Let’s face it; the second half of winter is tough sledding. Nothing provides a temporary escape like film; while it is tempting to stay on the couch, Midcoast big screens offer the kind of cinematic immersion that really feels like a vacation. The popular Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour, recently at the Strom Auditorium, has a couple of decades-plus proving that point. But this winter, it’s just the first of several local fests to make the Midcoast a film lovers’ destination.

The first two days of March, Points North Institute, which mounts the Camden International Film Festival every September, is taking over the Camden Opera House for the inaugural Cabin Fever micro-fest of documentary features and short subjects. Tickets, full weekend passes ($30) and individual screenings ($10), are on sale now at pointsnorthinstitute.org.

“When we thought of it, at first we thought we'd all be snowed in; but I think it's more just the fact that maybe we're iced in,” said Ben Fowlie, executive and artistic director of the Points North Institute and CIFF founder, the day before another will-it-be-snow/will-it-be-sleet storm.

Points North has been screening monthly documentaries for several years now at the Camden Opera House, and the success of that CIFF Selects series is one of the things that has led to Cabin Fever.

“Once we got the model down to be able to bring films to the community in a great partnership with the opera house, it just seemed like a no-brainer to see if we can do a concentrated, kind of a micro version of CIFF — and do it in a time of year where everyone's looking to kind of escape reality,” Fowlie said.

Not that escaping reality is a hallmark of documentary film. Rather, the form opens viewers up to the many realities that make up our world, today and in the past. Cabin Fever will screen the latest documentary from legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, “Meeting Gorbachev” (2018, UK/USA/Germany). It’s a contrast to one of the most talked-about films of the 2018 CIFF, Vitaly Mansky’s “Putin’s Witnesses (2018, Latvia/Switzerland/Czech Republic), which Fowlie described as "dark and disturbing."

“This is the complete opposite: Herzog, the philosopher, talking about one of the most influential and, I think in many ways uniquely positive, characters in history, and the possibilities of what Russia could have been on the global stage,” he said. “It's a fascinating portrait of one of the most iconic figures in modern history.”

The film is sponsored in part by the Camden Conference. Cabin Fever also will bring award-winning films from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and this year's Slamdance Film Festival to Camden.

“I really was excited about doing it this year, because there were a couple of films that weren't quite ready for the festival that I knew our local audience will be really interested in. One of them is the Warren Miller film that's kind of like a last hurrah, the last interview, with the legend,” he said.

“Ski Bum: The Warren Miller Story” (2019, USA), explores the personal and professional life and times of the ski adventure filmmaker who died last winter, but whose influence as a driving force in the development and promotion of the ski industry, in America and beyond, lives on. The screening is sponsored in part by Maine Sport.

Cabin Fever’s opening night film, “The Biggest Little Farm” (2018, USA), is a family-friendly doc that premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last September and continues to generate film-fest buzz and pick up audience favorite awards. Cabin Fever is partnering with Maine Farmland Trust to bring the film, about a city couple relocating in the country to the Midcoast.

“It was just something I knew that we wanted to bring back. It will be opening theatrically in probably May or June, so this is kind of a sneak preview, so to speak,” Fowlie said.

Speaking of sneaking, TIFF’s calendar position just prior to CIFF makes it possible for the Maine fest to present films that go on to become really big deals, such as “Free Solo” last year.

“Sundance and Toronto are the big, big ones; with Toronto being closer to our date, we're actually able to ‘sneak in’ some of these larger films. It's exciting to be able to do that kind of screening at the festival, but also throughout the year,” Fowlie said.

An example of the latter was a special screening last May of “RBG” (2018, USA) in advance of the film’s nationwide theatrical release. With Cabin Fever in March, there is a possibility of big-screen showings of a film or two from January’s Sundance Film Festival. Timing is everything.

“That's part of the reason why Cabin Fever and CIFF Selects have became more and more of an important component of our programming. The window for when films premiere and then get online or picked up by a distributor is shorter and shorter,” he said.

One film premiered almost a year ago and just wasn’t on the programmers’ radar. “The Raft” (2018, Sweden/Denmark/USA/Germany) reunites surviving members of the five men and six women who, in 1973, spent 101 days on a cross-Atlantic expedition as a study of human aggression and sexuality. The film played all over Europe, but didn't get “a proper U.S. opening” until later in the fall.

“When I finally saw it, I said, this is such a CIFF film! In so many ways it’s perfect for the kind of international work we like to premiere at the festival,” Fowlie said.

While this film might’ve been a hard sell for the CIFF Selects series, Fowlie said, “It’s a no-brainer within the context of a festival.”

The Cabin Fever micro-festival will be filled out with “Dirigo Docs: A Collection of Short Films From Maine (2013-2018),” a 100-minute program drawn from one of CIFF’s most popular offerings. Fowlie said it’s been fun to reconnect with people whose short films have been screened over the six-year period that Dirigo Docs evolved from a festival sidebar to an integral element.

“It's pretty evenly broken up into three different parts: connection to the land; connection to the water; and connection to the people,” he said.

As for the latter, there are “some quirky local characters, from Liberty Tools to lobstermen on Vinalhaven.” The films range from straight-ahead documentation to truly experimental work, some of the latter shot on 16-millimeter.

“That program has gotten so popular we moved it to the Rockport Opera House, so I think a lot of this work will be new to people,” Fowlie said. “Hopefully that will be the next thing we can pull out and try to do like a touring statewide program.”

Now on Points North tour is Recovery in Maine, a program of documentary film (anchored by Oscar-nominated director Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “The Recovery Boys”), discussion and resources that has been traveling the state since last year, in partnership with MaineHealth.

“They kind of signed on after the Midcoast tour we did last July with Coastal Healthcare Alliance. They reached out and said, we want to do 10 to 15 more screenings across the state. So we started that work in November,” Fowlie said.

Of late, Recovery in Maine has been to the State House in Augusta; and the Opera House at Boothbay Harbor, where it drew close to 100.

“Those numbers in Maine in winter, especially in such a seasonal town, is pretty incredible,” said Fowlie.

Cabin Fever is looking to lead to partnerships, as well, with the Salt Institute, MECA and SPACE in Portland. Points North also has begun a documentary series at Quarry Hill in Camden.

“These are things we've been thinking about for a while. The expansion of the institute has allowed us to build out our staff to actually be able to have the capacity to develop programs like this and, you know, clearly the audience is there,” Fowlie said.

Another CIFF offering that has drawn an increasing audience is Storyforms, which explores virtual reality documentary work, traditional and experimental. VR logistics make it a less likely choice for touring; however, there is a possibility that Storyforms will make an appearance, just post-CIFF, at Belfast’s Waterfall Arts.

“Getting the headsets and the gear and all that stuff is harder for one-offs, but we have it all for the festival,” said Fowlie. Waterfall Arts Director of Programming & Outreach Meg Fournier is CIFF's associate festival producer, “so we're already talking about what it would be like to bring up a portion of the Storyforms program to Waterfall in September.”

Fifteen years into CIFF, and three into the Points North Institute’s doc artist support programs, residencies and fellowships, has put the organization in a good place to try new things such as the Cabin Fever micro film-fest.

“We're kind of throwing darts at the wall, thinking, OK, we can do this, let's give it a shot and see how it works,” Fowlie said.

And that wall is supporting a lot of film events these days. In addition to Cabin Fever, coming weeks will see an independent Cinema Fest at Belfast’s Crosby Center; stops of the Maine Jewish Film Festival and International Fly Fishing Film Festival at Rockland’s Strand Theatre; and another Cinémathèque @ the Camden Opera House, a new monthly film program celebrating the best of classic, foreign and cult cinema.

“When I see programs like that, a little bit more cutting-edge or repertory programming, stuff that's a little bit more avant-garde or experimental, I'm excited by it,” Fowlie said.

“It's a great way to get people out and connecting with work in a setting that's appropriate for the medium, so we're all for it,” he said. “The more, the merrier!”