FilmWeekend

A Véritéble Weekend of Cinéma: A Film Festival in Maine

Still from “La natura delle cose (The Nature of Things)” (2016) (© Ladoc) (click to enlarge)

Four neighboring coastal towns in Maine dictated my September 16–18 weekend. Films were shown in Camden, Rockland, and Rockport. I slept in Belfast in the home of my aunt and uncle.

I grew up around Portland, about two hours south of the Camden International Film Festival, but had I never left for the repertory cinema scene of New York I wonder if I ever would have experienced this exceptional event. It would have taken me eons to catch word of it, to gain an appreciation of its immaculately well-curated slate of documentaries, to fully process that such a thing could occur in my own quaint backyard. Among critics, documentarians and industry folk, CIFF is now mentioned in the same breath as the trailblazing True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It is one among the Sundance antidotes out there, in which voiceover narration is sparse and an explorative approach to story is prime.

It is not surprising that the art crowd is at home on Maine’s coastline, where Hartley and Homer filled their canvases with crashing tides, and where Longfellow filled his mind’s chalice with classic verse, but I am compelled to wonder about what (if any) Maine connection has been forged by the documentary arts? What first comes to mind is Dušan Makavejev’s fact-or-fiction gamechanger W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), which spends some time inland in Rangeley, Maine, at the Orgonon home laboratory of Wilhelm “Primal Scream” Reich. It is Frederick Wiseman’s 248-minute opus Belfast, Maine (1999), however, that takes the (Camden-relevance) cake. Wiseman’s ode to life in a by-most-accounts-idyllic community-run town very succinctly captures the coastal Maine way — a wry French-Canadian frankness in the face of the tiresome forces of nature. I have heard tell that many in Belfast were less than pleased with Wiseman’s trademark tendency to focus on bureaucratic dysfunction, but for the curious and willing few, his documentary is a filmic gold standard of Mainer ethnography.

I mention Wiseman only for the sake of showing that he’s been here; he’s penetrated these grounds in search of something true and starkly human. As for the film festival, where is this Mainerism present? The three towns of Camden, Rockland, and Rockport have in common with all of coastal Maine the pristine old shore rock faces and hearty pines, the nonthreatening crests of worn-down mountain nubs, and economies that thrive on get-away-from-it-all riches. The Camden and Rockport Opera Houses, the Farnsworth Museum, and the Strand Theater are proud New England environments, never too imposing. And much of the audience — outside of traveling festival junkies, filmmakers and documentary industry representatives — are Camden area locals up for an interesting night, or Bangorians supporting their homegrown entry Best and Most Beautiful Things. Perhaps a local Mainer could also lose herself in the fury of documentary viewership-borne catharsis that catalyzes the incredible midnight bashes of CIFF (think surprise brass band barn raves).

The Camden International Film Festival invites a worldwide audience to enjoy my home of Maine in the way I have always loved it, but rarely wished to admit: with raw Mainerism at a reverential distance, and full of international artists. The films that these artists are representing and commingling around makes up one of the most choicely selected nonfiction festival slates in America. This year’s roster carried themes of meditations on death, retreats from capitalist society, the rich inner lives of impaired individuals, the destruction of important traditions in the anthropocene, and the livelihood of women and children in Afghanistan, Iran, and Kurdistan. Fittingly, the winner of CIFF’s crowning Harrell Award is the film that most deftly syncretizes a great portion of these themes, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson.

Cameraperson has already raked in big prizes from Sheffield and San Francisco, but Kirsten Johnson’s memory bank of touching records from her illustrious cinematography career is deserving of yet another round of bouquets from Camden. Johnson and editor Nels Bangerter arranged a myriad of outtakes from past documentary projects in which, for whatever reason (Johnson sneezes; the subjects engage her in conversation) the footage was not used in the original films. This peculiar sort of tapestry-weaving allows the film’s team to explore the recesses where conventional vérité filmmaking breaks down and quiet miracles of human connection reign. Johnson and Bangerter have us globetrotting from Jasper, Texas, to Kano, Nigeria, to Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Beaux Arts, Washington, to Sana’a, Yemen, to Guantanamo Bay; in each setting it is the common off-moments of life that are elevated. Johnson’s film resonates with me deeply enough that I have trouble sensibly reviewing it without the ulterior motive of foolishly yelling, “Everyone needs to see this!” If I may take the liberty to augment a Twitter quote of comedian Tim Heidecker, “If you didn’t care for [Cameraperson] then genetically you are not a human being. #science” (Tim was originally referring to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life [2011]).

Camden’s award for Emerging Cinematic Vision went deservedly to Laura Viezzoli’s La Natura delle cose (The Nature of Things), a profound end-of-life document of the devoutly-Catholic widower Angelo Santagostino as he succumbs to the immobilizing disease ALS in an Italian nursing home. By the time Laura introduces us to Angelo, he can only move his eyes and twitch his countenance, but the viewer receives his typed-out thoughts through a screen in front of his head — the Eyegaze System by LC Technologies, which monitors Angelo’s concerted points of focus on an alphabetic keyboard. In the opening sequence we can hear Viezzoli directing the positioning of the Eyegaze monitor and Angelo’s body, facing away from the camera, to achieve the effect of seeing only his face in the far-off reflection of a blackened LCD television and his thoughts through the keyboard screen. For most of the film, he is an essence that lives on in screens and the baritone voiceover of actor Roberto Citron, Angelo’s limp body a sacred-but-unwieldy vessel from which death will free him. He ruminates on his beautiful life of communion with his late wife Marinella, who had roused him out of his path toward priesthood, and he explains his own poetic philosophy of ‘millimetric precision’ — reminiscent of ancient Greek atomism — and life after death while grainy images of fireworks exploding and space exploration fill the screen.

Viezzoli evokes Lucretius’ poetic Latin text De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), not only through the film’s title but also through Angelo’s atomist philosophy and efforts to defeat the searing pain of his disease (much of De rerum natura consists of Lucretius’ retelling of Epicurus’ philosophy of bodily transcendence). In my own education I remember the poem being interpreted by over-eager peers as quasi-atheistic and materialist due to Lucretius’ denunciation of religio, but I’ll let the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have the final word here: “correctly translated into English as ‘religion,’ its literal meaning is ‘binding down,’ and it therefore serves Lucretius as a term, not for all attitudes of reverence towards the divine, but for those which cow people’s spirits, rather than, as he thinks such attitudes should, elevate them to a joyful state of tranquility.” It is a brilliant stroke of inspiration for Viezzoli to marry her film with Lucretius’ poem, sacralizing the latter text while rendering Angelo’s romantic meditations philosophically valid by association. Toward La natura delle cose’s end, a rare close-up on Angelo’s gaping, morbid face becomes the image of happiness when his lips curl into a juvenile grin — a moment that still rocks my insides and whose filmic power was mentioned by the screening’s Q&A moderator. Angelo was preparing to tell a coy joke: he wanted his voice in the film to be provided by the late actor Nino Manfredi.

Quasi-religious philosophizing takes on another role in Zayne Akyol’s Gulîstan, Land of Roses, whose storytelling is bookended by head-on, close-up ‘death does not exist’ introspections by a Kurdish female soldier named Sozdar, as women fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) train on mountains to battle the Islamic State; we hear many of their stories about escaping an oppressive, woman-hating culture. Somehow, though, Sozdar’s acceptance of an inevitable death does not disturb me. I do not worry that the Marxist underpinnings of the PKK have brainwashed her. I rather agree with her musings as I do with those of Tolstoy’s elderly Ivan Ilyich, or many a Tarkovsky character, who come to a realization that death is no more than a changing of forms, a different sort of life. Kurdish expat and Montrealer Zayne Akyol constructs a straightforward picture of the life of women in the PKK, but I sense a lack of focus in the coverage of the training routines and PKK gatherings that subtracts from the film’s substance, and prevents Sozdar’s words from reaching the heights of Angelo’s in La natura delle cose. However, the separate power of cellphone-shot scene in which all the women dance arm-in-arm and sing along to a catchy, uptempo pop song ultimately redeems the film.

A frankly different feature, Peter and the Farm, reminds us that after all of this vicarious globetrotting we are spending our weekend in the northeastern United States, where Peter Dunning has been solitarily tending to the crops and livestock of his expansive Vermont farm for decades. He tells us that his kids hate him and two wives have walked out on him, and in manic moments he hurls insults at the young New York filmmakers (director Tony Stone and cameraman Nathan Corbin), who are wont to retort that Peter is drunk or to assure their respect for his storytelling. The inventive and off-kilter editing of Maxwell Paparella, a recent Bard College graduate, fabricates an interesting chiasmus over the cyclic nature of a year of Vermont seasons.

Still from “Peter and the Farm” (2016) (© Cinema Conservancy) (click to enlarge)

The film begins and ends with a series of unceasing dissolve sequences that portray the understated beauty of Peter’s farm: several grassy acres, flanked by a sloped forest, surrounding a cluster of wooden gable and gambrel roofed barns full of sheep, cattle, pigs, and chickens. As the winter unfolds so too escalates Peter’s suicidal, alcohol-fueled ramblings — the chiastic heart of Peter and the Farm — which soften a bit by springtime. Peter demonstrates how to kill and skin a sheep, then feeds its innards to pigs; relates how he mangled his three-fingered hand in his youth as we anxiously watch a farmhand saw firewood; and shows off a tree which he successfully fused with another cultivar in a wishbone-like formation, as well as a landscape that he ‘painted’ out of mold on a refrigerator. Peter is a strikingly self-reliant man, to such an extreme that he has burnt most of the bridges in his life. We come to accept his constant stream of epigrams (‘Life announces itself with force; death slinks off’) with equal reverence and wariness. A quick background survey of his bookshelf shows many liberal-minded titles (Guns, Germs, and Steel; The Cosmic Serpent), but I had trouble not viewing these with the same wariness as his epigrams. (Are these books stoking his materialist nihilism?) There’s always a darkness lurking in Peter, and from time to time we hear the filmmakers talking to themselves about the weight of their responsibility to look after him. There is no pretense that Peter will be better off after the film has finished.

A millennial sensibility sneaks its way in through the sporadic-but-hip soundtrack, which feels as raw as Paparella’s editing, and boasts the best filmic use of an ambient Aphex Twin song (“Rhubarb”) I have yet to witness. The way I feel about this film is the way I feel about Peter: ambivalent, but smitten by something ineffably electric within him. Peter and the Farm has already made the arty festival rounds (New Directors/New Films, True/False) prior to Camden, and was deservedly picked up by Magnolia Pictures in April.

I cannot talk about such a back-to-the-lander story as Peter Dunning without briefly bringing up another slightly more conventional documentary at Camden: Following Seas. If documentaries sink or float by the stories they tell, then Following Seas is as buoyant as the Awahnee sailboat it is set on. During the Cold War of the 1960s, when most Americans stayed home biting their nails, former veterinarian and divorcé Bob Griffith met sea-loving Nancy Hirsch when he docked his sailboat in her Hawaii hometown, and so began Bob and Nancy’s incredible life circumnavigating the globe multiple times on a small sailboat. They thrive while stranded for a year on a deserted atoll, try their homemade vessel at an unheard-of circumnavigation of Antarctica, and raise three kids together, and the opportunistic Nancy caught it all beautifully on 16mm film. Directors Araby Williams and Tyler J. Kelly have a treasure trove to work with as they interview the still-living Nancy (who died shortly before the film’s release) and pepper their recordings with surviving footage of her and Bob’s voyages. A solid film that shares with Peter a hip soundtrack (this time on the drone metal spectrum) and a focus on the importance of self-reliance.

My coverage would feel incomplete if I didn’t say a few words about another somewhat flawed highlight, Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, whose glacial, Theo Angelopoulos–esque camerawork and focus on an industrial cargo ship’s barren and menacing machinery sets its vision apart from most of the Camden fare, but whose reliance on a too-cute, loosely-fabricated narrative (the ship figuratively engulfs its crew, or so the program notes explain it) takes it down a few notches in my book. There are dusky ocean horizon shots that register nearly as beautifully as a Turner painting, and the workers’ fluorescent orange jumpsuits add to an otherworldly feeling against the Atlantic nights on the bloodless freighter. Settings on the ship unravel from disorienting close-ups to full panning shots, often without a soul in sight and without any explanation of the growling, churning equipment, which is aurally complemented by the microtonal sounds of José Manuel Berenguer. Sublime audio-visual moments abound in Dead Slow Ahead, and I mention it as an interesting counterpoint to the steady output of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Leviathan [2012], The Iron Ministry [2014], Manakamana [2013]). Instead of a human-paced view of a freighter, Dead Slow Ahead takes a freighter-pace view of humans.

In spite of the catatonic aftereffects of three sedentary festival days, I drove out of Camden on Sunday enthused about the quality of the films, and particularly uplifted by the sincere religiosity of my (award-winning) festival favorites La natura delle cose and Cameraperson. With such giants as Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick inspiring generations of fiction filmmakers, it is refreshing to see a confident strain of the spiritual seeping into exciting nonfiction experiments, joining the ranks of Artur Aristakisyan’s Palms (1994) and Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962). It has always felt strange to me that the book of essays accompanying The Hidden God: Film and Faith, a 2003 film series at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, featured only one piece (out of fifty) on a documentary: Manoel de Oliveira’s 1963 docufiction Acto da Primavera — that is, unless the reader liberally registers the inclusion of two essays by experimentalists Stan Brakhage and Nathaniel Dorsky as ‘close enough.’ I do not wish to see a cine-market overflowing with new-age Koyaanisqatsi lookalikes, but rather the development of a nonfiction corpus to rival the works of contemporary filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas and Apichatpong Weerasethakul who have made bold formal and narrative gestures in representing faith in modern life.

It was a joy to spend a weekend engaged with the plethora of documentary industry folk who are living happily outside the crazed pace of New York. Legendary Maine documentary editor Mary Lampson (Harlan County, USA [1976]) received a hat-tip from Cameraperson’s Kirsten Johnson, and Mary had recently worked on a CIFF film, Mike Day’s first-rate Faroe Islands-focused doc, The Islands and the Whales. (Edinburgh native Day related to me how peaceful and productive the film’s coastal Maine editing process had been for him and Mary.) The Festival’s heads Ben Fowlie and Caroline von Kuhn recently co-founded, with Sean Flynn, the Points North Institute in Camden, a CIFF-related umbrella organization for documentary residencies and fellowships in the Vacationland oceanside. They all appeared quite happy with making the Maine life work for much of the year. And since every young art-minded New Yorker I know seems on the verge of a rent-related flee from the city, I am happy to end my Camden ravings with a tip: head north.

The Camden International Film Festival took place in Camden, Rockland, and Rockport, Maine, September 16–18.

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