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Global Conversations: Camden International Film Festival and Points North Pitch 2022

The Poetry of CowboysThe Poetry of Cowboys

Two long, anxious years of ever-shifting pandemic regulations, shutdowns and travel obstacles turned the expansive, buoyant and super-social Camden International Film Festival into a largely local and virtual affair. Though the festival—an essential annual magnet for the nonfiction film community—did a stellar job meeting the challenge, any Zoom subscriber knows the workarounds get wearying. There’s nothing like the real thing.

No doubt that accounted for the “extra” vibe at this year’s gathering, the first full-fledged staging of the festival since 2019. As always, the 18th edition was situated in a cluster of picturesque towns in north coastal Maine: Camden, Rockland and Rockport. Unlike years past, most of the screenings were anchored in Rockland, home to the vintage Strand Theatre and a customized venue in the Journey’s End Marina nearby, which doubled as a late-night party site. Build in 1893, the Camden Opera House handled screenings as well as hosting the annual Points North Pitch session, plus talks, panels and a town hall meeting on values-based filmmaking taking off from issues raised by the doc Subject, about the complex dynamic between nonfiction filmmakers and their subjects.  The festival also inaugurated its version of a filmmaker and industry lounge, which became a buzzing hangout zone between Strand screenings. 

With films from some 41 countries, a lot of those conversations were polyglot. International filmmakers faced a “basically impossible” situation last year, said Ben Fowlie, executive and artistic director of the Points North Institute and founder of CIFF, “so it was important for us to course correct this year. We went into programming for 2022 with a commitment to create a festival platform to support artists living and working abroad.”

A sharp sense of the global, in a sheer geographical/cartological sense, also permeated a raft of selections, in films that often seemed to emanate from some historical dreamspace. In Terranova, directors Alejandro Alonso and Alejandro Pérez explore aspects and representations of Havana from unusual perspectives, angling for a poetic core of meaning inaccessible through more conventional documentary approaches. The filmmakers have described their project as an anti-city symphony, and employ various visual techniques, including use of a camera obscura and 3D imaging, to create a flowing, immersive experience of place that feels as if it is in the process of dissolving. Polaris, from Spanish filmmaker Ainara Vera, relishes the extremes of Arctic seafaring as she immerses the audience in the perspective of Hayat, a French captain steering her ship past ice floes and into deep fogs off the coast of Greenland. At a profound remove from her native France, Hayat collapses the distance between herself and a bleak family history in conversations with her baby sister, Leila, whose pregnancy stirs up elemental concerns about their lineage—not to mention the younger sibling’s smoking habit. This sometimes-heartening, sometimes-disturbing portrait of a sisterly bond, and the limits to which one can go and (not) outrun family ties, is also a study in isolation and solidarity, with interludes for the rugged primal majesty of lava flows and journeys into icy oblivion guided by Hayat’s true grit.

Place is also central to Scottish director Mike Day’s Cowboy Poets, a chronicle of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. One of those Western traditions beloved of NPR correspondents and Sunday morning news shows, it’s a cultural flowering that’s routinely celebrated in American media like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally or Burning Man. But Day (The Islands and the Whales) takes time to find personal stories and political tensions underneath all the endless sky his camera lovingly drinks in. The film reflects on the roots of the gathering, launched in 1985, and leans in on conversations among old-timers worried about how to keep political divisions among its faithful at bay, while also mourning the fading of an era that somehow hangs on in the face of everything from TikTok to post-rural redevelopment. Meanwhile, an aspiring poet and his companion leave their rural outpost to chase a dream in Elko, which layers a Rocky-type arc with one of the film’s multiple emotional payoffs. You’ll see a lot of grown men cry, the tell of tenderness underneath the rawhide.

Camden’s mission as a discovery festival has its flipside in its recapping of some of the year’s standout docs on the cusp of awards season—which included the fest’s hottest ticket, the opening night secret screening. A number of these titles were near the end of their festival run, but there were regional premieres that rated as must-sees, with Sr. at the top of my list. The title alludes to rogue auteur and great American satirist Robert Downey Sr., (“A Prince,” as his friends always labeled him), famous for the subversive Madison Ave. spoof Putney Swope, but also a prolific independent filmmaker whose body of work includes many anarchic, near-dada eruptions with logic-bending names like Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. An anonymous poster on IMDB describes the latter as “an experimental, ludicrous, plotless, absurd, surreal comedy. It is seemingly intentionally impossible to understand”—and gloriously so.

Chris Smith, whose breakthrough American Movie chronicled the strivings of a no-budget Midwestern horror flick production, makes perfect sense to capture the senior Downey’s final work: his collaboration with superstar son, the actor Robert Downey Jr., on a home movie during the last couple of years of his life. (Sr. died last July). The framework gives this valedictory valentine to the legendary (yet under-sung) Sr. a “making-of” vibe that cleverly opens a window into the elder Downey’s process (glimpses of his ongoing edit of his own version of the doc indulge that taste for playful, shattered narrative), amid flashbacks to his rebellious, groundbreaking films. The process brings father and son back full circle to Downey Jr.’s first acting roles in his father’s films. It’s a bond explored with poignance, as the younger Robert (who, with his wife Susan, is executive producer) opens up about his need to reconcile matters related to his early exposure to drugs by his father, and the elder Downey shares his regrets. Long on charm and vulnerability, this family portrait taps into a deeper wealth of feeling with its clear-eyed look at mortality, the creative process and the blessing/curse of family life. It may also sneakingly introduce a whole new audience to Sr.’s uniquely twisted work.

The 66-minute archival doc Rewind & Play revisits an episode from the life of another cultural genius, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. The Alain Gomis film was too insider for at least one viewer, who asked me afterwards if “you have to be a fan” to really appreciate it. Maybe not, although it helps to know how widely Monk was misunderstood by the media, often reduced to his always-noted eccentricities, and by his late-career record company, Columbia, which cast him on the cover of the 1968 album Underground as a World War II Resistance fighter, sitting at the piano armed to the teeth—with a Nazi official tied up to a chair in the background. Despite his stoic regard towards journalists, Monk was mainstream enough by 1964 for a Time cover, while his popularity in Europe meant television exposure. These outtakes from a 1969 interview in a Paris TV studio offer evidence of that, but also of a vast gulf in understanding between the artist and his supposed champions in the media. A French journalist, Henri Renaud, falls afoul of his own efforts, at once fawning and condescending, to draw Monk into a conversation with a series of puerile questions. When he doesn’t get any satisfying answers from a mostly unreceptive Monk, he fills the dead air with more gibberish like a jazz version of “Garfield Minus Garfield.” Amid a trainwreck of botched takes, the pianist rips out a few tunes with raw vigor as sweat pours off his face under the hot TV lights. Like Sr., Rewind & Play is currently screening as part of the 60th New York Film Festival.

This year also saw the return of the Points North Pitch to a fully packed Camden Opera House. In-person presentations happened in 2021, but with a smaller audience cap as a COVID precaution. CIFF’s most popular event is the gift that keeps on giving, as many successful pitch fellows return to Camden to screen their completed projects. (Notable this time was Reid Davenport, with I Didn’t See You There, which Points North helped cultivate). Sean Flynn, co-founder and program director of Points North Institute, the umbrella media organization that oversees CIFF, confirmed that the session was “the most international” to date, with fellows hailing from Armenia, Kenya, Bhutan, Hungary, Germany and Mexico: “Our hope is that the Points North Pitch—like the festival—can be a platform for international filmmakers to gain more of a foothold in the US documentary ecosystem.”

Although there is no current prize component of the pitch, and no official “winner” selected, each of the six projects met with enthusiastic rounds of commentary from the nine panelists (including representatives from A24, Concordia Studio, ITVS and the Ford Foundation), moderated by Kickstarter’s Elise McCave. The air of near-universal praise was new to me at the pitch, where in previous years you might expect to hear at least one panelist offer some pushback, or throw a curveball question. Yet, the presentations were surprisingly polished (especially for often being delivered by fellows whose first language was not English) thanks to the training team of Kristin Feeley, Chloe Walters Wallace and Leah Giblin, and the projects richly mature in conception. The most attention-grabbing was Time Hunter, a “speculative documentary” starring Namibian hip-hop artist Mark Mushiva, who greeted the forum wearing an electronic, beat-generating glove—a taste of the film’s Afrofuturist plot, which enlists Meshiva’s cyberpunk alter-ego in a mission to create an African technological utopia. Another project whose premise might easily blend into a fictional treatment was Gross National Happiness, directed by Dorottya Zurbo and Arun Bhattarai, a buddy/road movie about two men who work as “happiness agents” in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Their job is to interview everyday villagers about their state of well-being, creating a numerical assessment of their happiness—all while the film considers where the agents’ own joy lies. 

Other projects explore take innovative approaches to an unpredictable range of subjects, including coming-of-age and climate change in Kenya (Between the Rains), cattle and warfare in Armenia (Flying Cows), linguistics and the search for missing children in Mexico (The Inventory) and the 94-year-old South Georgia spiritual singer Brother Theotis Taylor, drawing on the home-video archives of his son, Hubert (Somebody’s Gone). 

“This year felt more like 2019 than 2021 and that felt great,” said Fowlie, speaking to the festival overall and to a key goal in particular. “It also felt great to be able to integrate some of the larger questions we’ve been asking ourselves as an institution throughout the pandemic, mainly how can we create an institution that centers the needs of filmmakers taking creative risks.”

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