CIFF: Small Towns, Big Films
By Laura Serino
Photograph by Shoshannah White
In the last few weeks Ben Fowlie has scouted locations for a festival pre-party and opening night, talked to dozens of filmmakers, mapped out a volunteer schedule, worked out details with a printer for banners, T-shirts, and programs, and tied up lots of other loose ends.
Fowlie is the founder and director of the Camden International Film Festival, and he’s full of ideas. “Ferry schedules make it tough for people from the islands to come to the fest,” Fowlie says.
“Let’s rent a lobster boat and make it a booze cruise and shuttle them all over here!”
The Camden International Film Festival, now in its fifth year, has screened over 100 documentary films, both features and shorts. All of the films are hand picked and screened in Camden, Rockport, and Rockland.
Fowlie fell in love with the movie business during the summer of 1995, when Hollywood rolled into Camden to shoot Stephen King’s Thinner. Every night, Fowlie, 14 at the time, begged his father to drive him to the set to watch the evening shoots. “It fascinated me at the time to see cars being blown up on Main Street,” he says. “I was on the set so often that the grips eventually invited me to start eating with them.”
After high school, Fowlie went to Emerson College in Boston to study cinematography. On the side, he toured the country in a vegetable-oil-powered school bus playing bass with the space-rock band, Constants. After four years in the band—and only a few weeks shy of another three-month tour—Fowlie decided to focus on film. “I realized that music wasn’t my first priority anymore. I was tired of having no money.”
Classmates headed off to New York and L.A., but Fowlie came back to Maine. Still, he wanted to meet people in the movie industry and make connections with other aspiring filmmakers. One night, at Three Tides in Belfast, he was talking with Leah Hurley—a friend of a friend from college. “Ben spoke about creating the festival with such passion that I knew it wasn’t just a fleeting thought,” she says. “I signed on to help because I had no doubt that he could make it happen. Plus, he’s very convincing.” Hurley is now the festival’s producer.
To fund the festival, the two went after donors, family friends, and anyone willing to help. One of their biggest events was a founders’ party where they screened film previews on the sail from a schooner ship.
“We were largely funded by individual donors,” Fowlie says. “I’m from Camden, so I used a lot of connections, I was like, ‘Remember me? I worked at Village Variety.’ Or, ‘Hey, I dated your daughter.’ ”
At this year’s festival, documentaries explore the lives of custodians at Ivy League universities (The Philosopher Kings) and provide a look behind the scenes of the 2008 Democratic National Convention (Convention). Other must-see films include P-Star Rising, a doc about the rise of an 11-year-old rap star in Brooklyn, and October Country, which Fowlie says is one of the most beautifully shot films he’s ever seen.
“We have another great doc this year—The Fish Belong to the People—about the fishing industry in Port Clyde. It discusses overfishing, sustainability, and government regulations,” he says. “It’s a beautifully constructed film that will resound with fellow Mainers.”
Another film that hit home in a big way was The Way We Get By, a portrait of three Maine senior citizens in Bangor who have devoted their lives to greeting troops at the Bangor International Airport, a film that first screened in 2008. Fowlie says, “Initially, the concept of a film centering around war and senior citizens didn’t sound that exciting. But once I watched it, I think I replayed it about 25 times—and went through a lot of Kleenex.”
As the fifth year of the festival approaches, Fowlie is finally getting a red carpet (literally!) for opening night at the Camden Opera House. After an attendance of 4,300 last year, the festival is hoping to bring in well over 5,000 people in October.
“We’ve got an undying optimism,” Hurley says. “They say it takes five years before an event becomes well known, and things are finally materializing for us in a big way.”
Fowlie says True/False, a festival in Missouri, is a model of what the Camden festival could be: a young, socially conscious documentary festival. He isn’t hoping to make Camden the next Sundance or Tribeca. “I’d like to see it become more of a year-round kind of vibe where we can make it an epicenter for documentary creations, consumption, and critique,” he says. “But you know how I’ll know if we’ve really made it big? When we have a screening at midnight and it’s sold out.”
Maine might not be a film industry hot spot yet, but Fowlie is hoping to change that. “I’d never move this festival to Brooklyn or L.A. Camden is a destination, and I see a huge outpouring of talent in the area year after year. There’s no better place for this festival to be than right here in Maine.”
Camden Film Festival | 617.817.5376 | camdenfilmfest.org