A still from “El Padre Medico,” a documentary about a Lithuanian doctor in the Brazilian rainforest that’s premiering at the Camden International Film Festival. Photos courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

The world is big, complex and, perhaps for some of us lately, overwhelming. With so much information flooding us from every screen (not to mention the things we see with our actual eyes every day), finding focus and making some sort of sense out of the world is hard.

A good documentary draws our focus to one aspect of that world. A great one takes that focus and gradually widens it until we see something that seems to take in far more than we thought possible. And a great documentary film festival creates that magical movie experience a dizzying number of times, making the world that much more comprehensible, and human.

The Camden International Film Festival is a great film festival. Entering its 15th year (from Sept. 12-15) in the Camden-Rockport-Rockland area it calls home, CIFF’s program of films is, as ever, head-spinningly diverse, both in subject and form, with dozens of features, shorts and more experimental nonfiction films from around the world, and right here in Maine. But don’t take my word for it.

“Every year, there’s so much repetition in what we do from an administration standpoint, but what’s different and exciting is the slate of films and how they communicate with each other. There’s just an incredible continuity among all aspects of the festival this year.” That’s Ben Fowlie, CIFF founder and executive and artistic director of the Points North Institute, which – among many other things – brings Mainers the cinematic bounty that is CIFF each year.

The idea of continuity is a fascinating and elusive one when you’re talking about a roster bursting with films on subjects as diverse as the immigration experience around the world, the last white rhino, indigenous people reclaiming their own history, an elderly couple’s sex shop and all the rest of the films that make up this year’s festival. (For the full schedule, go to pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff.) But that’s part of the expert work that organizers put into curating each year’s lineup.

“There’s no plan at the outset to pick a theme and go hunting to fill a certain criteria,” said Samara Chadwick, the festival’s senior programmer for the past three years. “We set out to program the best films, those that we’re instinctively drawn to. The continuity comes from a series of impulses and conversations brought up by the films we see. This year, the continuity comes in the questions: Who’s telling the story and what does this film do in the world? Is the film opening up new narratives, listening and transforming views through generosity, rather than going into a space and trying to assemble the pieces into a pre-established narrative?”

It’s that restless curiosity and rigor that enlivens CIFF each year and has turned Maine’s preeminent nonfiction festival into a destination for filmmakers from around the globe. As Fowlie said of this year’s program: “It feels like a slate where every film just feels like what we consider CIFF films. There’s no outlier this year – no movie where you point to and think, ‘Well, it’s a festival, and we need to be programming from the major festivals, and this one’s got great PR buzz.’ Across the board this year, every film is about being a patient observer and what that means for audiences. There’s so much heart and emotion pouring out. I found, just personally, the emotional release transcended every other year.”

Having Fowlie and Chadwick on hand to guide me through this year’s program, I asked them to take a deep breath and pick out a few films that truly exemplify the sort of cinematic experience they’d been talking about. Both jumped to urge people to come out for director Reza Farahmand’s feature “Copper Notes of a Dream,” the Iranian journalist’s strikingly beautiful account of the deceptively resilient world of children in war-torn Syria.

“We have a trilogy of films about Syria this year,” said Fowlie, “and a lot of films this year deal with migration. And they’re very heavy. But this film, while showing much of the same imagery, shows that, beneath the surface, there’s a whole ecosystem that is thriving. It deals with children – who’ve never known anything but war – in a positive and beautiful way that movies coming out of Syria usually don’t.”

Chadwick likewise points to “Lovemobil,” Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss’ portrait of the women sex workers operating out of caravans on the outskirts of a German industrial town, as another film that finds transcendence in the unlikeliest of places.

“Copper Notes of a Dream” is one of three films about Syria showing at the Camden International Film Festival.

Like us viewers, Fowlie and Chadwick thrill to the discovery of new movie voices. And nothing knocked these two veteran programmers back on their heels more than “El Padre Médico,” the first film from Lithuanian filmmaker Vytautas Puidokas, which turned out to be not only what Chadwick calls “an edge of your set thriller,” but also represents one of the most exciting films to come through CIFF’s submission process.

Fowlie said, the first time he and Chadwick separately saw this twisting tale of a supposedly beloved Lithuanian doctor in the Brazilian rainforest, “We both walked in and said, ‘Holy (expletive).’ We get a lot of great films through our platforms, but it’s truly a rarity to have a completely unknown film (CIFF is ‘El Padre Médico’s’ world premiere) trickle up through the process and hit us this hard.”

Of course, it’s not fair to Fowlie and Chadwick to make them choose favorites from such an eclectic and sweated-over roster. We didn’t even get to the Maine-based Dirigo Docs this year, including a Lewiston family’s emotional journey in Andrea Kalin’s “Scattering C.J.,” or the unique rewards of screening a film made just 10 minutes from the theater it’s being shown in, as is the case of Ian Cheney’s “Thirteen Ways,” about a group of experts in various fields exploring the unexpected beauties of a single plot of midcoast Maine land.

With CIFF’s ticket prices and passes as reasonable as ever for such a rich, four-day movie feast, there’s no excuse to miss what’s become one of the most prestigious nonfiction film festivals in the world. (Plus, as Fowlie notes, you can buy tickets online for the first time this year to reserve your seat.) Talking to the fine film folks at Camden International each year just reasserts that the world through a great filmmaker’s lens is an even more magical, challenging and beautiful place – and that CIFF’s audiences are in good hands.

The 15th Camden International Film Festival takes place Sept. 12-15. With online ticketing now available, this gives you plenty of time to visit pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff and save your spot. (Although Fowlie notes that things fill up fast.) You’re welcome.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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