A still from the movie “A Word Away,” which tells the story of a young man from Portland named Cosmo and his personal journey. It premieres Sunday at the Camden International Film Festival. Image courtesy of Mollie Moore

The Camden International Film Festival (Thursday to Sunday, Sept. 12-15) isn’t a Maine documentary festival. Or, rather, it is, since it’s been bringing the best in nonfiction filmmaking to Maine for the past 15 years. But while the festival’s lineup is always dotted with Maine-made or Maine-focused documentaries, CIFF is a truly international affair, with a cinematic map as wide as the world its dedicated filmmakers document.

But sometimes, a film comes to Camden that captures the interconnectedness of Maine and the rest of the world in a particularly striking way, much as visitors to Maine (you know, “from away”) bring their world along with them. That’s the singular story presented by first-time director Mollie Moore’s Portland-set short documentary, “A Word Away,” which will have its world premiere at CIFF on Sunday. The story of a young man named Cosmo, still coping with the difficult cultural and personal adjustment involved in coming to Maine as a refugee from South Sudan 10 years ago, “A Word Away,” according to Moore, packs a lifetime of human drama and uplift into 19 short minutes.

“It’s beautiful the way it happened,” says Moore of meeting Cosmo, the young Portlander who became the center of her debut film. “The universe really brought us together.”

Born in South London, the now Brooklyn-based Moore had long been moved and energized by the plight of immigrants and refugees in her home country and abroad, a situation that’s only become more fraught and dangerous for the people involved with the rhetoric of anti-immigration leaders like Donald Trump and Great Britain’s conservative government. “I’ve followed the refugee crisis over here in Europe, and was just, every day, tearing my hair out when not working with organizations, food banks and the like,” explains Moore, who’s worked largely as cinematographer until now. “It’s become my main focus as a filmmaker, the notion of migration and the reasons why people need to move, and the often negative reactions they face.”

The documentary “A Word Away” tells the story of Cosmo, an immigrant from South Sudan adjusting to life in Portland. Image courtesy of Mollie Moore

After moving to the United States two years ago, Moore began working with other activists and journalists in New England, where she first met a man named John, who’d come to Portland from war-ravaged South Sudan with his family a decade earlier. Through John, Mollie met John’s son Cosmo, a quiet, thoughtful young man whose experiences, both before and after leaving his home country, left him deeply troubled and searching for a way to cope. “John introduced me to the whole South Sudanese community in Portland,” says Moore, “which was the most welcoming and beautiful community.”

As for Cosmo, Moore says, “He is a very special young man, and I was really drawn to him. The introduction of poetry and storytelling just came naturally in conversation.”


In getting to know Cosmo and his family, Moore got to know Moon, a childhood friend of Cosmo’s also in Portland from South Sudan, whose passion for poetry Cosmo gradually came to see as a way to express things long locked inside. And Moore saw the spark of a truly compelling film about these two friends, a Maine community and the immigrant experience.

“I was very conscious going in that this was not my story,” explains Moore. “The whole theme of this film is home, and my stance was that I was making a place for them to tell their own story.”

For Moore, the words “migrant” and “refugee” are labels that rob people of their stories, a convenient way to shunt vibrant communities off to the side. As she says, “What I was really excited about was to highlight who Cosmo is as an individual. There are so many stories about people who have made incredible journeys and then have not been welcomed by the very countries that, in many cases, have brought the war to them in the first place. I just wanted to portray these people who are just so incredible. The film is about capturing this beautiful moment in time, and I’m very privileged that they let me be a part of it.”

A scene from “A Word Away,” debuting Sunday at the Camden International Film Festival. Image courtesy of Mollie Moore

If I’m being a bit cagey about the form that Cosmo and Moon’s story takes, that’s because, as Moore says, “There is an element of mystery about the film. We catch Cosmo at a very transitional period, where he’s just come out of the hospital for mental health issues as he’s very much exploring his identity, his home, his sense of belonging, and why he had these things happen to him. He’s a very poetic young man in person, and ‘A Word Away’ is very much about him finding his voice.”

Moore notes that while the film’s subjects are all identified by their full names in the credits, she’s more comfortable referring to them by their first names. “This is their first experience of being seen by the world,” she said. “Things are still fragile, and I just want to make sure they’re OK on the journey.”

For Moore, Maine provided not just the perfect setting for her film, but the perfect place to premiere it.

“All I knew about Maine at the start was that it was supposed to be conservative and very white,” says Moore, who praises the people of Portland as exceptionally diverse and open. “And while Camden is a beautiful festival in its own right, once I learned more about it, it made sense to have the world premiere there. Plus, it’s really important for me that Cosmo, Moon and John are able to attend.”

Showing her movie to these Mainers to whom she’d grown so close was a daunting experience for Moore. As she says, “I felt so much responsibility – and I should have done – to get it right and honor what they have given me. Cosmo’s reaction was the one I cared most about, but he said he really liked it. It was very quiet, but, as you learn in the film, that’s him. Poetic and nuanced.”

“A Word Away” premieres at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Camden Opera House as part of the Camden International Film Festival. Moore and some of her film’s subjects will attend. Visit pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff for details.

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