There remains for me, as someone who has been on this circuit in one form or fashion for the past 7+ years (as filmmaker, as blogger, as observer, as fan), true joy in discovering that a film festival, previously unknown or unheralded (at least to the community at large), has come into its own. That a festival has found a way, in spite of the bad economy and numerous examples of how to fuck it up, to create the festival that we all long for – the gracious and generous host, the creative and intelligent programmer, the sublime mix of location, audience and community.
Welcome to the Camden International Film Festival, all grown up at 5 years old and ready to take its place amongst the premiere documentary showcases in the US.
A boost in budget and a healthy amount of
big dreaming has catapulted this small festival (in an even smaller town) from
an under-the-radar sleeper into what could well become the premiere US fall festival
stop for docs, drawing folks from around the northeast as well as anyone
interested in catching nonfiction features intermixed with the changing fall
colors of coastal Maine.
Imagine a restaurant filled with filmmakers and relaxed industry folk (HBO, Sundance, LEF Foundation, Gucci Doc Fund), where everyone sits down at long tables to wood fired lobster, caught fresh the day before by the husband of one of CIFF’s staffers. Oh yeah, and have we mentioned that we don’t want you to tell anyone about this discovery? Let’s make this our little secret.
Although CIFF takes many of its cues from True/False (another fest that has stayed small and targeted even as its reputation continues to grow), the Maine fest felt entirely original, right down to the historic, three-story home that functioned as festival HQ/afterparty central. An afternoon-long panel component titled Points North had packed crowds (it was held in conjunction with the local and well-respected Maine Film and Video Workshops) and reminded that festivals over-panel themselves to their detriment. Let's hope the folks in Camden keep it concise in future years.
CIFF may even have its first Oscar contender on its hands, having debuted THE WAY WE GET BY at last year’s festival.
So, after all this praise, are there drawbacks? Well, it’s not easy to get to (not entirely sure that’s a drawback). Like True/False, you’ll ride a 2-hour shuttle from your airport in Portland (unless you’d rather take the 6-seater Cape Air flight from Boston to Camden, which I’m not inclined to do). And perhaps the local audience hasn’t quite caught up with the excitement in their mix (what with the leaves turning and all) – although the Opening Night crowd for our own CONVENTION was large and engaged inside Camden’s beautiful Opera House venue.
But it’s truly hard to beat finding yourself in this small village on the coast of Maine, welcomed by a crew of staff and volunteers who seem to be taking a page from the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney days (let’s put on a show and let’s get all our friends to help out!), who clearly love docs and love their hometown.
The joys of Camden were made even more stark when we traveled from Maine to screen our film at the Woodstock Festival, which clearly has its supporters and its ties to the industry (executives for IFC and Magnolia are listed amongst the programmers), but where – it appeared to this participant – the filmmakers were not much more than content providers. You’d hear about special parties that you weren’t invited to and would find that obtaining the smallest consideration (extra tickets, a ride to your screening, travel assistance) required an extreme and excessive level of diligence (and even then often denied). It was hard to believe that Woodstock (celebrating its 10th anniversary) was twice the age of Camden when – aside from corralling a starrier roster of industry folks (not that they’ll be at your screening) – the twenty-something kids in Camden seemed so much more organized and hospitable. Had it been ever so?
And then you’d wonder why you’d even left Maine, where there were still films to be seen, conversations to be had, seafood to be consumed.
Trust us, we wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
So congrats to Ben Fowlie, Leah Hurley, Dominic Musacchio and the entire staff of CIFF. You’ve arrived. And – particularly in the current festival environment – not a moment too soon.