The Thing in the North — Camden International Film Festival prepares its 13th season

Featured The Thing in the North — Camden International Film Festival prepares its 13th season

Collective action Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets? (2017)

Coming to screens (or VR goggles) near you are stories of a god-appointed honey harvester, Syrian refugees, an immersive experience of white supremacist indoctrination, the Ferguson community, the emotional communication of donkeys, and more: this weekend the Camden International Film Festival launches its thirteenth year of documentary films. Produced under the umbrella of the Points North Institute, Maine’s all-doc fest has been steadily increasing its scope, partnerships, and importance in the international documentary world. It kicks off this Thursday, at venues in Camden, Rockport, and Rockland, and runs through Sunday.

A whole lot of complementary film programming goes on at CIFF: First and foremost, of course, are the film screenings of both features and shorts, and CIFF’s Storyforms Barn hosts works employing VR and other new technology in film storytelling. Running parallel to the screenings are the events of the Points North Documentary Forum, which brings together practicing filmmakers and industry professionals for panel discussions, master classes, and networking opportunities. Finally, for CIFF-goers who shell out for an All-Access Pass, special events let you rub elbows with filmmakers and industry, and the “After Hours” parties let everybody blow off some steam with quirky installations, music, and plenty of alcohol.

2017CIFF NoMansLand

Land grabbers David Byars's No Man's Land (2017) tells an insider's story of the Bundy's occupation of federal lands in Oregon

Here’s some of what’s happening at CIFF 2017:


CIFF’s 2017 films include 37 features, 44 grouped shorts, and over a dozen VR works. The festival opens Thursday night with its Opening Night film, the world premiere of first-time filmmaker Dustin Nakao Haider's Shot in the Dark. “This film goes way beyond the foreseeable dynamics and drama of a high school sports story,” say festival programmers. “It is a touching and tenacious portrait of what it means to grow up on the Westside of Chicago today." 

A third of this year’s features are U.S. premieres, many coming from prestigious international festivals like Toronto and Venice. A few notable themes among the features include:  

2017CIFF ZeroWeeks 

Marking the paid leave crisis Ky Dickens’s Zero Weeks (2017) 

Race in America. Films treating this issue include a white filmmaker’s exploration of his great-grandfather’s racially motivated crime (Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?); an investigation of white racial violence and John Brown’s radical abolitionism (Lee Anne Schmitt’s Purge This Land, in a sneak preview); and a portrait of the Ferguson community in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s Whose Streets?).

International scope. 27 countries are represented in this year’s filmmaker line-up; their works includes an investigation into violence against those who have been “disappeared” in Mexico (Everado González’s Devil’s Freedom); and an inside story from inside a Bolivian prison (Cocaine Prison, by Violeta Ayala).

Matters American. Steve James’s new film looks at the one bank that faced criminal charges in the 2008 financial collapse (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail); David Byars embeds with militants in brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy's infamous occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (No Man’s Land); and Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettingill mash up archival footage of a made-for-TV president in The Reagan Show.

2017CIFF TheSensitives

Allergic to the environment Drew Xanthopolous’s The Sensitives (2017) 

The environment, from a range of angles, including environmental activists’ use of media in the Amazon “in an age where truth is a relative term” (Mark Grieco’s A River Below); and David Conover’s musical doc Behold the Earth, which speaks to biologists and evangelical Christians about humanity’s separation from nature.

Transit, borders, and migration. Films include the chronicle of a three-year old Syrian girl’s journey from Greece to Uppsala (Egil Håskjold Larsen’s 69 Minutes of 86 Days); a portrait of the Sonoran Desert on the US-Mexican border (El Mar La Mar, by Joshua Bonetta and JP Sniadecki); private footage narrated by Iraqi and Syrian refugees who made it to Europe (Sand und Blut, by Matthias Krepp and Angelika Spangel); and a look at the power dynamics once they are there (Guido Hendrikx’s Stranger in Paradise).

Character Portraits include films about poet Wendell Berry (Look and See, by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell); a punk-turned-Buddhist-priest who helps the suicidal (Lana Wilson’s The Departure); and filmmaker Gustavo Salmerón’s eccentric mom (Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle).

This year CIFF offers eight different shorts programs, and programmers say they gave special attention this year to shorts curation, saying that "each Shorts Program is thought of as a work in itself.” And returning once again is the Dirigo Docs program, which features shorts by Maine filmmakers

One of the most magical highlights of CIFF screenings can be to hear an admired director talk about her choices and creative process, and happily, Chadwick reports that this year’s CIFF brings an extraordinary number — the creators of 32 out of 37 features — will be on hand.



This year sees a significant expansion of the Storyforms program; the Storyforms Barn will host 13 new immersive and interactive films; CIFF programmers note that many of these works have thus far only appeared at Sundance, Venice, or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Which works are CIFF staff particularly jazzed to share? “Tree VR is not to be missed," they say of Milica Zec and Winslow Porter's acclaimed work, which lets viewers experience life as a towering rainforest tree. CIFF folks suggest experiencing Tree alongside Priam Givord’s Small Wonders VR, a truly trippy-sounding immersion inside a 16th-century gothic prayer bead, to "completely transcend the scale of your human body."  


One new facet of the CIFF program this year is its "Trail Guides" four suggested "pathways" through the screenings and talks based on "similarities or synergies" in theme or directorial choices: Modern Man (whose films take "distinctly tender approaches to masculinity"), Filmed MigrationLand Rites (exploring American sites of anger and trauma), and (for some levity) Documentary Delights. Festival curators have also assembled film lists and talks for the themes of Maine/Local Subjects, Family Friendly, Tainted Love, Complicated Journalism, and Female Directors.


As in past years, CIFF has chosen current Maine issues to explore in pairings of screenings and panel discussions with leaders and advocates. This year, these focus on Maine’s opioid crisis, with Elaine Sheldon’s short film Heroin(e); and the movement for paid family medical leave, with the world premiere of Ky Dicken’s Zero Weeks


A defining and bracing highlight of CIFF is always the Points North Pitch: a shark-tank session in the Camden Opera House duringwhich the six Points North Fellows talk up their films-in-progress to a panel industry leaders, hoping to win post-production support.

And this year’s Forum includes an especially excellent line-up of panel talks, including on recent assaults on freedoms of journalists and non-fiction storytellers; a conversation on verité filmmaking with directors Steve James and Jeff Unay; talks on VR and on the creative side of working with archival materials; and the panel “Whose Stories,” a discussion of how both black and white filmmakers in America can tell of the nation’s racial traumas. Oh, and a beer-and-pizza conversation billed as Cryptoparty!, about practical digital privacy strategies for filmmakers.

2017CIFF ResurrectingHassan

Montreal Street Musicians in Carlo Guillermo Proto’s Resurrecting Hassan (2016)


Limited to all-access pass-holders, the "after hours” bashes on Friday and Saturday nights have in the past included karaoke, indoor swings, and a human maze. All we know yet about this year is that Friday night will feature a Brooklyn band called Javelin, and that the drinks, as always, are flowing.



Individual film tickets are $10 a pop, so if there’s a lot you want to hit, you might consider buying one of two types of passes (each of which also gives you access to the priority line at screenings): All-Access Passes, for $195, get you into everything — films, Storyforms, Points North Forum events, special industry events, and the late-night parties. A Festival Pass, for $95, gets you into everything but the special events and the parties. You can also buy your way into the Friday iteration of the after hours party for $45.


Last modified onWednesday, 13 September 2017 14:20