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Drive-Ins, Sawed-Off Campers and Virtual Premieres: The 2020 Camden International Film Festival

Songs of Repression

Eight months since the pandemic forced (most) film festivals to pivot to video – striving, with varying success, to replicate their in-the-flesh experience via various digital platforms – some surprisingly viable models are coming to a laptop near you. One of them is the Camden International Film Festival, which engineered its annual autumn camp for non-fiction filmmakers, fans, industry and its coastal Maine community Oct. 1-12 by mixing an extensive online operation with a nightly drive-in, each matching the festival’s signature creative flair to the unique necessities of presenting a ton of films and workshops amid a global health crisis.

Online, the festival customized its use of the Eventive platform, creating novel introductory clips featuring various members of its programming team, most often greeting audiences from a cozy perch in a faux cabin set. Guest appearances by Sailor,  co-founder/executive & artistic director Ben Fowlie’s Tennessee mutt, and some improvisations on a vintage Magnus chord organ were sprinkled in for variety. Veterans of the festival’s late-night warehouse parties may recognize the handiwork of the same design and production team behind those trippy funhouse installations (led by Ethan Kiermaier, Scott Sell and Halle Johns). Likewise adapting festival tradition to the virtual interface, the plentiful Q&As united a global network of filmmakers, critics and programmers to chat with filmmaking guests in pre-taped conversations. (In addition to live-streamed panels).

With community support, the festival was able to construct an outdoor screening site – the Shotwell Drive-In – from scratch on a vacant lot in Rockport. An appropriately rustic space was created, making use of campers cut in half, where musicians could perform before shows and the handful of filmmakers in attendance could participate in fireside chats. All at a safe distance, and projected on the big screen. Some of the guests were surprises, like the team behind Totally Under Control, filmmakers Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. They participated in a secret screening of the COVID-19 doc, a head-spinning condensation of 2020’s pandemic insanity and the Trump administration’s aggravated failure to deal with the crisis. The film moves briskly, doomscrolling through the headlines and the drama, with the particularly damning testimony of immunologist Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, whose May whistleblower complaint got him ousted from the post. Many interviews in the film are conducted via a customized pandemic-cam. “It was opening weekend and the news about Trump with the virus just broke,” said Ben Fowlie, co-founder and executive & artistic director of the festival. “They were excited about being able to see their work before it hit the world in a huge way.”

If Team Gibney’s techniques are socially distant, the camera in Chinese-American director Hao Wu’s 76 Days is in the room with medical staff and dying patients in Wuhan, charting the genesis of the pandemic at great personal risk to Wu’s Chinese co-directors. Urgency is all. It’s a tough, vital watch.

As in years past, Camden showcased a mix of prominent documentaries, soon to be marshalled into awards campaigns by their distributors, and left-field discoveries from around the world. Among the former, the crowdpleasing Gunda, executive-produced by Joachim Phoenix and directed by festival favorite Victor Kossakovsky (Aquarela, ¡Vivan las Antipodas!), introduces the world to the pig of the same name, a heroine whose tireless endeavor to raise a collection of squealing piglets takes on cinematic grandeur in this intimate observation of farm life. The film’s gradual pace and richly textured monochrome cinematography, augmented by the cleanly mixed “sounds of the sty” audio track, give its scenes a hypnotic quality, not least when Gunda gazes into the frame in close-up. You could swear you can hear her thinking – pigs are reputed to be as smart as a human three-year-old – but the same goes for Gunda’s co-stars, which include a one-legged rooster and some cows, who likewise command the camera’s artful focus. Without recourse to dialogue or bumper sticker sentiment, the film argues for animal rights by simply embracing the idea that these creatures have a consciousness, and a dignity. Will it turn you into a vegan? Maybe. 

Sundog, the hermit/naturalist who is the subject of A Shape of Things to Come, also raises some lovable pigs. They’re among his companions in a makeshift compound somewhere in the Sonoran Desert, in the wild terrain near the Mexican border in Arizona. With his grey, scraggly beard and deep wrinkles around the eyes, Sundog could be 75 – or 45, with some cleaning up – and maintains his simple life with a lot of attentive rigor. He lives off the land but no vegan he. He shoots, skins and barbecues the wild boars that roam the desert (a process shown in visceral detail as the film begins), concocts his own herbal potions (and hallucinogens made of frog secretions), and enjoys classic rock that blares from an old radio – chilling in the late nights to a bit of opera (Don Quixote, don’tcha know, as the camera frames him in repose, resembling no one so much as the Spanish knight errant). It’s not windmills Sundog tilts at, but the persistent encroachment of the outside world. Border patrol vans. Surveillance towers that project an industrial whine. Sundog makes a plan. Director Lisa Marie Malloy (with J.P. Sniadecki) creates total immersive engagement with her collaborative subject and the natural world that absorbs him, so much so that on the rare occasions Sundog relates to other human beings (in a bookstore, dancing to a bar band) it’s almost a shock. At the moment, it’s almost a romantic fantasy of pandemic isolation, but the film also suggests a post-collapse reality of off-grid existence and authoritarian intrusion (and resistance to it). Life is rugged, but there’s always the frog juice.

Much of the apparent boom in non-fiction productions promoted by streaming services taps into a public fascination with trauma and criminal abuse, a lot of it shamelessly padded out and given to rote formula. (This is not a subtweet at The Vow, seriously). Those subjects cropped up at CIFF, as well, although approached with much more creativity and insight. Songs of Repression, from German filmmakers Estephan Wagner and Marianne Hougen-Moraga, visits with matter-of-fact candor the memories of now-elderly survivors of decades of physical, mental and sexual abuse. They are residents of the Colonia Dignidad, a community of German religious cultists in southern Chile, who were led by a man named Paul Schafer. He held power over them for four decades, abusing some 200 boys and collaborating with the Pinochet regime, before he was forced into hiding, then prison for five years before his 2010 death. The cruel twist is that these children, and adults, were made to sing anthems and hymns to their collective joy and togetherness. Set against an Edenic countryside, and a seemingly utopian community, the interviews quickly reveal a hideous past lurking behind the deceptive tranquility. The staging is almost banal, the subjects eerily placid, as heartbreaking details surface: a scene of a torture basement being converted to tourist lodging, for instance, or a subject’s confession that they never connected sex with love. The unblinkingness of it all floors you. A multi-year experimental film diary, Night Shot follows the impact of rape on Mexican filmmaker Carolina Moscoso, who recounts the incident and its aftermath, but folds it into an amorphous array of flashbacks, memories and interludes – cinematic reveries that are interrupted from time to time by details of the crime, or Moscoso’s unhappy encounters with the criminal justice system. The use of a “night vision” camera in certain sequences inspires the title, which is as symbolic as you’d like. If the filmmaker’s process makes for work that is sometimes slippery to latch onto, it also seems to reflect the challenges of restoring a sense of self and well-being. 

CIFF isn’t only notable for screening discoveries but for cultivating them, most prominently in its annual Points North Pitch, which offers the creators of six new projects fellowships which (usually) come with residencies and mentoring sessions, as well as engagement with leading funders and distributors, and financial and in-kind support. 

This year’s remote session couldn’t hope to capture the electricity of the traditional multi-hour live event before a packed house at Camden’s Opera House, whose performative aspects – the fellows giving it their best shot with butterflies aflutter in their stomachs; the panelists zeroing in on shaky details or offering a dose of tough love; the thrilling rush of applause after a surprising clip – compel in ways that don’t so easily translate to a screen filled with various talking heads. Yet, the festival pulled off a complex juggling of international feeds, with eight panelists, two moderators and six teams of fellows planted in different locations. “It was the heaviest lift we had in terms of production,” Fowlie said. “I can’t tell you how many computers we had tethered together with Zoom windows.”

There was no specified winner of this year’s pitch, and no awards given to any films at the festival. Instead, CIFF put its energy toward padding its Filmmaker Solidarity Fund, which provides $400 (maybe more as numbers are tallied) to each of the fest’s filmmakers, with half of the box office dedicated to the cause.  “We didn’t want any focus to be on the best pitch or the best film, we wanted it to be on the work as a whole: the fellows, their process, their vision,” Fowlie explained. “We saw camaraderie happen in a completely virtual space.” 

Some of the most memorable projects were intensely personal. Jude Chehab’s Q digs not always comfortably into her family’s history in exploring Qubaysiat, the world’s largest organization for Islamic women, rooted in Syria where it once operated in secret. The Lebanese-American filmmaker relates a multi-generational story of herself, her mother and her grandmother’s involvement in the Sufi cult, its mysteries and ramifications, with a beguiling use of family archives. The title of I Didn’t See You There nods with perhaps rueful or ironic humor to a refrain all too familiar to Reid Davenport, an Oakland filmmaker who reflects on disability, public space, the institution of the freak show, and his own struggles and desires, with often poetic visual style. The hearing issues that filmmaker Alison O’Daniel has lived with inform the shape and substance of The Tuba Thieves, which conflates autobiographical auditory experience with a strange true-crime saga: the disappearance of tubas from multiple Los Angeles-area high schools. The work is evolving from prior iterations as installation and performance.

Even with the digital tradeoffs, the energy got across. “To be able to feel like there’s a connection being made between audience and filmmaker in a virtual setting is a really profound thing,” Fowlie said. “2020 is about figuring out how to make these things possible.”

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