For one weekend every September, bigwigs from Netflix, HBO, and National Geographic pile into yellow school buses to be shuttled around a major international film festival on the craggy coast of Maine. Some might call their destination the middle of nowhere. Others, like the festival’s founder, call it “random.” Others just call it Camden. And in Camden, Ubers are limited. Cue the school bus cavalcade.
This year’s events, which begin Thursday and run through Sunday, will gather crowds along Penobscot Bay to discuss, pitch, and geek out over the world’s most anticipated indie nonfiction cinema. But the Camden International Film Festival — now considered by Variety to be a “key stop on the awards circuit for doc contenders” — began under less auspicious circumstances.
In the years preceding the inaugural 2005 fest, 24-year-old founder Ben Fowlie had graduated from Emerson College’s film program and was painting houses to support himself and his space-rock band, Constants, as they toured New England. He’d grown up near Camden, which he says is only home to about 3,500 in peak winter but plays an outsize role in regional (and global) arts and culture. That’s in part thanks to the buzz his own festival has created, plus its proximity to legendary cultural institutions such as the Maine Photographic Workshops, the Farnsworth Art Museum, and Strand Theater (turning 50, 75, and 100 this year, respectively).
Fowlie credits his childhood immersion in that environment for allowing him to dream up his own contribution to “that kind of artistic evolution of a community.”
Central to that evolution are the dozens of fellows selected each year by the festival’s artist development arm, Points North Institute, which supports emerging filmmakers from mostly marginalized backgrounds in the United States and abroad.
The Points North Fellowship brings the cohort to Camden for a week of programming before the festival and culminates in a pitch session, a public event and cornerstone of the CIFF experience that consistently packs the Camden Opera House’s nearly 500 seats.
Sean Flynn, a filmmaker who cofounded the institute with Fowlie in 2016 and now serves as program director, says people line up around the block to watch the fellows present their work to a panel of executives and funders. Each team — usually a director and a producer — gets seven minutes to explain their idea and share a work sample. The panel then offers feedback and, in some exceptional cases, might even make a funding offer on the spot.
The pitch has become a “launching pad for the next generation,” Flynn says, giving “directors that hadn’t really gotten a lot of exposure elsewhere” a much-needed foothold in the industry.
Other festivals like Hot Docs in Toronto have pitch forums, too, but Camden’s is different, Flynn explains. While others happen behind closed doors, Points North invites the community in, with the goal of “breaking down the walls between decision-makers, filmmakers, and audiences.”
Hierarchy in general isn’t tolerated well at CIFF. “There’s no exclusivity, there’s no who’s-better-than-who,” explains Zaina Bseiso, a programmer and curator for the festival. “No matter where you are in your career, you’re going to be sitting next to some fresh, new filmmaker, and you’re gonna have a conversation and you’re both gonna benefit from it.”
The emphasis on emerging artists reflects what makes this festival unique, says Bseiso, who is in her second year at CIFF: It’s a film festival produced by actual filmmakers who know how hard it is to break into the industry.
“This is a filmmaker-first festival,” says Bseiso, who is based in both Los Angeles and Cairo and is working on her first feature-length project.
But straightforward filmmaking isn’t Camden’s only claim. This year will feature several projects that incorporate archive materials, virtual reality, and other unconventional installations, like Hannah Jayanti and Alexander Porter’s live-edited improvisational documentary performance “Strata: a performance of Topography,” which takes audiences on a “walk” through a small 3D-scanned region of South Dakota’s Badlands. Fowlie gets especially excited about hybrid work that “pushes the boundaries of the creative form” — an idea Bseiso says has gained momentum in other parts of the world but is now slowly infiltrating the US.
With an international festival, she says at times there are “collisions”: around language, pitch conventions, or aesthetics that don’t translate across cultures. But the festival provides the space for independent filmmakers to think about how to position themselves for a global audience. “It’s such a beautiful bridge that we’re creating,” Bseiso says.
Though the festival casts a wide lens on world cinema, Fowlie remains rooted on the Midcoast. Those school bus drivers transporting industry execs? He went to high school with them. In case of any bivalve shortages, he’s got a local oyster guy on call. And that’s to say nothing of the “50 other” locals he could tap to help tackle issues that arise.
“I had some idea of how supportive our community could be for a kid with a crazy idea to start a documentary film festival in a random part of the world,” he says. But nearly 20 years in, he’s still in awe of what he’s accomplished for Camden.
“There’s so much appreciation of the arts here. There’s so much at your fingertips.”