From the panel “Reality and Power.” From left to right: Brett Story, Sky Hopinka, Cecilia Aldarondo (photo by Jourdan Channing Fanning)

CAMDEN, MAINE — Tucked between a cluster of neighboring towns in Penobscot Bay, the Camden International Film Festival celebrated its 15th iteration this past September with the politically apt theme of “Story and Power.” While most must-see documentaries premiere earlier in the year at Sundance, True/False, or Hot Docs, CIFF positions itself in the greater conversation by curating a more direct space. By explicitly examining the ways in which power structures shape and impact stories within the media landscape, “Story and Power” was a rather audacious attempt to critically reflect on industry-wide conversations on equity, funding, and accessibility. Yet how successfully can a festival maneuver such a bold attempt to center a conversation before guests even convene? Can a sleepy New England town ignite or co-opt popular discussion around deeply embedded power structures within the documentary landscape?

Organizing the bulk of CIFF’s calculated thought processes was the Points North Forum. With its pitch sessions, workshops, master classes, and panels, the Forum operated as the unofficial epicenter of the festival’s aim to interrogate power and viewership in documentary. Moderators would intentionally begin every panel by recognizing that we were on the indigenous land of the Wabanaki people. The centering of violent legacies made “fertile ground for festival discussions,” as suggested by North Points senior programmer Samara Grace Chadwick. 

From the panel “Unspoken Realities.” From left to right: Ja’Tovia Gary, Sabaah Folayan, Whitney Dow (photo by Jourdan Channing Fanning)

On Day 1, the “How to Watch a Doc” roundtable with film critics Devika Girish, Tayler Montague, and Harvard professor Robb Moss cracked open a necessary dialogue around viewership. Each panelist was invited to introduce a previously selected scene from a documentary and dissect how they interpret it through their personal lens. From Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason to Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer, conversations around ownership, the autonomy of documentary subjects, and ethno-cinema’s legacy as an imperial tool encapsulated impending debates amongst the audience, which seemed to spill into the entire day. 

CIFF continued to assert its stance as a filmmaker-friendly festival, having creatives spearhead the weekend’s discourse. Nearly every film, despite their respective contexts, set out to tell a story one way, only to meet unexpected turns. This was seen in everything from French director Lucie Viver’s poetic debut Sankara is Not Dead, which won the John Marshall Award, to Feras Fayyad’s The Cave, a harrowing profile of a Syrian hospital led by an incredibly brave group of women, to The Hottest August, an essay about anxiety and climate change from rising Canadian star Brett Story.

The North Points Pitch (courtesy Camden International Film Festival)

Keeping up with their admiration of filmmakers, the Points North Pitch, undoubtedly the most popular event at the festival, celebrated its 10th edition. Offering filmmaking teams seven precious minutes of uninterrupted pitching time and around double that time for feedback from a panel of industry executives, it’s an idiosyncratic public venue for burgeoning directors to refine their projects and oratory skills. It’s also a successful piece of entertainment within the festival context. Despite this, the pitch session provides nothing particularly revolutionary with which to reimagine story and power. While the filmmakers invited to pitch did answer the question “Who gets to tell stories and why?”, the event itself seems antithetical to any interrogation of power and process, offering nothing boundary-pushing in terms of grants or business critique.

More filmmaker roundtables set out to unpack ideas like building community or communal documentary practice as a potential tool of liberation. One even had a panel of attorneys who offered practical advice on contracts and legalities. The variety of poignant and disruptive discussions generated energy that reverberated throughout the festivities. CIFF’s attempt to engineer a specific atmosphere allowed for any attendee bold enough to actively reexamine their relationship with the moving image. And while the panels were meant to help interpret the films playing the festival, they better realized the idea of “Power and Story” than the films themselves. The intimacy and transparency accommodated a much-needed oasis in the debate-deficient spaces around cinema. Conversations were hammered out on the school buses shuttling people around, in Q&A’s with directors, and even at afterparties. 

And while investigating the power dynamics behind moviemaking can assist in change, it doesn’t necessarily mean arriving at a clean or sufficient answer. Documentary lovers can only look to spaces such as CIFF to generate a forum for these dialogues. While it’s thoughtful to promote an honest and equitable media landscape that could faithfully represent the world, it’s admirable to actively cultivate an environment that can push these conversations to the forefront and allow culture to thrive.

The 15th Camden International Film Festival ran September 12 through 15.

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Rooney Elmi

Rooney Elmi is founder and managing editor of SVLLY(wood), a biannual print and digital movie magazine geared toward radical cinephilia. The recipient of the 2017 New York Film Festival Critics...