Split Together: Weathering the Storm at the Camden International Film Festival

In structured programming and chance encounters, the Maine doc festival held together—if shakily—the film industry's contradictions.
A.E. Hunt

Mast-Del (Maryam Tafakory, 2023).

“There are two festivals occurring at the same time,” I heard from multiple attendees at this year’s Camden International Film Festival. They were alluding to a split in CIFF’s creative vision, but this was also something of a geographical fact: the four-day Maine documentary festival has two hubs, Camden and Rockland, which were linked by a 20-minute shuttle ride. Screenings overlapped throughout the festival, and since the vast majority of films played only once, each choice closed off a possibility. The two opening night films, Beyond Utopia and El Castillo, started in the same hour, essentially asking festivalgoers to select one film, or festival, or the other. This also meant that any interruptions caused by Hurricane Lee, forecasted to reach the West Penobscot Bay on the penultimate day of the festival, would be definitive. Thus another duality: the linear plan for the festival nearly a year in the making, and the one a day’s weather had in mind.

What held these “two festivals” together were the staff and audiences who caromed between its two hubs, in Rockland and Camden cafes and lobster shacks, or in the handful of streets where festival foot traffic was concentrated by design. The guest lounge in Rockland, comfortable in a false Cracker Barrel kind of way, was popped up precisely where one caught the shuttle, a yellow school bus, to and from Camden. Conversations and debates, some more fruitful and tense than others, glued together guests traveling between the festival’s twin poles.

Despite the literal geographical split, I felt the widest schism in CIFF’s programming, where the creative team’s brinkmanship hit the steep wall that is the board of directors’ financial and political interests. Selections seemed to alternate starkly between a “one for them, one for us” exchange. The “them,” I always presume, intimated some cocktail of the festival’s board, executives, and sponsors. The RandomGood Foundation was a major sponsor, and thus a ubiquitous presence. They secured ad space before every film at the festival and showcased the newest entries in their series of “Radically Hopeful™” docs, including one of the opening night films, Beyond Utopia, which was directed and edited by Madeleine Gavin, and was one of the ugliest “one for thems” in the program. It’s likely that ceding the opening slot at CIFF’s premier venue to one of its largest sponsors gave programmers like Milton Guillén and Zaina Bseiso, the “us” in this equation, agency over curatorial decisions elsewhere in the program. Such tradeoffs are standard operating procedure. But at least at CIFF, I could engage with some of the staff about these “one for thems,” and the “one for us-es” did actually feel daring (my favorite among them the Syncopated Spirits shorts program, which included Maryam Tafakory’s spectacular Mast-del). And Guillén and Bseiso make films themselves, giving credence to the “filmmaker-first-festival” moniker the team claims. While festivals remain a fixture of the prevailing dysfunctional film ecosystem, I find value in communities like CIFF’s, which manage to hold together, if shakily, all the industry’s contradictions. 

Beyond Utopia (Madeleine Gavin, 2023).

Back to the aforementioned bargaining chip: Beyond Utopia’s crew “embeds” with two families who defect from North Korea and attempt the long and dangerous migration to South Korea with the help of activist pastor Seungeun Kim, the film’s affable protagonist; he’s an easy, Christian entry point for Westerners. The doc is stymied by a repetitive structure that alternates between suspenseful footage of the families’ escape attempts and reductive Yeonmi Park–like depictions of life in North Korea via a small stable of talking heads. One such noggin is former CIA analyst and former Director for Korea, Japan, and Oceanic Affairs at the National Security Council, Sue Mi Terry, who is also one of Beyond Utopia’s producers; she participated in the opening night Q&A alongside survivors from the film. Throughout, Beyond Utopia is a brazenly Sinophobic and anti-communist thing. Gavin would rather render North Korea through US National Security Intelligence—information historically accumulated and shaped to justify US conquest—than through the firsthand accounts of the defectors, whose faces are brandished in the trailer. By inviting Terry on opening night, CIFF follows suit, and shows how easily film festivals can propagate arms of the state. (Note board member Margaret F. Williams, who brings “nearly a decade of national security expertise to the team.”)

Gavin (also the film’s editor) suffocates Beyond Utopia’s contents with her nightmarish assembly-line edit. We follow a woman who tracks her son’s escape for the film’s entire running time. But when she discovers that he has been sent to the gulag and is most certainly dead, Gavin stays with her for no more than three seconds before cutting to a title card that reveals cheerier news about the other defecting family. Still, even this emphatically “Radically Hopeful™” ending is cut short, and suddenly. Instead, the filmmaker devotes most of the film’s duration to the life-or-death stakes of the families. It was never about their safe escape or tragic capture, but about the real-life suspense and thrills—plus the rare camera access—that those possibilities enabled. 

Judging by the standing ovation (I couldn’t report the length—I dissociated), the audience seemed pretty unanimously floored. The guy next to me clapped so hard I worried one hand might bruise the other, or that my eardrum might rupture; an older gentleman in front of me cried throughout the film; and a nearby woman lost her composure after a scene about the DPRK’s human fertilizer quota, giggling violently through the next two quiet scenes.

Returning from the after-party that night, I saw the lights flickering in the windows of my hotel in Rockland. (The other half of the imported guests were put up in Camden.) When I got close enough, I could hear the fire alarm. Then fire trucks came, and for two hours, all of us, some in our pajamas, huddled outside or packed into strangers’ rental cars to keep warm (we couldn’t run inside to fetch our jackets). By coincidence, I ended up sitting next to the same person I sat by at the screening: the zealous clapping man. I didn’t recognize him without his glasses, or in his pajamas, and I had been poking fun at Beyond Utopia to our random circle of CIFF attendees. Eventually he announced his presence, acknowledged some of the film’s propaganda, and argued his case. We had little choice but to talk, so we did, and he actually became a welcome face to run into throughout the festival. For the most part, CIFF’s spaces are open to all, and undivided (compared to the festival I would attend just afterward, New York Film Festival, which creates numerous pockets and siloes, and even a ranked badge system among press and industry). If not for the alarm, and CIFF’s at least comparatively friendlier environment, we might have easily dodged each other, one film-clique huddle at a time, until we went home.  

A Golden Life (Boubacar Sangaré, 2023).

I was hung up on the “Radically Hopeful™” slogan. During the festival’s obligatory opening remarks, CIFF Artistic Director Ben Fowlie told us we were all being “radical” by sitting in metal folding chairs and watching movies at a film festival. He then boldly declared that there was not a single bad film in the program, which a later speaker called “radical.” But it was all quite orthodox, and liberal. And it was times like this when the split between what the festival told you it was doing and what you were actually experiencing, felt the widest. We were seated for Beyond Utopia, which celebrates a family’s exceptional escape and renders heroic the pastor who orchestrated it. This is hopeful only as an isolated case. On occasion, such miracles can happen to people who have all of the odds stacked against them, and their riveting stories are then reported as though they’re the blueprints for a viable solution. But don’t we just want the odds evened out, so we don’t have to wait and hope, radically, for a miracle to save us?   

The next film I saw, A Golden Life, finds hope, similarly, in the resilience of its protagonist, and in the doc industry’s nonprofit-like capacity to launch him out of the material reality through which audiences have watched him struggle. In the film, 16-year-old Rasmané works in a mining site in Burkina Faso. Every day, past the point of exhaustion, he operates metal machinery in a miry hole in the ground. He wonders to a friend why his young bones ache like an old man’s. But we notice that, somehow, he keeps a good humor. We like him; we wish he’ll be okay. Director Boubacar Sangaré’s stark approach should feel familiar to anyone who has seen a French co-produced, observational doc set in an impoverished area in the Global South (Saeed Taji Farouky’s A Thousand Fires is a recent, unusually strong example): the camera (with help from the edit) feigns invisibility, and frames the foreign cranes and wrecking balls as capital-M metaphors for global economies that subsume everything. The film is, however, deceptively distinct from comparable documentaries. In the last scene, Sangaré himself appears, playing foosball with Rasmané and other kids we’ve come to know. He explains that, at 13, he, too, worked in a gold-mining village. Unlike most filmmakers of this humanitarian ilk, he shares a background with the people he filmed.

In the Q&A, the director revealed that Rasmané and some of his younger colleagues no longer live at the gold-mining site. I celebrated the news with the rest of the audience, just as I celebrated the family’s escape in Beyond Utopia. There is undeniable power in these rescues, the former likely propelled by A Golden Life’s success on the festival circuit. But I couldn’t help but feel like we were celebrating the same “Radically Hopeful™” miracle (rather than aspiring for the exceptional rescue’s obsolescence), even twofold, or at its apex—because Sangaré overcame similar conditions and became a filmmaker, whose art became a lifeline for more people to do the same. Altogether, that can’t possibly net negative. But ending on a sudden, brief, and chipper game of foosball after 80 minutes of dire straits seems only to say, reductively: I got out of it, and so can you.

The Last Year of Darkness (Ben Mullinkosson, 2023).

After A Golden Life’s strict adherence to the observational doc formula, which withholds the innate feeling of so many captured moments, and Beyond Utopia’s anonymous, made-for-streaming style, The Last Year of Darkness’s sheer presence, in its spaces and among its people, was a relief. I met its director, Ben Mullinkosson, at the end of a chain of chance encounters before realizing who he was: the filmmaker with whom I was slated to do a Q&A at Journey’s End, a boat barn converted into CIFF’s premier venue, on the predicted night of the storm. The film is about the friends he made over the years in Chengdu’s underground, particularly at Funky Town, a queer night club that no longer exists—bowdlerized in the utopian remodeling of Chengdu into a “city within a park.” The main friends running amok in the forsaken space are Yihao, a now-famous drag artist, the platinum blonde Russian who kisses him and takes him home most nights, but claims he’s not gay, and a couple who lulls to and fro at the party with a somberness that seems likely to eventually explode.  

Despite constant low-light constraints while filming fast-moving bodies in the dark, the documentary has as deliberate a look and feel as the most controlled fiction films. Some scenes feel potentially constructed, or reconstructed from an actual happening that was not filmed, to ensure a gapless flow akin to a narrative. Even if that is the case, such moments feel captured in deep and present collaboration with everyone in front of the camera. Mullinkosson kept 10 p.m.-to-10 a.m. shooting hours with his friends, often putting them to bed, and witnessing confrontations that the club’s talk-unfriendly-noise and vibrations kept at bay. 

During the Q&A, Mullinkosson, his editor, and producer each said they avoided making a “political film.” I asked what they meant by that, and what they think the film would look like if they had made a “political film.” The rapid development that will eventually destroy Funky Town is omnipresent; Mullinkosson doesn’t even have to turn his camera to catch it. In one form or another, it enters the frame on its own: construction noise overpowers conversations we’re listening to, a crane obscures our view. The filmmakers conceded that, simply by capturing that development and queer nightlife in Chengdu, the film is political. They clarified that, as white American expats, they just didn’t feel comfortable directly critiquing the Chinese government. 

Usually, I’d be bothered by this elision of responsibility. The outsider filmmaker must define, at minimum, the politics of their position in relation to the location they’ve chosen as their subject. But Mullinkosson’s earnest commitment to making loving portraits of his friends does leave room for them to speak for themselves and dictate the film’s scope. The director’s privilege to not have to define the politics of his own point of view disencumbers the film from the liberal mental gymnastics that suck the feeling out of so many docs today. But this also means the film lacks the vitality of a film that knows exactly where it stands. An audience member asked if they took China’s censorship of queerness into account while editing. The filmmakers answered, essentially, yes. The producer referenced a police raid that was omitted, among other scenes, to avoid censorship and ensure the comfort and safety of their friends. Anyone who is on camera has the final say, and if their wish was to hide some of themselves to remain secure, then the filmmakers did good to honor that. 

As chance conversations expanded the bounds of the festival, a chance conversation breaks open the closed perspective of The Last Year of Darkness. “Ben, you can’t capture real life,” Yihao says to the camera late in the film, after a long night out. This admission keeps The Last Year of Darkness together, split as it is between its shocking intimacies and the unshakable sense that something’s missing. After the screening, I talked over the film with a new friend—Yang Jialin, a writer who’d traveled in from Shijiazhuang to profile the festival for directube, a WeChat media channel for doc filmmakers in China. (We’d bonded over our mutual hatred of Beyond Utopia.) She took issue with the way the filmmakers expressed, in the Q&A, some pride about cutting scenes for their friends’ safety. They were mistaken, she felt, for suggesting there was any agency, or hope, in self-censorship.

The Last Year of Darkness (Ben Mullinkosson, 2023).

None of us were certain that The Last Year of Darkness would even screen. The storm arrived earlier that day. Tough winds bowled through the air, and whether you were in Rockland or Camden, they came rich with the clean and milky smell of lobster. The power cut out at the Camden Opera House, just minutes after CIFF’s iconic centerpiece event, the Points North Pitch, had begun. Normally, selected fellows pitch their projects to funders on the Opera House stage in front of a public audience. But the outage chopped up the tension, and the pitch would later be moved to a private, albeit filmed, event at a patron’s boathouse. 

Now that the linear schedule of the festival—that totally isolated thing that makes a few days of a festivalgoer’s life seem simple and semi-purposeful—had gone completely awry, people dispersed in search of other curiosities. Some huddled up in a coffee shop without power. Jialin and I decided to peel away in the rain, up an uphill street in the town and beyond the radius of the festival—where we found a graveyard, a skatepark, and an alluring sculpture in front of Camden-Rockport middle school that gave us a sense of the town’s history that was missing from the festival. Eventually, most of us wanderers accumulated in the guest lounge.

The only event I was not going to leave up to chance was the RE: Distribution Town Hall. Last year’s edition on documentary ethics, “Towards Value-based Filmmaking,” seemed to have a palpable influence on conversations about nonfiction filmmaking. Hoping to outline a policy agenda, prototype new “business models or experiments in audience development,” and field ideas for audience research and case studies, altogether and in working groups, this year’s town hall on the fraught landscape of independent doc distribution may have even expanded upon the scope and ambitions of the last. But it didn’t happen, at least not officially. I heard grumbles that CIFF’s board was behaving in predictable ways; they were rigid and fearful amid the shifting circumstances, preferring to pull plugs on planned programming rather than adopt alternatives to keep the show running. 

But Abby Sun, IDA’s Director of Artist Programs, Editor of Documentary Magazine, and a filmmaker, climbed onto a narrow table in the center of the guest lounge, and announced, like CIFF’s self-appointed crier, an improvised version of the RE: Distribution Town Hall. Abby volunteered familiar faces in the crowd (including myself, a stilted orator) to read from the original agenda. She prefaced much of what she paraphrased with phrasing like, “We would have talked about this,” or “We would have done this,” and soon realized aloud, “This is sounding like the funeral for the event that never was.” But in fact, the CIFF community’s improvised festival, which we formed both in the lounge and local spaces, felt to me more alive than before, even if people were initially hesitant to volunteer their thoughts during the town hall. It was as if, for a moment, the lights cut out on the “festival for them,” and we put one on just for us. 

Near the end, Abby posed a provocation, a “would you rather” for filmmakers—a thought experiment, which was originally going to be introduced by Distribution Advocates co-founder Amy Hobby. She proposed two options:

Option 1: You went to Sundance. You get a good review at Sundance and a major streamer approaches your sales agent and offers to license your film for all rights for $30,000. They love the film and see you as a promising director to work with. Maybe they talk about an awards campaign.

Or…

Option 2: Through an easy-to-use tool, your film is booked in micro-cinemas in 100 cities. The tool helps you target audiences for your film specifically. You’ll get 40 percent of all tickets sold, keep the rights to your film, and receive a $30,000 grant for marketing.

In short, are you in it for cachet or an audience? Would you sacrifice cachet for ownership, or ownership for cachet? 

Different groups, including Sentient Art Film, and PRISMS (in collaboration with other collectives like cinemóvil nyc, of which I’m a member) are building the infrastructure to enable various forms of the second option. Even Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are cutting out the studio/distributor middleman, partnering directly with AMC Theaters to release their concert films. But just because people as famous and powerful as they are can do it, doesn’t mean we can, too. We cannot individually, as filmmakers, viably self-distribute films without collective models to support us. Fortunately, we are beginning to experiment and build such systems. PRISMS, for example, is developing a network of micro- and nomadic cinemas and collectives that will program theatrical runs of films; by cutting out the middleman distributor, the bulk of suggested-donation ticket sales can be directly given to filmmakers. 

“I’m being told we have to stop,” Abby said suddenly in the middle of her impromptu town hall. I guessed some exec or board member had caught wind of the little festival we were making for ourselves. But Hobby’s provocation had already been planted, and guests continued to discuss both options on their own terms, in private and casual conversation. I don’t blame anyone who chooses option one. Surely it’s difficult, after the filmmaking process has already depleted one’s energy and money, to commit what hope you have left to a release model you’ve never seen in action before—especially while surrounded by the outsized marketing presence of festivals and distributors. But I have seen firsthand how successful one-off community screenings are as fundraisers for filmmakers, sometimes raising comparable to or more than what a distribution company would pay a filmmaker to secure “all rights” to their film—a contract allowing distributors to retain control when, where, and even if your film plays for as long as they can get you to sign for it.

Mission Drift (Charles de Agustin, 2023).

The buttery Rockland winds finally dissipated on the last day of the festival. But the storm had already pierced CIFF’s bubble, and people were straying again: to hike, to swim, to engage with surroundings that weren’t sponsor-themed pop-ups. Many of the guests had already flown home. Still, I dreaded departing the little world CIFF had popped up in Maine and, moreso, the smaller home that some staff and community had carved out within it. I was pre-grieving the all-at-once goodbye to all the faces I’d become accustomed to seeing every day, from breakfast to after the after-party. 

The storm humbled the festival, much like community film screenings humble the art when paired with horizontal discussions, skill-shares, workshops, fundraisers, et cetera. Festival glam and awards, state-of-the-art theaters, linear filmmaker x moderator Q&As set on a spotlit stage propped 10 feet above the audience, and conversations restricted to the cinematic form all contribute to the illusory elevation of some films above others, catering to an elite, potential patron class of audience.

At a recent cinémovil nyc screening of Charles de Agustin’s self-distributed Mission Drift, an all-text and audio critique of arts nonprofits, I told an anecdote about how the Ford Foundation subsidized the rent of an entire buildingful of arts nonprofits—displacing unhoused communities in the area. They’d rather give studio and office space to creatives who might make work about the housing crisis than give housing to unhoused people. Afterward we imagined, “What would a worker-owned art gallery or exhibition space look like? What if MoMA (for the sake of an ubiquitous example) was community controlled?” The immediate response: make it housing. Then the space would not serve one purpose, but could transform to suit the community’s needs and desires. Very quickly we made this hypothetically seized art space a home, which can hold most anything. This screening and discussion occurred in a church in Ridgewood.

After the closing night film at Camden (we chose the HBO doc Time Bomb Y2K over Errol Morris’s The Pigeon Tunnel) and final goodbyes, Jialin and I took our usual stroll back to the hotel. But this time, upon returning, we decided, like we did on the day of the storm, to split off in a new direction, following a sloped road that led us outside the festival perimeter. We traveled deep into a residential area that was alive with the rare hum of total silence. A bedroom light left on at 2 a.m. and a presumably occupied tent, pitched in someone’s backyard, signaled flickers of night life. 

Jialin would soon head back to China, and this was likely the last time we’d see each other for the foreseeable future. It was a serendipitous close to a series of seemingly impossible-to-replicate chance encounters, which helped us make the festival into a home that better served our needs. As an exceptional institution, CIFF manages to hold together the film industry’s contradictions, but I no longer want to uphold them myself. 

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