The programming for the Camden International Film Festival, which exclusively hosts nonfiction movies, is guided by three individuals: senior programmer Samara Chadwick, program director Sean Flynn, and executive director/artistic director/founder Ben Fowlie. While in the process of drafting a story about the festival, I sent them some questions, and then some more, and so on, until we collectively decided it was best to publish that email conversation itself. The 2019 iteration of CIFF will take place from September 12-15.
DIG: Like any festival, you obviously have to balance serving a number of “communities”, at various levels of scale. There is the local (Maine), the regional (New England), the national, and the international—just for starters. Can you tell me about how you keep that all balanced within programming? What happens if you feel the films you’re selecting are, in number, leaning heavily in one direction? And is that balance something you aim to keep relatively even, or is it entirely dependent on which films are strongest in a given year?
SC: Though we see these communities as fluid, this balance is absolutely vital to all our programming conversations. As a general rule of thumb, we seek works that are generous and transformative, whether their subject matter or filmmakers are local or absolutely obscure. This generosity transcends form (a highly experimental work can be deeply funny, while a very traditionally constructed film can have moments of intuition, of strange cinematic brilliance) and makes for works that feel truly democratic, and accessible to all. That said, we do have different venues, and each of them have specific qualities: The Camden Opera House offers a breathtaking setting and draws big crowds, the Rockport Opera House is very much anchored in the community and feels very cozy, the Strand has terrific sound and projection, the Farnsworth is an art museum and is the home to some of our most artistically ambitious work. All to say, there are so many types of works that fall under the banner of documentary, and there is a venue, and an audience, for all these types of film.
BF: Yes, and it’s exciting to be able to bring both world premieres as well as the best of what international documentary cinema has to offer to these diverse audiences. One thing I love about putting on the festival each year is the conversations and the mingling of various communities that occurs. With mid-coast locals, those who travel to the festival each year, and filmmakers and the film industry all gathered together in appreciation and sometimes even disagreement over the films themselves, it makes for a vibrant convergence of perspectives and conversations.
Obviously the filmmakers exhibited during the festival have, on a demographic level, become a more diverse group over the years the festival has operated. Do you feel that has changed the modes of storytelling that are seen in your festival—the forms of the films—or do you think, for the most part, it’s not the storytelling that’s changed so much as just the tellers? And however you feel about that, what films in this year’s program exemplify your opinion?
SC: It’s true that our attentiveness to questioning the connection between “Story and Power” has meant that this is our most diverse year yet, in terms of international guests, indigenous creators, and filmmakers of color. Though we’ve always been committed to hearing from underrepresented voices, this year we’re particularly thrilled about all the color across our film and immersive programs, as well as our artist programs, our mentors, our juries, and our screening committee. We absolutely feel that filmmakers who stand outside the benefits of historical power—whether that power is racial, economic, gendered, geographical, etc.—are massively expanding our understanding of documentary storytelling. To assume that a teller’s background doesn’t affect the telling of the story seems too to be a biased perspective. In general, for example, films made by white people have reflected white world views, and have senses of rhythm, of story, of character, of resolution, that are also specific to whiteness. We’ve been questioning these patterns and trying to identify which assumptions and biases are baked-in to what we have come to understand as the canon and modes of documentary. And because we’re eager to expand that canon, we’re super excited to screen films not only by diverse creators, but also ones that decenter the white perspective, and allow for other worldviews to manifest. There is so much energy, and so much that’s unexpected, in this year’s program. We’ve really been transformed by all the films that are included.
Some examples of ways that story and power exist in our program are nearly a dozen works by and about indigenous creators from around North America and beyond who seek to reclaim indigenous stories, and move them into a present and future that are very much alive. Works such as La vida en común (Ezequiel Yanco, 2019), A tree is like a man/ En la maloca de Don William (Thorbjorg Jonsdottir, 2019), Culture Capture: Terminal Addition (Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, and Jackson Polys, 2019), ︎Lore (Sky Hopinka, 2019), Now is the Time (Chris Auchter, 2019), We Only Answer Our Land Line (Woodrow Hunt and Olivia Camfield, 2019), and Biidaaban: First Light, an immersive experience by Lisa Jackson.
The 4-day Thursday-Sunday festival, as a format, has become something of a staple itself. You’ve all established a very specific rhythm for the experience of your festival, involving the exhibition of other art forms, panels including the “Points North Pitch”, parties laden with installations, maps offering specific “paths” through the films playing over the weekend, and more. How did this develop, in your estimation, and what about this “rhythm” of the festival might be new or different this year?
SF: We’ve always aspired to curate and design a festival experience that is intimate, accessible, egalitarian and deeply immersive. We think a festival should create a kind of time warp where you can get lost and unplug completely from your day-to-day life. In the process, maybe you discover new ways of understanding or relating to your reality, or to each other. We also recognize that a documentary film festival, in 2019, is full of some pretty stark realities and challenging stories. But what a festival environment allows for, which would never be possible if you watched all these films at home on your couch, is the conversations and community that help us metabolize these stories and collectively imagine a better future.
I know there’s at least one or two mid-length films in the program—for example, a new film by Ja’Tovia Gary, The Giverny Document (Single Channel) (2019). As programmers, do you feel (a) the increased blurring of the line between “cinema” and “fine art” with regards to moving images, and (b) the entrance of home streaming services as viable distribution outlets, when considered together, are helping to erase the short/feature binary? Or are the rare exceptions still just that—exceptions?
BF: We have a number of mid-length films this year, it’s true! In addition to The Giverny Document, we have many others that are under an hour but over 30 minutes, such as The Nightcrawlers (Alexander A. Mora, 2019), Gyres (1-3) (Ellie Ga, 2019), You Were An Amazement On The Day You Were Born (Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, 2019), and Coby and Stephen are in Love (Carlo Nasisse and Yuanyuan Yang, 2019).
Three of these films are inhabiting a really exciting place between nonfiction and contemporary art. The Giverny Document (Single Channel) is part of a triptych that will premiere at a gallery in New York in 2020. And we discovered Gyres (1-3) at the Whitney Biennial, and were thrilled when artist Ellie Ga was excited at the idea of sharing her work at a documentary festival! Amazement is also an incredible hybrid piece that left us with chills. Again playing with fine art and documentary, we took another gorgeous mid-length work, Garrett Bradley’s America, and have transposed it to an installation setting: it is a rich and reflective cinematic work and will be projected in massive scale in our Storyforms installation, in conversation with Whitney Dow’s The Whiteness Project.
And then we have The Nightcrawlers, which is a phenomenal work of journalism and access, combined with bold creativity. This is a work we see as being on the frontlines of documentary’s potency, and we have a strong sense that its World Premiere at CIFF is just the beginning of a long trajectory for this work and its first-time director, Alexander A. Mora. Finally, Coby and Stephen came into our lives by way of the Follow Focus grant (a finishing fund we offered to a short film this year, alongside partners Jigsaw and the ScreeningRoom). We fell in love with this project immediately, and we’re so honored to present the film in its world premiere as well, in a shorts section that’s dedicated to “love”.
You mentioned America being transposed into an installation mode, while The Giverny Document (Single Channel) in contrast was made for a gallery but will be presented as a linear film. Can you tell me about how those decisions (about mode of exhibition) are made—is it your call during programming, the artist’s preference, or somewhere in between?
SF: Our Storyforms program was conceived as a space where we could highlight artists who are exploring the frontiers and expressive possibilities of immersive media technologies. But we quickly realized that it could also be a venue for linear projection-based installations that provide a different kind of immersive, sensory experience—distinct from both VR/AR and traditional cinemas. Part of that is we can play more with scale: We build large screens that attendees can sit close to, taking in gorgeous images that fill their field of view, often listening to the soundtrack on wireless headphones. Last year we featured Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, which went on to play in the Sundance New Frontier program. This year, we were inspired to share Garrett Bradley’s America in this installation format because of its deeply absorbing and layered visual language. In the case of Giverny, we felt the artist Ja’Tovia Gary was creating a dialogue with the documentary form itself—examining the limits of documentary knowledge—and we got excited about the idea of presenting it alongside other documentary shorts in a traditional cinematic setting. In both cases, these decisions were made collaboratively with the artists.
In the years I’ve attended the festival, one of the highlights has been “Shorts X”, ostensibly dedicated to “experimental” film works. Related to what I’ve already asked regarding the increase of mid-length works, as well as the continued (increasing?) presence of film works originally made for exhibition in fine-art spaces… Do you all feel, either within your own festival or more generally, that the divide between “experimental” and “traditional” filmmaking is growing blurrier, especially in the nonfiction sector? And if so, what would you attribute that to, if anything: Is it shifting programming/exhibition methods, a matter of funding, the filmmakers themselves, or perhaps another factor entirely?
BF: We feel there is a wealth of all sorts of documentary being made these days. The streaming platforms, and television’s very real investment in nonfiction, allow for more and more mass-market films to be made, with exceptional access, unforgettable characters, and breathtaking images. Films like For Sama (Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, 2019), American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 2019), Ready for War (Andrew Renzi, 2019), The Cave (Feras Fayyad, 2019), and Citizen K (Alex Gibney, 2019) feel like seminal works in the documentary space, and we’re lucky to be able to program them in conversation along formally adventurous works like Overseas (Sung-A Yoon, 2019) and The Hottest August (Brett Story, 2019). Our festival is a special place, in that the films don’t feel quarantined, they are all in conversation with one another. We definitely embrace the blur you mention, and invite our audiences to stay curious, to be open, to be transformed by these films.
This interview was conducted via email, then edited for length and clarity before publication.
THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCCURS SEPTEMBER 12-15, 2019, AT VARIOUS LOCATIONS IN CAMDEN, ROCKLAND, AND ROCKPORT, MAINE. FOR TICKETS, PASSES, THE SCHEDULE, AND OTHER INFORMATION, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG.