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Rubbing Shoulders with Beauty: After a Pandemic Year, Acts of Looking at the Camden International Film Festival

The Velvet Queen (courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures)

In La panthère des neiges/The Velvet Queen, a feature directed by Marie Amiguet based on an idea by renowned wildlife photographer Vincent Munier, French writer and traveler Sylvain Tesson accompanies Munier to the Sanjiangyuan nature reserve on the Tibetan plateau, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard. “Not everything is made for the human eye,” Tesson says at one point, a sentiment that is both a lesson in filmic observation—searching for the unseen in order to record it—as well as a commentary on the responsibilities inherent in that act. In the beginning of his expedition with Munier, Tesson expresses his impatience to spot the animal they have come to see. If they don’t see it, the mission will have been for naught. Yet the book Tesson is actively writing during the course of the film is called The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet, the virtues of which were evident in many of the features and short works in Camden International Film Festival (CIFF)’s program this year. 

The Oscilloscope release received its North American premiere at CIFF in September 2021. I hadn’t attended the festival in 12 years; in that time, founder Ben Fowlie and his talented team have consistently enhanced the showcase of the film program to include select and ever-expanding development programs through the Points North Institute. Because of pandemic conditions, the festival this year was quite pared down, but the smallness and intimacy only added to the sensation of so much time passing that it had looped back on itself. Here I was again, a member of the “core crew,” doing this weird thing we call mentoring, crafting and parsing the hell out of something so we can classify it as nonfiction.

What was so heartening about my return to Camden was that the community I left many years ago to live and work in Europe still stands and is thriving. During this time of sojourning, I was based primarily in Berlin and the countries of Kosovo and Albania, where I worked for the DokuFest organization in many capacities and began a photography and moving image project of my own. I had several opportunities to teach, curate special programs for an array of festivals and alternate exhibition spaces and participate in several mentorship programs for aspiring media makers as a nonfiction story consultant and dramaturge. These opportunities, including working more in the artist moving image/experimental realm than in the traditional documentary milieu in which I came up, has shifted and torqued my perspectives on long-form nonfiction—and the way I like to write about it—in myriad ways. Meaning: distinctly not as a journalist or film critic. I’m more of an observer, thinker, eavesdropper and scribbler, never attempting anything remotely resembling objectivity. 

On returning to the United States, I am finding that funding spigots have finally been pried open to fund more feature documentaries in a robust way, thanks in large part to the changing population of the documentary arm of AMPAS and a handful of dedicated executive producers whose expertise is in finding the money. (Ironically, things seem to be telescoping and diminishing in Europe in this regard. It’s getting more and more difficult there for feature nonfiction films to be made without the requisite support of 20 different entities from about as many countries and cultures.) The festival and distribution gatekeepers here are changing, too—finally—and represent an exciting thrust forward for the nonfiction form. It’s about damned time that a game-changing artist like Robert Greene can sell a film to Netflix and contend for Oscars or a brilliant maker like Penny Lane can garner commissions from HBO and make a living as a director, so she can keep skating the edges of her abundant, and often times unorthodox, worldview and creative visions.

Greene’s new Procession, to my mind, is clearly a triumph of everything he has been attempting as a writer/director since 2010’s Kati With an I. Few filmmakers who work with real subjects will be able to use the phrase “It was a true collaboration between me and my subject(s)” with any gravitas after seeing this film. While Greene clearly is the film’s orchestrator and director, he works with six men, all of whom have (barely) survived sexual assaults as altar boys in their respective Catholic churches, encountering a wall of denial and silence from the institution that employs and protects pedophile priests. The six men in Greene’s film become a scriptwriting and performing troupe, staging their own psychodramas as a way to collectively work through buried trauma. It’s not an easy film to watch, but by giving these men a framework in which to produce their own short fiction pieces—not so much re-enactments as safe conduits for decades-long pent-up rage and pain—the goal is for them to reclaim their lives, to encounter the young boys they once were and attempt to release them from their victimhood. This has been done before by many directors, but not on the scale attempted here. It is a brave, visceral, exceedingly complex piece of filmmaking. 

I was also deeply impressed by Kersti Jan Werdal’s feature debut, Lake Forest Park, shot on 16mm in and around Olympia, Washington, where the filmmaker is from. Werdal and her team create a magic cinematic hour that is a beautiful elision of sound and image. Static, meticulously composed shots that linger and allow the spectator to look, spectral light and a tonal shift between innocence and ominousness results in a textural and deliberate vision of what it feels like to be an alienated adolescent existing in the spongy, humid universe of the Pacific Northwest. 

Courtney Stephens’s Terra Femme, Angelo Madsen Minax’s North By Current and Khary Saeed Jones’s ambitious and exciting work-in-progress, Night Fight, pitched at the Points North Forum, are pieces that beautifully express the ability of creative forms to evolve. These brave artists craft image and sound to express the small, internal moments when one is cast adrift (or in the midst of crisis or cataclysm), resulting in profound philosophical shifts or metaphysical pivots that can change the entire course of a life, whether it’s the life of the maker, the life of the live subjects in a film or, through the reinvigoration of a personal piece of archival footage, an internal state of being. These works show us that the image cannot prove anything about what might have happened or why it happened; that what we deem worthy of remembrance from the vaults of our psyches can withstand limitless interpretations, a realization which finally makes the notions of genre, style and form all the more malleable and expansive. It is a privilege to be able to reveal with a camera what we are searching for, to have the elusive animal of our patient and dedicated observations allow us a glimpse before it disappears into the landscape again. 

Minax’s feature debut, North By Current, was awarded the Harrell Award for Best Documentary, the grand prize of the festival, praised by the jury for its “raw intimacy” and “spirit of experimentation.” On first seeing it last year, this magnificent film brought to mind for me these questions: If your whole life played out in a movie, what would you choose to put in it? What images, what sounds, what words, what songs of lamentation and celebration? When lamentation and celebration are no longer discernibly discrete entities, how do you know what might bring you joy, comfort, resolution, an encounter with beauty so rare you must struggle mightily to find a visual and aural lexicon that can adequately describe it so that utter strangers recognize it as truth—the truth of an artist’s creative power?

In Stephens’s archival film, Terra Femme, the director explores the “minor spaces where life goes on unrecorded, outside the flow of time” and ponders the private home movies of various traveling women from the past couple of centuries. The hour-long piece, a decade in the making and usually narrated live by Stephens (it was played with its pre-recorded narration at CIFF), offers a highly speculative and deeply personal text to accompany the footage on the ways and means in which certain travelogues shot by women came to be. At one point, it says, “Travel carries with it the promise of transformation, and so does digging around in archives.” Stephens’s script realizes beautiful transformations by showcasing the “nameless who weave the world into being.” A poignant journey accompanies a quirky take on how worlds collide, creating a nostalgia in this viewer for a lost, more pristine world, of being able to revel in private interpretations of experience through the act of seeing. Using the filmic languages of others and their intentional or accidental mise-en-scènes, Stephens creates an expansive interior travelogue all her own. 

At the risk of exposing a work that is at the beginning of its journey, I will mention Jones’s work-in-progress, pitched at CIFF’s Points North Forum. It attempts to cinematize an internal experience, that of being a Black man living in the United States today: the terror, the anxiety, the uncertainty and misinterpretations of what constitutes a truly life-threatening situation or something that resides only in paranoid imaginings. Of all the pitches, his was the only project in its current incarnation that thrilled me even though—or perhaps because—what Jones is attempting to do is very difficult. How to interpret the mood of an interior space or state of mind for a spectator? Night Fight documents a week in the life of a Black man in the midst of the COVID pandemic; the flood of recorded “vérité” footage (a tragically expanding archive all its own) of cops killing Black men and women in cold blood; and the Trump presidency that unleashed unprecedented vitriol and violence on the part of white supremacists that we can no longer stuff back into the container in which it’s been simmering. The small sample Jones showed at the pitch gave me the feeling that for all the documentation from the film community thus far, this piece would be groundbreaking in ways we have not yet seen and felt. 

As Sylvain Tesson says, “[D]estiny had expelled us from that golden age when beasts, humans and gods conducted a common conversation. All we have left is to look from afar and observe—if we’re lucky.” So, that’s what we do, and we are satisfied with that—looking at one another and, in that act of looking, seeing one another for the very first time. 

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