CIFF 2019

Fifteen years for film festival

By Christine Dunkle | Sep 11, 2019
Film still from "Kifaru."

Camden — A lot can change over the years, but a lot stays the same. That’s true in life and for the Camden International Film Festival, which celebrates 15 years this time around. Founder Ben Fowlie may now be chasing a toddler and presiding over a much larger event, but he’s still keeping CIFF a festive and vibrant space for people to connect.

“I get a little less sleep and don’t stay out too late at the after parties,” he said.

Fowlie said the energy and enthusiasm locally has made its way into the greater documentary community, causing the festival to grow exponentially. “This is a huge milestone for us, and the importance is not lost on me,” he said. “We’ve evolved and grown and it’s good to take a step back and look at things.”

Back when CIFF first began in 2005, Fowlie recalled having only a handful of viewers in some of the showings. These days organizers expect more than 7,000 attendees who will view the screenings in one form or another, whether they buy an all-access pass or tickets to single events.

“But we’re not losing our soul, we’ve kept the core CIFF experience intact,” he said. “We’ve just made it more accessible. There is something for everybody.”

Nowadays it can be difficult to pull people away from their streaming devices. With this small-town festival focused on nonfiction films, Fowlie appeals to people to come out for films he considers to be life-changing and life-affirming.

“They need to get out of their own bubble, and see a diversity of perspectives,” Fowlie said. “We are trying to create a collective experience.”

The 2019 CIFF runs from Thursday, Sept. 12, through Sunday, Sept. 15, with screenings at the Camden and Rockport opera houses, and at the Strand Theatre, Farnsworth Art Museum and Winter Street Barn in Rockland.

Fowlie pointed out that there are a lot of short films offered free to attract audiences. “Shorts are often the bastard stepchildren at these festivals,” he said. But the CIFF organizers work hard to make sure the filmmakers don’t feel that way. “They worry about [their film showing at] 10 in the morning, and then they’re like, ‘Wow,’ when they see 500 excited people filling the seats.”

For the second year in a row, there will be shuttles that run every 35 minutes and take attendees to the venues in Camden, Rockport and Rockland. “They are legit school buses, which is kind of funny. We want it to feel like one campus and that everything ties together,” Fowlie said. “You can hop on and have a conversation, talk about films; maybe we’ll have some local ambassadors who will talk about how much they love Maine.”

So, how does parent company Points North Institute pick all these films that make for a weekend chock-full of cinema? It takes a lot of work and the better part of a year, Fowlie said. The core programming team is made up of Fowlie, Sean Flynn and Samara Chadwick. Then there are two associate programmers and 35 screeners, who hail from as nearby as Camden and as far away as Ghana and Ethiopia.

“They have to view 100 hours of film a year for us,” he said. Fowlie and his program curators have become more connected to the screeners than in the past, giving them questions about the narrator, audience and subjects to consider before moving a handful of films to the next level. His team also tracks films at other festivals in order to get noteworthy ones on the CIFF docket.

“We did a submission process this year and received 2,500 films,” Fowlie said. “I watch 250 films a year.” He also creates relationships with platforms, such as Netflix, in order to make sure CIFF is considering as many films and filmmakers as possible.

Fowlie wants to be sure people understand that CIFF is small but mighty, screening mainstream award-winners and successes-to-be.

“You could be the first in the U.S. to see a film; these are significant premieres,” he said. “You may be able to say you saw something before it got an award.” For example, last year’s opener, “Free Solo” (2018, USA) went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. More than 35 films are having their North American or world premieres at this year’s CIFF.

The festival opens with “The Kingmaker,” directed by Lauren Greenfield, who also did “The Queen of Versailles.” Centered on Imelda Marcos and the disturbing legacy of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the film shows Imelda confidently rewriting her family’s history of corruption, replacing it with the narrative of a matriarch’s extravagant love for her country.

“Greenfield focused her lens on wealth and the upper class. She spent five-plus years gaining [the Marcos family’s] trust,” Fowlie said. “There is a significant turn in the film where [Imelda] is trying to regain power through her son.”

The closing film is “Kifaru,” directed by David Hambridge, which tells the story of rangers’ unorthodox approach to caring for the last male northern white rhino, named Sudan. The film allows viewers to experience the joys and pitfalls of conservation through the lens of the men who look into the eyes of extinction on a daily basis -- and their last-resort DNA cloning experiment.

“It’s beautiful, touching and gorgeously shot,” Fowlie said. “It goes into the human emotion of the caretakers and their efforts to keep the rhino comfortable and alive.”

This year's CIFF offers 38 features, 51 shorts, and 17 immersive experiences from 35 countries. The festival includes Q&As with creators, receptions and more. Visit pointsnorthinstute.org/ciff for the extensive schedule, locations and information about all the films.

“This is the most diverse slate we’ve ever had,” Fowlie said, “with more international filmmakers and tackling more issues.”

Despite the international nature of the festival, this year also boasts the largest number of “Dirigo Docs” participants from within Maine. Fowlie said “Scattering C.J.,” directed by Andrea Kalin, is one such film, which has its first public screening at CIFF. It shares the heart-wrenching story of a family whose son serves in Iraq and subsequently suffers from PTSD and substance abuse before taking his own life. His mother was compelled to commemorate the way he lived. She put out a social media call, asking for help in honoring CJ’s love of travel by scattering his ashes in amazing places he might have visited had he lived. An astonishing 21,000 people answered her call and it became a worldwide phenomenon.

“It’s in this realm of issues that people are trying to open to community discussion,” Fowlie said. “It’s an electric experience. It clearly will hit everyone in the heart.”

Fowlie said another standout from Dirigo is “Thirteen Ways,” directed by Ian Cheney, an award-winning filmmaker known for his food films, such as “King Corn” and “The Search for General Tso.” The film explores the human relationship to the natural world through an experimental structure: one by one, a series of scientists, hunters, paragliders, artists and naturalists are brought to a small patch of field and forest in Warren, and left to wander freely.

“It’s about our connection to the land, and how people think differently about conservation,” Fowlie said. “We have this shared sense of wanting to keep Maine the way it is.”

CIFF also offers a StoryForms barn at 20 Winter St. in Rockland, across from the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The showcase of interactive and immersive media includes virtual reality options and large-scale installations for attendees to experience firsthand. With open gallery hours and individual tickets, CIFF makes this style of story sharing even more accessible.

“You can go floating down a river or be transported to a glacier for an hour. Young or old, it doesn’t matter,” Fowlie said. “The technology is so unique, advanced and changing. You go beyond linear storytelling.”

CIFF After Dark Friday, Sept. 13, beginning at 10 p.m. and lasting into the wee hours, is at the Bicknell Building, 11 Lime St., Rockland. It features Miss Eaves, a fierce femcee electro-pop-rap-dance-explosion multimedia artist. Another After Dark party follows on Saturday night, same time and place.

Another positive impact CIFF has is on the surrounding business community. Restaurants, hotels, retail shops and more benefit from the influx of festival-goers. Fowlie said CIFF completely booked up Cape Air for the weekend, flying in filmmakers.

“We are blessed with this community. We may lack in population, but we are plentiful in experience,” he said. “We’re not in a major city, but there you’re not going to run into the filmmakers and attendees in the coffee shop. This is full immersion; if you invest the time there is more of a payoff.”

After all this work, you’d think that Fowlie might avoid the silver screen, but that is only the case during the summer when the entertainment industry is basically on hiatus anyway.

“I don’t watch much until the fall,” he said. “But then I binge-watch in October, November, December, January. I need to do it.” Fowlie said he used to be really into football, but now he looks forward to Netflix’s “Ozark” and “Dark.” And with a wife who’s British, he seems nearly required to be counting the days before “The Crown” comes back.

And there’s always his toddler’s favorite, “The Great British Bake Off,” to keep him occupied until CIFF starts all over again.

All-Access passes are currently sold out, but tickets to individual screenings can be purchased online at pointsnorthinstutute.org/ciff and at the door.

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