Starring Role

Camden International Film Festival makes Maine’s midcoast a destination for documentary filmmakers and fans.

In an old barn in Rockland outfitted with screens, swivel chairs, and high-tech equipment, Sam Mateosian helps me adjust a virtual-reality viewer on my head. I see an artistic rendition of a classic Maine scene: island, lighthouse, lobster boat, kayak. Each element has a white circle I can point to, bringing me into the scene. I’m on the lobster boat as fisherman Richard Nelson pulls up his traps; then by aiming at another white circle I’m in the trap with the lobsters, looking up at Nelson’s hand as he reaches in. Called Island Land and produced by Mateosian’s Portland company, Big Room Studios, in partnership with the Island Institute, the virtual-reality application is one of several interactive experiences featured at Storyforms, one of the newest elements of the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF). It’s an example of how the four-day event in September has grown in 13 years—from a showcase for documentary films to a key player in the art and craft of nonfiction storytelling.

Camden native Ben Fowlie founded CIFF in 2005, when he was just 23. Unlike many of his Emerson College classmates with film degrees, Fowlie did not head to the West Coast after graduation. “I knew I had a passion for documentaries and for Maine,” he says. “It was logical to go back to a place that was so supportive of the arts.” Fowlie cites the established presence of arts organizations, such as Maine Media Workshops, the Farnsworth Art Museum, and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, as support for his decision to locate CIFF in and around Camden. “What was missing was the appreciation for the cinematic arts. I saw it as a unique opportunity to develop something that was more personalized in terms of my relationship to the industry,” Fowlie says. “I wanted to build something that the community could benefit from as well.”

For the first four years, CIFF focused on presenting documentary films. In 2009, the festival organized the first Points North Forum, a one-day seminar involving the film industry, which was “the seed for what we have now developed as the umbrella organization for the festival,” says Fowlie. “Since the beginning, we have been lucky to have the opportunity to exhibit great content, but we realized after just one year of the forum that our greater vision was in developing filmmakers’ artistic voices.” In 2010, CIFF added the Points North Pitch—a component of the larger Points North Fellowship Program, which quickly became one of the most anticipated events on the festival schedule. Points North Fellows are six teams of filmmakers selected each year, who have an opportunity to work with industry mentors on their documentary projects. At the festival, each team makes a public pitch for its in-progress film to a panel of industry experts, who offer feedback and award one prize that includes professional help in completing the project. While most film pitch sessions are done behind closed doors, these are free community events, held in front of packed crowds at the Camden Opera House. “We put filmmakers with creative energy together with an interested, excited audience wanting to know more about the creative process of making a documentary,” says Fowlie. “When we launched the Points North Pitch, it was our first opportunity to curate new voices, artists that should be recognized but hadn’t been. At that point we were hooked; we found the formula for the festival’s future.”

From the mezzanine of the opera house, I’m watching the 2016 class of Points North Fellows make their presentations to the panel on stage. Each pitch is exactly seven minutes long, followed by a clip of the film in progress. Luke Lorentzen is pitching his film Midnight Family, about a Mexico City family who run a for-profit ambulance, which they also live in. “CIFF is unique in that it makes a point of championing, supporting films that are quite aggressive with form, films that may not be the most entertaining, but that need to be seen,” Lorentzen says. “I’m pitching to 12 to 15 industry people offering every sort of structural support you could possibly need, and they’re the best of the best. It’s the same panel you would find at the IDFA—International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam—which is a 300,000-person festival and would have 30 projects pitching.” Lorentzen, whose family has a summer home in Maine, says he’s watched the development of CIFF over time, and is pleased that the festival has stayed accessible, while attracting people young filmmakers like him need to meet. “They get literally everyone you would want up here, throw these beautiful parties, play wonderful films, and it’s really, really unpretentious.”

Last July, Fowlie, program director Sean Flynn, and former managing director Caroline von Kuhn announced the creation of the Points North Institute. Conceived as an umbrella arts organization with the festival as its core program, it also incorporates a growing roster of year-round artist-support programming. In June, the institute hosted the third-annual Camden/ TFI Retreat, a weeklong residency for filmmakers with projects in development. Sponsored by CNN Films and organized in partnership with the Tribeca Film Institute, the retreat focuses on documentaries that tell American stories. Five projects are selected, with an emphasis on diversity, and the filmmakers are coached by a group of industry mentors. “The goal of the program is to build a catalogue of work that reflects the shifting landscape of this country,” says Fowlie.

Seven films on the film festival circuit this year have gone through either the Camden/ TFI Retreat or the Points North Fellowship. “It’s incredible that our brand is on these films that are premiering at Sundance and Tribeca,” Fowlie says. Among the seven is The Reagan Show, a look at the 40th president’s impact on the country through archival footage, which will air on CNN in August. Another, No Man’s Land, about the Bundy family’s nationalist stand in Oregon, has been picked up by First Look Media and is being coproduced by Morgan Spurlock, a 2016 CIFF guest. “It’s the full-circle kind of thing that’s finally starting to happen for us after six to seven years of developing these programs,” says Fowlie. “With everything that we do we’re trying to be the launching pad for the next generation of storytellers.”

New for 2017 is a program developed with Kickstarter, the North Star Scholarship, which Fowlie describes as “an opportunity for filmmakers of color to come and experience the festival, and to create a platform to develop their work.” The team also plans to include a discussion with journalists to explore the changing landscape of their work and how it intersects with documentary storytelling. The Points North Institute and CIFF have received a special events grant from the Maine Office of Tourism to help expand its marketing strategy. “It’s about getting the word out that we’re more than a film festival,” Fowlie says. “Just bringing this collective engagement together over four days in Camden, Rockland, and Rockport is the most exciting and engaging thing that we have. It’s a full-immersion weekend.” Especially in Camden, the whole town seems to be focused on the festival, headquartered for the long weekend at the new, chic 16 Bay View hotel. Merchants welcome the post-summer, pre-leaf-peeping boost of foot traffic and the energy CIFF attendees bring. “It’s infused with creative, out-of-the-box thinking,” says Janet Kooyenga, owner of the boutique Josephine.

“My first concern would have been, how much recognition can we get in a town of 5,000 people,” says Fowlie. “Now, our location is our biggest asset.” Maine itself is a draw, and Camden, with its picturesque harbor at the foot of Mount Battie, is one of the most attractive communities in the state. Adding to the folksy appeal are some 200 volunteers who work as ushers, ticket agents, and at the festival’s impressive afterparties, where filmmakers, fans, and locals dance, drink, and schmooze in hip art-house settings staged in old Rockland factory buildings. “It’s so important when you get people from outside that it feel like a community event,” he says. “It’s the best documentary film festival in the world in a small town. We may not have the population of a large city, but what we do have is this unique, original spirit that everyone wants to experience.” That includes a growing number of filmmakers who can say they launched their careers from a coastal village in Maine.