State of the Festival: Camden Online and in the Pines

A mix of carefully crafted drive-in & virtual screenings created a new & special atmosphere for the 2020 Camden International Film Festival.
Max Carpenter

It’s been more than four years since I started regularly attending the Camden International Film Festival in coastal Maine (not far from the greater Portland area where I grew up), but I’ll never forget the first film I saw: Laura Viezzoli’s La natura delle cose (The Nature of Things, 2016). I arrived in Camden a little late on a Friday afternoon, rushed to get my press badge and, a bit frazzled, scurried on into the quaint, majestic Camden Opera House just in time to glimpse La natura’s opening scene. Viezzoli’s warm paean to love and individual spirituality stuck with me long after the festival was over and was selected by that year’s jury to win the festival’s Cinematic Vision Award. I never again heard a peep about it in the greater film world and I don’t remember it playing at all in New York. Viezzoli has yet to make another feature.

This enamoring-but-demoralizing situation has played out with so many of the cinema gems I’ve discovered at Camden in the years since, many of them plucked from slates of earlier-in-the-year European festivals like FIDMarseille, Visions du Réel, CPH:DOX, Sheffield, and so on, and making little headway on this side of the pond. But in the world of CIFF, La natura delle cose will always live on as one of the greats. So too will Martin Dicicco’s absolutely masterful All That Passes By Through a Window That Doesn’t Open, which took home 2017’s Cinematic Vision Award.

Like the pre-1929 Oscars, which offered both an Outstanding Picture Award and a Unique and Artistic Picture Award, Camden’s juries have long been doling out two roughly equal prizes: the Harrell Award for Best Documentary Feature and the already-mentioned Cinematic Vision Award. While it may be a little sterile to distill a festival’s essence down to two of its awards, it’s still an expedient way to capture CIFF’s culture, in which a brilliantly-edited masterwork of infotainment like Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America (2016) is on equal footing with the more pure cinematic aestheticism of Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda (2020). The aestheticism camp usually makes good showings for both prizes, with Cameraperson (2016) and Taste of Cement (2017) being recent Harrell awardees, but Camden’s slates always play host to a fruitful back-and-forth between adroit mainstream doc filmmaking and lyrical explorations of the form.

In the presence of so many shades of cinematic truth-seeking my mind often wanders to platitudes I have gleaned over time: Dreyer’s claim that the camera can tell no lies, Wiseman dubbing his own films "reality fictions," Godard and Rivette’s musings that all films are essentially documentaries. Most modern discourse around documentaries—as a whole a multifarious motley crew of divergent and often opposed filmmaking techniques and genres—is filled with similarly vague platitudes. Midcoast Maine in autumn is as idyllic a setting as any for pondering questions of communication and art theory, and to that end CIFF offers up ample fodder, whether with the odd envelope-pushing doc-adjacent fiction work or through their excellent forums and seminars.

But 2020 brought with it more than questions of form in the lukewarm sea breeze. When the virus proved to be a not-so-transient foe, raging on through to the summer, CIFF founder and director Ben Fowlie set to work on a transfigured COVID-proofed version of the festival, in the process making manifest the range of his and his staff’s creative gumption and sticktoitiveness. The eventual setup, a combination of drive-in and virtual screenings, may seem par for the 2020 film festival course, but the CIFF team didn’t simply commandeer a nearby drive-in theater or rent a portable screen. They fundraised until they were able to build their own screen from freshly-cut Aroostook County pines and commission a DCP-capable digital projection booth modeled as a miniature white lighthouse (the logistics of which I am told involved the assistance of a locally-based NASA engineer), all comfortably situated in a field thicketed by evergreens half way between the towns of Camden and Rockland. If this sounds luxe for the COVID era, I only wish you could have seen the socially-distanced gathering space: a circular caravan of repurposed vintage camper vans, done up with the same rustic-chic artsy aura behind CIFF’s famous After Dark parties.

In the wake of a lot of bad news (an international theater closure crisis, for one), CIFF’s displays of extravagance and generosity are cautiously encouraging. I say generosity because CIFF also committed to splitting 50% of this year’s proceeds equally among all the featured filmmakers through the Filmmaker Solidarity Fund. Still, though, a socially-distanced drive-in, no matter how attractive, is still a socially-distanced drive-in.

Having seen nothing on the big screen since March, I committed happily to attending eleven of the twelve drive-in screening nights at Camden. As for the online streaming fare, I spoke at length with Fowlie’s fellow programmers Jeanelle Augustin and Milton Guillen, who directed me to what they felt were the unsung pearls of the slate. Augustin, who has worked before with Sundance and True/False, was single-handedly responsible for most of this year’s top-notch shorts programs, whereas Guillen, a filmmaker-programmer who has worn various hats over the last five CIFFs, worked mainly with Fowlie on the feature selections.

It’s always a little tough for me to know how to encapsulate a festival experience in an article, and more so in this case, as the twelve days of CIFF were a huge disjunction from my regular quasi-quarantined lifestyle. I stayed with family a little over an hour from the drive-in, which gave me a two-hour-plus commute up and down Maine’s seaside segment of Route One, time which I mostly filled with a Don Quixote audiobook; I took up a new habit of daily running, in part to offset all the car sitting; and more than the big-screen cinema what I began to look forward to was just the chance to sit around the central fire pit between films and talk over food and beer with CIFF staff and the filmmakers who made the journey. It’s a bit of a blessing that the drive-in started off with such well-covered and hyped festival darlings as Garrett Bradley’s Time and Kossakovsky’s Gunda, because I’m not sure I’d know what to write about them given how uncritically visceral my first viewing days were (two thumbs up, five bags of popcorn, etc.). I’m not even sure I sufficiently regained my bearings before the deep cuts in CIFF’s slate began sneaking up on me, as Hannah Jayanti’s Truth or Consequences did.

Above: Truth or Consequences

At its heart, Jayanti’s film is a snapshot of five people going about their lives in an impoverished desert town in New Mexico. Interspersed are what the film’s press kit calls “Virtual Reality Worlds”: sequences of photogrammetric reconstructions of locations in the film (a trailer belonging to a woman named Yvonne, a junk collection belonging to a man named George), made to look like the otherworldly error-prone boundary regions of a video game, though often resembling a computer generation of outer-space star maps. These interludes serve to push forward a central metaphor that’s almost a little too cutesy for my tastes—adjacent to this town is Spaceport America, the world’s first private space travel hub, and the interludes turn the on-the-ground filming locations into subjects of hypothetical space travel—but Jayanti’s organic and intuitive approach to editing allows this metaphor to blossom nicely in the background. The characters she has us living with are always front and center, and on display is her humanistic gift of putting people at ease and earning buried life stories and emotions. Truth or Consequences is the product of a great documentarian letting her heart guide her through a maze of tantalizing intellectual congruences; lesser talents would lose themselves in the thickets. And since great talent is the name of the game, it’s only fitting that Jayanti secured a shimmering solo guitar score from the legendary Bill Frisell.

Seven hours west, holed up in a survivalist trailer in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, we find a more outré, ear-enveloping docufiction experience from Lisa Marie Malloy and sensory ethnography practitioner J.P. Sniadecki. A Shape of Things to Come follows an “herbalist-hunter-homesteader” named Sundog (the anti–Beach Bum?) as he hunts down and flays a javelina, mixes a proprietary tincture for a telephoning friend, tends to his pet pigs and considers whether to take out a Stephen King book from the public library. Sundog also—here’s where the fiction sets in—exacts technological sabotage on the U.S. Border Patrol, an encroaching presence. Malloy and Sniadecki’s foregrounding of exquisite animal and wilderness photography (including a menacing up-close rattlesnake and a Mexican wolf seen through a window), on grainy celluloid no less, makes A Shape of Things to Come a contender for my most ravishing 2020 cinema experience.

Above: Field Resistance

Coursing through both Truth or Consequences and A Shape of Things to Come is a strain of southwestern American eschatology, sometimes even a full-on end-of-humanity eschatology. Mitch McCabe’s short Civil War Surveillance Poems (Part 1) arrives at a similar ethos by blending unsettling recordings from vitriolic anti-liberal call-in radio shows with footage of highway drives, artful wasteland tableaus and some changing-room interviews with strippers. McCabe captures the familiar something's-a-brewing anxiety of rolling through a strip-mall town, say in southern Appalachia, and scanning through the AM frequency bands, though it’s possible I’m reading too much of my own elitism into her potent portraiture. McCabe’s short was paired with Ben Balcom’s Garden City Beautiful and Emily Drummer’s Field Resistance, both further explorations of a post-human futurist America, both taking a more haptic, material approach to imagery, both shot on 16mm.

Above: T

Not all of the American films at CIFF were focused on humanity’s demise. I keep thinking back to the hypnotic, rhythmic hike of Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme through a saturated fluorescent-green Pacific Northwest forest in Sky Hopinka’s maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, which was the drive-in’s closing film; the film bled with hope for life through archetypes of Chinook myth. Keisha Rae Witherspoon’s ebullient T and Zeshawn Ali’s rejuvenative Two Gods tackle the epidemic of violent deaths among Black men, but more so deal with the lives that continue on without them, divergent films though they may be. T follows grieving mother Dimples as she designs a potato-chip-bag dress for a black-lit Miami ball dance while Two Gods follows Hanif in a New Jersey mosque as he washes corpses and builds their wooden caskets. To add to these, Adam Kahlil and Adam Piron’s reverent and zoomorphic short Halpate intertwines the continuation of the Seminole tradition of alligator wrestling for tourists with a sumptuous and often playful photography of the scaly beasts themselves. (I guess pinning tradition on the backs of menacing animals is a serviceable fable for cultural survival in this century.)

I could go on raving about the different surveys of US experience in this year’s slate (Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s exquisite The American Sector, Cecilia Aldarondo’s well-rounded Landfall), which represented a bigger percentage of CIFF than I can ever remember—usually it’s a more thoroughly international-heavy affair—but most of the remaining work that has weighed heavy in my memory is from South America and the Middle Eastern diaspora.

Above: Pattaki

Pattaki, a 21-minute short made in Havana by Brazilian filmmaker Everlane Morães, is for my money the most transportive and sublime work in the festival. Purportedly based on the 1943 Cuban poem “La isla en peso” ("The Whole Island") by Virgilio Piñera, Pattaki flows wordlessly through fish in the moon-glistening tide into humble coastal homes, where we find catatonic locals going about mysterious nightly activities—a woman filling up buckets of water in a sink and glancing nervously skyward, a mason sealing up a small window-like opening in his wall, a man wearing a giant fish mask drifting through various settings. The intense actors are framed in sharp-angled hypnagogic close-ups and extreme angles, and Morães achieves a bodily pace that’s half-Bresson, half-Costa. Unable to review a screener due to an expired Vimeo password, I resort to a word I scribbled while I first watched Pattaki (“superb”) and a rich stanza from Piñera’s poem (translated by Mark Weiss):

Bodies in the mysterious tropical drizzle,
in the daily drizzle, the nightly drizzle, always the drizzle,
bodies opening their millions of eyes,
bodies, ruled by light, retreat
before the slaying of skin,
bodies, devouring waves of light, return like sunflowers of flame
at the crest of ecstatic waters,
bodies, afloat, drift seawards like extinguished embers.

Above: Río Turbio (Shady River)

Tatiana Mazú González’s Río Turbio (Shady River) similarly centers the outward stares of its subjects, this time the indoor gazes of disempowered women in a Patagonian coal town (Río Turbio in Argentina). As thick fogs sweeps through the snowy industrial mountain community, González offers us email and text screenshots, stylized cartographic diagrams, audio recordings of organizing women and outdoor dioramas that range from Benningesque shots of tunnel exits and mountain vistas to Framptonesque frenetic framings of dancing snowfall in the night. According to misogynistic superstition, women have been barred from entering the nearby coal mines for generations. González intends that Río Turbio, a film which in lieu of access to the mines presents a panoply of nearby frustration, resistance and eerie tranquility, serves to best capture the utter strangeness of being unallowed to participate in what is essentially the only game in town. What elevates Río Turbio beyond this musing gimmick is González’s incredible eye (she also serves as DP), her taste for playful meta ploys (filming audio equipment as it records the soundtrack) and Julián Galay’s wrenching microtones and fine-tuned industrial sound design.

As I mentioned, the other films in the slate that grabbed me (sometimes shook me) were centered around traumatic experiences in the Middle East and afterimages thereof. I have to confess that I’m often disconcerted by the quantity of such films in documentary festival slates—I’m wary of anything that might confirm the liberal mindset of "it’s a mess out there"—though almost without fail upon actually watching them I encounter some of the most poignant artistic expressions I’ll see all year. This is not to say CIFF-selected films based in the Middle East are above meaningful criticisms. One of the most engrossing and exciting films in last year’s festival, Iranian director Reza Farahmand’s Copper Notes of a Dream, which followed an enterprising group of young kids as they rollicked through bombed-out Damascus, screened at the Camden Opera House just weeks before 88 Syrian filmmakers published a statement in Bidayyat condemning the increasingly common “use of destroyed and displaced Syrian cities as locations for filming.” Similarly, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, which I was quite taken by this year, has been criticized for the (debatable) one-dimensional portrayal of its ISIS-tortured subjects. (None of this is meant to dampen my praise of Copper Notes or Notturno, which are both something quite special.)

Above: Purple Sea

Purple Sea, by Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, mostly skirts these discussions. Syrian artist Alzakout had wanted to document her 2015 journey across the Mediterranean. She tied a tiny waterproof camera to her wrist, which happened to be recording when the boat smuggling her and 315 others sank off the coast of Turkey in the early afternoon of October 28, resulting in 42 deaths. The entirety of the 66-minute wrist-point-of-view experience is stitched together footage from this four-hour underwater nightmare. Strangely, the bright turquoise seawater makes for a tranquil backdrop, as we see countless jeans and sneakers dangling in serenity, held up by bright orange life vests that bob in and out of frame. Through some Rope-like editing magic, the film proceeds as though it were one continuous shot—I’m told Alzakout and Abdulwahed chose to excise disturbing images (of dead bodies, I imagine)—and the shifting colorful, textural abstraction of the images makes it hard to look away. Alzakout speaks gravely over the soundtrack in poetic, observational reflection. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve processed all the moving parts at play in Purple Sea, I haven’t, but regardless it’s a crime that this mammoth entry in the annals of documentary has not been the loud talk of every European festival it’s played at.

Winding down my fragmentary globe-trot, it feels fitting to briefly close on two films that fruitfully probe western spectatorship of Mideast war films and images, two films which also feel most fitting to be streamed from a computer: Eléonore Weber’s There Will Be No More Night and Chloé Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee’s Bottled Songs 1-4. The films’ success lies in their espousal of extremely active, exhaustively responsible viewerships of propaganda forms (and by extension, all of cinema)—something we could all do well to practice more often.

I left Camden in 2020 like I have in the past: overwhelmed by cinematic riches and beating myself up over those I neglected to see (in this case Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s The Viewing Booth—still waiting on a Vimeo link). Nevertheless, this was a weird, singular and more intimate affair. Twelve days congregating in the same lot as opposed to a jam-packed weekend of busing around Camden, Rockland and Rockport. No warehouse dance parties, though we did get free local oysters and kelp salt, a live sea shanty singer and, on the final evening, a performance from the Halcyon String Quartet.

If the current vaccine timelines are to be trusted next year’s festival will be a welcome, cathartic return to form. I hope to see you all there.

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Camden International Film FestivalCamden International Film Festival 2020CIFF 2020Festival CoverageState of the FestivalHannah JayantiJ.P. SniadeckiLisa Marie MalloyMitch McCabeTatiana Mazú GonzálezEverlane MorãesAmel AlzakoutKhaled Abdulwahed
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