships you have. I don’t see that changing ever,” Fowlie noted. “I think these little moments [i.e. festivals] in random parts of the country and the world just provide unparalleled opportunities for people to figure out how we’re going to work together.”

Perhaps bowing to the inescapable, this year’s Camden festival isn’t entirely in person. The portion with actual live humans wrapped up Sunday, but CIFF continues as a virtual fest through Sunday. Self-administered rapid antigen tests were required of attendees on site, and the festival appointed a “Covid compliance officer” to coordinate distribution of testing kits and reporting of results.

“All the new processes and protocols we had to learn… to get into the real rhythm of executing at the level that we always try to,” Fowlie conceded. He added that the “great experiment” of holding an in-person documentary festival “was a success in every way, shape and form… A reminder of how much we’ve all really missed it.”

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