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This is Congo
Toronto International Film Festival

DOCUMENTARIES

Take a tour of other worlds at Camden International Film Fest

Take a tour of other worlds at the Camden International Film Festival (Sept. 14-17), one of New England’s finest programs of recent documentary filmmaking. These are places that might fill you with wonder, or horror, or both. Here, among the festival’s 37 features, you can witness hope and terror in the Sonoran Desert, see what 20 years of civil war have done to Congo, huddle with inmates in a Bolivian prison, observe endangered pink dolphins in the Amazon, and contemplate the pathos in a refuge for abused donkeys.

Anyone who has seen Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966) would answer “yes” to the question posed in the title of Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s documentary “Do Donkeys Act?” (Sept. 16; Redmon will be in attendance). The opening sequence in this humane, poetic film should confirm it. A battered donkey hesitantly follows his handlers out of a truck. You can sense his dread and resignation. He enters a paddock with a view of his new surroundings and brays — it’s a bellow of primal grief and despair. But he’s lucky — he’s been rescued by an international humane organization and will be healed in this rehabilitation center.

The pink dolphins in Mark Grieco’s “A River Below” (Sept. 16; Grieco will be in attendance) face a more uncertain fate. Indigenous fishermen along the Amazon kill the endangered animals, which are then cut up to serve as bait for food fish. Activists obtain video of a dolphin being harpooned and butchered and its broadcast compels Brazil to pass laws banning the practice. Complicating matters is the fate of the impoverished fishermen and the ethically challenged means by which the footage was obtained.

10infocus / Cocaine Prison Image credit: Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Cocaine Prison
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

In Violeta Ayala’s “Cocaine Prison” (Sept. 16; Ayala will be in attendance), a Bolivian teenager decides to make some money to buy drums for his band by transporting cocaine to Argentina. Caught crossing the border, he’s tossed into Bolivia’s Kafka-esque San Sebastian Prison, where 700 prisoners fill a corrugated-shack structure meant to hold 70. Most have not seen trial and have been held there for years. Ayala follows the youth’s fate and smuggles in cameras so inmates can record their point of view on the war on drugs.

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Daniel McCabe’s “This Is Congo” (Sept. 15; McCabe will be in attendance) investigates a different futile war. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been going for 20 years. Five million people have died. McCabe picks up the story in 2012 as another rebel army revolts against the corrupt regime of President Joseph Kabila. The film focuses on a patriotic colonel in the Congolese National Army, a mineral dealer who plies her risky trade, a tailor who drags his sewing machine from one displacement camp to the next, and a disguised whistleblower who explains the cycle of conflict, hope, betrayal, and despair.

The politics and toll of illegal immigration are slow to emerge in J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta’s “El Mar la mar” (Sept. 16; Sniadecki, a graduate of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, will be in attendance). It opens with a blur of green and brown divided into stripes like a zoetrope; it’s a fenced-in river in the Sonoran Desert between Mexico and the United States. Thousands of desperate Mexicans try to cross over this scorched wasteland to enter the country illegally. Many get lost. At least 6,000 have died.

Bonnetta and Sniadecki approach this reality indirectly, compelling the viewer to decipher what is being shown. Backed by the ominous rhythms of the soundtrack, the long shots of grassfires and distant hills and close-ups of discarded, sun-bleached backpacks, shoes, and rosaries draw you nearer to the unknown tragedies that have happened here. The voice-over narration of good Samaritans, border guards, and refugees fill in the details, but the tale from a local resident about a 15-foot-tall creature that haunts Sonora embodies the place’s evil and dread.

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The Camden International Film Festival takes place at the Rockport Opera House, 6 Central St, Rockport, Maine; the Strand Theatre, 345 Main St., and Farnsworth Art Museum, 6 Museum St., Rockland, Maine; Rockland Maine; and the Camden Opera House Auditorium, 29 Elm St., Camden, Maine.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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