Imagine Telluride. Except in Maine. In the fall. With foliage. And documentaries only. And without the Donner Party-style travel arrangements. What you have is the Camden International Film Festival, which over this coming long weekend (September 26-29) is going to subject its patrician, New England Presbyterian audience to tales of Indonesian genocide, Afghanistan war crimes, lobster atrocities and Michelle Bachmann.
And, actually, only part of that is true.
The movie menu does include, respectively, “The Act of Killing,” “The Kill Team,” “Night Labor” and “Caucus,” as well as a catalog’s worth of movies that constitute an overview of 2013 in nonfiction filmmaking. But the crowd doesn’t fit anyone’s outdated stereotype.
“We have a sophisticated, knowledgeable audience,” said Ben Fowlie, who founded the festival in 2005. “A lot of them have been coming from the beginning and at this point they really know about documentaries.” The way he likes to think of the festival, Fowlie said, is as a kind of retreat (see: Telluride). Intimate audiences, small-town sensibility but also a coming together of filmmakers and industry -- via Camden’s Points North Documentary Forum and its subsets, including the Ports North Documentary Pitch, the New York Times Op-Docs Pitch (for short films) and various seminars and classes.
These will include “Documentary 101” with Robb Moss, filmmaker and Harvard professor whose students have included some of the more successful documentarians working today, including Nina Davenport (“First Comes Love”) and Josh Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”). Another must-see will be “Shaping the Narrative,” a master class with master editor Jonathan Oppenheim.
It’s significant that Camden is home to more than second homes and doc fans (the local theaters regularly program docs and the local press covers them more avidly than narratives). The Camden Conference, a conclave on world affairs, is situated there every year; also, Pop Tech, a conference on change and technology. The Farnsworth Museum has the largest single collection of work by Louise Nevelson, as well as a significant number of paintings by three generations of Wyeths.
For all the efforts Fowlie and company have made in cultivating a documentary audience, they may well be the beneficiaries of shifting demographics, too. More people may be moving into cities these days, but that doesn’t mean money and/or education are necessarily following. The culturally astute can live almost anywhere these days, by virtue of technology. And this means life in America will be having any number of unforeseen consequences, some of them good for film festivals.