In the seven years of its existence, the Camden International Film Festival has grown in scope and influence. This year’s CIFF — or Camden IFF, as it is known outside of the Midcoast — runs Thursday night through Sunday night, Sept. 29 through Oct. 2, at venues in Rockland, Camden and Lincolnville. It offers both feature-length and short documentaries.

Just a few years ago, the fest was a small affair of some 20 films. While still intimate by film fest standards, the 2011 CIFF has been quite a challenge to pull together, said founder Ben Fowlie a week before opening credits rolled.

“With the Points North Forum exploding, the ‘Panoptic’ new media collaboration, three two-hour shorts programs and some 60 films, there’s a lot to keep track of,” he said.

That keeping track has the added variables of time and language, given the Camden IFF’s increasing percentage of foreign selections, some of which are making their United States premieres. As always, many of the screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions between the audience and the directors, so scheduling is a juggling act.

“Believe it or not, filmmakers are not the most punctual people,” Fowlie said.

New this year are several Secret Cinema screenings of terrific films that for various premiere-related reasons cannot be publicized by name, offering festivalgoers a sneak peak at works sure to be industry buzz in the next year.

“I truly think this is the strongest program we’ve ever had, there are so many gems,” said Fowlie.

The Camden IFF is known for its work from the current generation of documentarians, but this year’s program includes the latest from one of the form’s statesmen. Fred Wiseman, who once came to the Midcoast to famously document Belfast, will not be on hand, but his “Crazy Horse,” about the famous Paris nightclub, will be shown at CIFF before its New York Film Festival appearance, quite the coup.

As excited as he is about landing the Wiseman film, Fowlie is eager to see the response to a work-in-progress titled “Downeast,” which will be shown in a rough cut specifically “to see how it plays.” The latest project of David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, part of the festival’s offerings since 2005, “Downeast” explores the current re-opening of the Stinson Sardine Cannery in Gouldsboro. Part of this year’s Made in Maine Showcase, “Downeast” will be preceded by an hour of working waterfront images from the archives of Northeast Historic Film; and Sumner McKane’s “In the Blood,” a short feature about turn-of-the-century Maine lumbermen and river drivers.

More historic Maine footage making an appearance this year is the 30-year-old documentary “Dead River Rough Cut,” which follows Bob Wagg and Walter Lane through four seasons in the remote backwoods of Maine. Director Richard Searls will be on hand for a Q&A, rubbing shoulders with the 20- and 30-something filmmakers CIFF is known for hosting.

“I hadn’t seen it in 20 years, but I re-watched it over the winter and fell in love with it. It’s a great environmental film,” said Fowlie.

The environment and social issues continue to play a big role in the festival’s films as indeed they do in the documentary field in general. But Fowlie said the festival organizers are increasingly making their choices around the quality of storytelling over subject matter. A great documentary, said Fowlie, is much more than its topic.

“It’s art, information and great storytelling that’s captivating and engaging, rather than bludgeoning the audience over the head with facts,” he said.

The youth of most of the festival’s directors also serves as information and inspiration for a certain segment of the CIFF audience. The University of Maine in Orono has a course tied to the festival — it filled up fast this year, Fowlie said — and Unity College is sending more than a dozen students, thanks to a grant from the Unity Foundation. Fowlie said he likes to think that these students look at how young some of the presenters are and envision themselves in their place.

“They ask the hard questions too,” he said of the post-screening Q&As.

The filmmakers do plenty of that themselves, and their age and, in many cases, foreign status also leads them to “see” things in ways unexpected and rewarding. Fowlie points to the US-premiering film “Blue Meridian” by Sofie Benoot.

“Here’s a 25-year-old Belgian woman who spends a year filming in the deep South, still recovering from the hurricanes. We know poverty in Maine but it’s a different experience down there,” he said.

Fowlie points to one image in the film that sums up the approach the festival is looking for, the strong storytelling that knits art and information into a compelling whole.

“There’s a scene of this barbershop quartet singing in the middle of a deserted Main Street that is just amazing, just a little moment that is incredibly compelling,” he said.

In an effort to both compel local folk to check out the festival and to thank the Midcoast for hosting the event, CIFF offers a few ways to take in a screening for free. Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10 a.m., there will be free shorts programs at the Bayview Street Cinema in Camden, thanks to The First. And the festival’s final film, “Convento,” will be screened as part of a free closing gala Sunday night at Cellardoor Winery and Vineyard in Lincolnville, preceded by a Campfire Stories session with festival filmmakers.

“Convento” is hard to characterize. Directed by Jarred Alterman, “Convento” tells the story of the family of Dutch kinetic artist Christiaan Zwanikken living in Sao Francisco, a 400-year-old monastery that sits at the convergence of the rivers Oeiras and Guadiana in Portugal. It is an area that some believe possesses mystical energies, and this family of artists embraces and enhances the surrealist storybook landscape.

“It’s just a sensory overload piece, and we’re going to try to turn the space into kind of an installation in the woods,” Fowlie said.

For synopses of the CIFF 2011 feature films and details on Points North, “Panoptic” and the Made in Maine Showcase, see the links below. For complete festival information, visit camdenfilmfest.org.

Festival passes may be purchased online through Friday, Oct. 1 and can be picked up at the CIFF Box Office in Camden’s Washington Street Conference Room starting noon Wednesday, Sept. 28. Access to the Points North Documentary Film Forum (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at the Knox Mill Conference Center) is included with all festival passes. CIFF passes are $125 for a VIP Pass, which grants entry to all festival events plus priority queuing; and $75 for a Film Pass, for all screenings with priority queuing. Individual screening admission is $8.50 and may be purchased at venues as available prior to show time.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email to dernest@villagesoup.com.