This is the time of the year when film festivals proliferate and now they are more accessible than ever, because the pandemic has forced them to go virtual.
Great documentary films can be seen in the comfort and safety of your home courtesy of the Boston Latino International Film Festival (Sept. 23-27; www.bliff.org), Boston Film Festival (Sept. 24-27; www.bostonfilmfestival.org/index.shtml), and Roxbury International Film Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 5; www.roxfilmfest.com). And two festivals in the coming weeks — the GlobeDocs Film Festival (Oct. 1-12; globedocs2020.eventive.org/welcome), which I will cover next week, and Camden International Film Festival (Oct. 1-12) — focus exclusively on documentaries.
The latter, usually held in picturesque Camden, Maine, and neighboring towns, has reliably programmed recent nonfiction films that are ambitious both in style and content. Here are three such films I recommend — inventive and unique studies of people interacting with their habitat and surroundings.
Maine filmmaker Ian Cheney’s “The Long Coast” (it can be streamed on Oct. 4 and is available within a 72-hour window) is a gorgeous and engrossing tour of his state’s coastline and those who live and work there. It evokes films as disparate as Frederick Wiseman’s rigorously observational “Belfast, Maine” (1999) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s intimately rhapsodic “Leviathan” (2012).
Divided into five parts and an epilogue, “The Long Coast” features seascapes as ravishing as paintings by Whistler and Turner and down-to-earth conversations with those who make their living from the sea. The latter include a “winkler,” who pries periwinkles from cracks in mossy stones, and the proprietors of fish-processing plants where a slab of frozen lobster bait is a surreal plank of pink ice with eyes. Cheney excels in showing the relationship between the environment and its inhabitants, hinting at the possibility of a sustainable interdependence but warning of environmental dangers ahead. Lots of kelp on display, but who knew kelp could be so photogenic?
Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez’s “The American Sector” (it can be streamed from Oct. 6-12 and will be available only to viewers in the Northeast) also looks at American locales — but via an ingenious device. The filmmakers track down the places in the United States — over 40 in all — where segments of the Berlin Wall, torn down during the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1989, are located.
The slabs, already painted with artful, politically charged graffiti, loom like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and often end up in surreal contrast to their new surroundings. These locations range from the lobby of a Hilton hotel in Dallas, where it seems like a trophy from the victorious war of capitalism against communism, to the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where two students comment on the propriety of stigmatizing another system of government on the campus of an institution that was built by enslaved people, to a restaurant in Suwanee, S.C., whose proprietor bought it at a government auction of property confiscated from a convicted conman. Wry and deceptively whimsical, this is a brisk lesson in how we often fail to learn from history.
More somber and disturbing than the previous films, Eléonore Weber’s “There Will Be No More Night” (screening virtually from Oct. 6-12) compiles numerous black-and-white videos (and some, more eerie, in color) taken with night-vision cameras by the crews of attack helicopters. Repeatedly the crew members debate whether groups of people under their surveillance in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are armed or show hostile intent. Almost always they determine that they are viable targets and receive authorization to engage. The silent, ghostly figures are then blasted by rockets and machine gun fire into smoking blurs which “Pierre V.,” a French helicopter pilot serving as an expert commentator for the voice-over narrator, describes as “fragments and blood.”
The narrator points out the cruelty of finishing off wounded victims crawling to shelter and Pierre V. tells her that she just can’t see the same thing that those involved in combat situations do. It is a matter of perception, apparently, and how one approaches film, either as a tool in warfare or as an art form and entertainment. Or so it seems until a sequence is shown in which a photojournalist and his companions are obliterated when his tripod is mistaken for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Near the end of the film a helicopter camera lingers on a scene that is clearly children playing in an Afghan village. You think, surely they won’t engage this target. Or will they?
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.