Inside the New Points North Institute for Nonfiction Storytellers
I first met Caroline von Kuhn when she was working for Tribeca Film Festival, and we became fast friends. Eventually our friendship grew to include professional collaborations — I had a small role in her directorial debut, Like the Water; when she joined the team at Camden International Film Festival, I rushed to cover it for Paste; she produced a short documentary I directed about Albert Maysles; and we are in development on a major scripted feature. So when she told me that the Camden International Film Festival had big news to announce, I knew it was going to be good. I was right.
This month the executive team behind CIFF, already one of the documentary filmmaking world’s most prestigious festivals, announced a major expansion and rebranding of the organization as the Points North Institute, which will be a year-round organization with many programs for nonfiction storytellers. Just before the announcement I caught up with Kuhn, CIFF’s Managing Director, as well as Executive Director Ben Fowlie and Program Director Sean Flynn to get all the details.
Filmmaker Magazine: So tell us about the new Points North Institute.
Caroline von Kuhn: Basically, we are expanding the organization to a year-round institute supporting documentary films and media artists. Not just a film festival, but a year-round slate of artist development and support programs. And we will be changing the name of the organization to the Points North Institute. We will be the only nonfiction institute of our kind, which is exciting. [We’re in] in mid-coast Maine, which has this sort of obvious artist retreat sensibility and a huge tradition in a lot of different arts — and also where we did the Camden TFI retreat last year in partnership with CNN — and it ended up becoming a pilot program for us. We figured out that we want to do more of these. It’s what we love doing, and there’s this need for it, too — this space where we can support the emerging filmmaker’s voice, the voices that have not been discovered yet and give them the time and space and connections to really hone take risks and develop their work. We’ve got our second Camden TFI retreat with CNN in about a week’s time, and then we’ll be announcing additional programs throughout the year.
Filmmaker: With the CNN connection and the word “filmmaker” not appearing in the new title of the organization, do you foresee an immediate or eventual broadening into the larger world of nonfiction storytelling? Like adding a journalistic focus?
Von Kuhn: To clarify, the CNN relationship is just for the retreat we do in June each year. It’s American stories, so we take filmmakers from various regions representing a diverse collection of great American voices that year. Our overall institute is not related to CNN outside of that.
Ben Fowlie: It’s an opportunity for us to highlight some of the programs we’ve been, like Caroline mentioned, kind of producing and have been in development with for several years, one of which is our own Points North Fellowship. We started that out as a basic pitch session, and it has grown to a year-long fellowship. And of course, the Camden TFI retreat. Back to your point about nonfiction storytelling — certainly it is an opportunity for us to broaden the conversations we’re having at the festivals and throughout the various programs as we look at a more interdisciplinary approach. Certainly our main focus always will be on the moving image, but I think we’re more and more increasingly interested in seeing how it relates to journalism. Obviously new technology, interactive work — we’re always making sure those are part of the conversation as a mode of storytelling. But again, I think a lot of the work we’re going to be developing, certainly at the earlier part of the institute, is about enhancing the programs under our roster and expanding some new ones for filmmakers and media artists specifically.
Filmmaker: While we’re talking about where everything is headed, let’s go back to the dark ages of 2005. Tell us what prompted you to sort of get things started here?
Fowlie: Caroline mentioned this as well: we’re in a pretty unique space here as far as a small community that understands the value of environment and how that affects creative practices and exploration. As someone who grew up here, when I realized I had an interest in working in documentary, it seemed like a great opportunity to attempt to build a cinematic culture that would align with appreciation of photographers and painters [who have been working here] for decades. The festival in itself is an opportunity to build awareness around documentary form and nonfiction storytelling. Those are some elements of what we’re doing now that you could see back them. But first and foremost our programs are always based on the idea of bringing artists in. The size is always based around what we have available in terms of the travel budget for filmmakers, mainly so we can connect artists with community, which is kind of the underlying theme of all we’ve done and continue to do within the organization. An important point for us is the intimacy of the environment, as it allows the ability for ideas to grow, for conversations to happen, for relationships to form in ways that are frankly a little more challenging in larger, more urban environments. It really wasn’t until we announced adding the conference component that we began to really see the opportunities for even a small organization like ourselves to make a big impact on the regional landscape, national landscape, and ideally the international landscape.
The first iteration was about developing opportunities for New-England-based filmmakers, and that was the major commitment. And then we took stock and realized the programs we’re creating are substantial and informative enough to reach out to early career filmmakers across the country who could get a lot of great value from this experience. The turning point for us was just over five years ago, when the model of the Silverdocs Conference, which was a huge doc conference, in D.C. every June, changed. We decided internally it was our goal to try and grow the Points North program, and that’s what we’ve done. It’s quickly ramped up. We’re certainly putting as much emphasis on development, on building out those programs and making sure we have robust industry delegation each year. We’re in a unique position where we’re able to really expand outside the model of a four-day festival. We’re expanding on and replicating what we’re doing with Tribeca and CNN and our own fellowship, expanding those models to make sure we can do everything in our power to make sure there’s really strong support of emerging voices in the form. And that there are filmmakers from diverse backgrounds from not just major hubs like New York City or L.A., but that other voices are heard and not slipping through the cracks. There are strong support networks, thanks to Sundance and Tribeca, in catapulting film-funding opportunities, but there’s still a real need for peer-to-peer, or peer-to-mentor relationships, and that’s what we’re really excited by as individuals and as an organization.
Filmmaker: You just said something I want to expand on because it’s one of my “pound-the-table” issues that I always talk about with people. I am a firm believer in the concept of diversity — the more diverse voices we have the better things get and the more we learn — but I’m increasingly frustrated at how, especially in the artistic community, we have tended to reverse and reduce the concept of diversity to the question, “Do you have people of color, women and other-than-straight people, and if so you have diversity.” What about diversity of class background, diversity of religious belief, diversity of regional origins, urban vs rural? So when you said you place special interest on finding people outside of L.A. and New York City my ears really perked up. I would love for any of you to unpack your conception of diversity in those terms.
Fowlie: It’s fun to be exploring these things. As an organization you don’t want to not be thinking about it, but at the same point too, yeah, diversity needs to be a diverse word for it to have an impact. What you were saying is something that we really resonate strongly with. I agree with you – it’s easy to fall back on obvious conversations that need to happen without looking at the broader conversation that I don’t think is happening.
Von Kuhn: That is something we feel a big obligation to as people who have been supported by other institutions. If we’re going to be an organization that is supporting filmmakers we need to be very clear as to who those filmmakers are and to not just add our support to the laurels of filmmakers who are based in L.A. or New York City and/or have been backed by Sundance or IFC. We want to make an actual difference for these filmmakers. What opened this up to the possibility of us being able to really support a diverse group of filmmakers was when, last year, we did the retreat it wasn’t an open call. For the first time we reached out to every filmmaking organization we have a direct partnership with and those we haven’t worked with before — we reached out to the Austin Film Society, we reached out to all the San Francisco contacts we had, and we explored Seattle. We wanted to make sure we were opened up geographically, to make sure we had a wider array of filmmakers [coming] through our doors. And also, the other thing we’ve started to talk about and we’re still flushing out is just who’s even submitting to Points North? Who knows about us and has access to us? Who feels like they do? [There’s been a] conversation this past year of festivals having responsibility of assessing not just who they are programming but also who even applies to be programmed by them. It’s a real thing we’re taking a hard look at. We’re going to basically audit our history of the last 12 years and see whose radar we’ve been on and who feels they have the opportunity to come through our doors. We’re taking the step back to figure out who even knows about us and feels like they can come to us. We have things to unpack to make sure that we do have a slate of filmmakers who haven’t had the opportunity before.
Sean Flynn: Getting back to this whole interdisciplinary approach to nonfiction — that’s another way of thinking about diversity as well. Just the different kinds of backgrounds that people have, the mediums people work with and how that influences story and audience and experience. So we are trying to keep a very open-ended definition of diversity, while also being serious about how white and male the film industry has been traditionally. I think documentary is a special case in some ways. And we want to be part of driving that forward.
Filmmaker: I can’t let the conversation go without asking, given the short documentary that Caroline and I worked on together last year, tell me about the very first year of Camden including a tribute to the great Al Maysles.
Fowlie: The first and only lifetime achievement award in film. How do you follow-up with that?
Fowlie: It was great. I was 23 or 24 and had never really met a legend. Al was a special treat for us. I think it was like his 50th anniversary as a filmmaker that year, so he was on the road, at a lot of festivals which is probably why he agreed to join us in our first year at a small, regional festival on the coast of Maine. But for me it was one of those memorable moments that this community is not as daunting as it felt at the start. At the start of the festival, I didn’t know anything about film festivals or that much about documentary, as an industry at least, and how supportive it was is a testament to why I’ve personally been satisfied and thrilled to work in this community the past decade. It was that ability to connect with people and talk about storytelling whether there was at that point only a handful of people in the audience, and now we’re selling most of our events out. It was a really rare opportunity to spend that time with a legend. We’ve screened his work in the past – we did screen In Transit last year, which was a really moving experience for people who had seen his previous work and remembered seeing him on that same stage 11 years ago at our first public event. He talked about the train project before. It was a really memorable moment. In some ways, it’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of continually recognizing people. We’re interested in how how to honor legends and trailblazers without a formalized setting. You don’t get many opportunities to meet legends and idols like that, so I think the way he talked about documentary that first day, it was about story for him. It set the stage in a lot of ways as to how our organization has evolved. Plus, he stayed out and partied with us till late, late, late.
Von Kuhn: Part of the reason why we’re expanding and the festival itself will remain its size, a 4-day event, is we want all of these early career filmmakers we’re supporting through our fellowships or partnerships is we want it always to be that the greats are very much co-mingling and not separate from those early career filmmakers coming through our doors. So whether through retreats and only having 4 mentors and 5 days getting to know them and their work, really making animpact through the festival to where you get to sit and have lobster dinner between Alex Gibney and Fred Wiseman, and maybe on the other side is someone who could fully fund or broadcast your next film, and you are surrounded by the HBOs and CNNs and Discoverys and the rest, but they’re not at a separate side of the table. You’re at a dinner table together. That kind of feeling of festival intimacy and inclusivity is what we want all throughout our programs, to have the caliber of the level of industry coming through our doors to get stronger and stronger and that they have really engaged interactions with these filmmakers and they walk away with concrete changes whether in the narrative process or in an unofficial market happening out of Points North, in terms of getting funding and getting broadcast year after year.
Filmmaker: There’s kind of a sweet spot that Camden and a festival like Sarasota is in, where you can meet some of the great people you’d want to meet away from the hubbub of a Toronto or Sundance.
Fowlie: The trick is to hold events like this where there’s only one coffee shop in town, so there’s no hiding. Sundance has a secret kind of underground system for the industry.
Filmmaker: I think you just came up with a great idea for a mockumentary: The Tunnels Underneath Park City. So, where do you see Points North Institute being five years from now.
Fowlie: I guess that depends on how November goes for us. We could very easily change our organization’s mission quickly. I think we want Points North to be synonymous with creative nonfiction story telling and supporting the artists exploring documentary form. We fully believe that the expansion of year-round artist support programs and community engagement initiatives are going to help us elevate the visibility of the festival itself, and so in some ways we see it as opportunity to really look at two things. One, creating the annual four-day festival that will always be the heart and soul of the organization and of the Institute, as the annual gathering of filmmakers and media artists with projects in development. We want to create a robust platform for filmmakers to gather in public settings to talk about where the form is and where it’s going. Two, in addition to that as a whole for the Points North Institute in five years, we’d love to be recognized as the launch pad for next generation of early career film makers and media artists. We want to be recognized as a pivotal organization for helping artists get mentorship and financial support — the relationships they need to build stable, long-term careers in documentary. Whether it’s using long-form story telling technology or short or interactive approaches, we’re committed to broadening and exploring nonfiction storytelling.
Sean Flynn: We want to build out more creative retreats and residency programs and workshop opportunities to gather throughout the year in Maine. We’re starting that calendar now with that Camden TFI retreat with CNN. I think as the capacity of the organization expands, we will be adding to the caliber of programs. This year we’re also adding an editing residency for short-form filmmakers that will take place a week prior to festival and an interactive virtual reality component that will take place during the festival. For us, that’s still the tentpole, to do events in July, August, October, months where it’s beautiful and the weather is great here.