The Camden International Film Festival is always an inspiration, but watching festival founder Ben Fowlie and his team weather two full seasons’ worth of adversity and emerge better than ever deserves a standing ovation.

Luckily, standing Os are in the works for this year’s 17th annual CIFF, as the increasingly influential nonfiction film festival begins – online and in person – Thursday.

“This is our first significant, in-person event in the COVID era,” said Fowlie, head of the festival and executive and artistic director of presenter Points North Institute, with no small amount of pride.

And pride is warranted, as this year’s CIFF is not only bringing the best in documentary filmmaking back to Maine (alongside the filmmakers and industry professionals that have turned Camden into a nonfiction film hotspot each year), but it’s coming back even better, all while doing things the right way. 

“After last year, we learned a lot about building up the virtual component,” Fowlie said of 2020’s mostly-virtual event. “We learned about building out a robust online festival forum, we built all our muscles, and expanded into things we do throughout the year.”

Fowlie also might mention that, when faced with the unprecedented hardship of a still-rampaging pandemic, the Points North crew straight-up built an open-air drive-in theater (the Shotwell, which will serve as one of CIFF’s four screening sites this year) from scratch. 

Still, as Fowlie notes, a film festival is intended to be a communal, shared experience, and the CIFF team has navigated yet another year of COVID uncertainty to provide a vibrant, safe and decidedly in-person festival for 2021.

“We asked, ‘What is the core of the organization?’” said Fowlie. “It’s bringing people together from all over the country and integrating into a community that has been so supportive over the years. For filmmakers, it’s about not being cheated out of sharing your film with audiences after, in some cases, four or five years making it.”

Plus, as lifelong film fanatic Fowlie admits, this year’s festival is about “the sheer desire” to get back to CIFF as it’s meant to be.

“Cinema is not meant to be consumed on a laptop by yourself in a living room, or heard through headphones while you’re doing the dishes. There’s a kinetic energy that exists that’s really important.” And the theater-deprived masses say, amen. 

Still, COVID isn’t gone, and, thanks to a certain segment of the population still indulging in maskless, unvaccinated irresponsibility, CIFF has implemented a stringent set of attendance guidelines (mandatory masking and proof of vaccination, contact tracing, limited attendance) to keep attendees as safe as is possible.

And while all that is a bummer we’ve all had to become accustomed to, CIFF has also found a way to make safety and in-person screenings thoroughly impressive by adding its newest screening venue, the 12,000-square-foot Journey’s End. A fully ventilated, majestically high-ceilinged boat barn on the Rockland waterfront, the venue will play host to some of the festival’s most visually thrilling selections this year, hand-picked to take full advantage of the location’s dimensions.

Fowlie explained that Journey’s End boasts “surround sound, a massive screen, a lot of air flow, and 40-foot ceilings” and “mimics the drive-in experience, but inside, and with a wraparound outdoor deck for audience members to share their thoughts about what they’ve seen.” Honestly, it sounds like heaven. In-person heaven. 

Of course, Camden is all about the movies, and the busy Fowlie shared some thoughts on the 2021 films he’s most excited for attendees to experience (either in person, or through the still-thriving CIFF virtual festival).

A scene from “Faya Dayi” about Ethiopian youth. Photo courtesy of Merkhana Films

Noting that this year’ festival received the most submissions in its illustrious history, Fowlie yet points audiences toward director Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” a portrait of Ethiopian youth making their way in a repressive regime.

“Cinema is art,” Fowlie said, “and, every so often, you find work that’s just doing something completely different with cinematic language. This film turns the form on its head, with its artistic choices outlining the story. In person, this should be a mind-blowing experience.”

Fowlie, while characteristically conflicted about playing favorites, is also effusive about Robert Greene’s searing and beautiful “Procession,” chronicling the makeshift family formed by survivors of abuse by Catholic priests, who create scenes based on the church’s rituals as a way to reclaim their childhoods.

“It’s about trying to find the essence of reality, so to speak,” Fowlie said. “It’s a powerful and emotional experience that’s only heightened when an audience sees it together.”

He’s also quick to point to the tireless efforts of Program Director Sean Flynn and Senior Artistic Programs Manager Mara Bresnahan in not only helping curate CIFF’s ever-impressive and eclectic slate, but in shepherding projects through Points North’s efforts to reach out to wider and more diverse communities and filmmakers. 

Like the filmmakers themselves, the CIFF staff has endured a lot in the past two years. For Fowlie, it’s a testament to the resilience of both groups that this year’s Camden International promises viewers its most ambitious program yet.

“The world is messy right now,” he said. “What we can always fall back on when we think about the films we highlight at CIFF are the small, intimate stories, the films about tragedy, and loss. These are things we can all relate to in our own ways. We’ve all had a traumatic experience in common, and these films all provide avenues or channels to have people explore those emotions in different ways.”

That said, Fowlie also promises attendees the sort of varied and surprising variety of filmmaking that’s become Camden’s brand. “The diversity of work we’ve seen this year is truly overwhelming, and it’s great to bring it back to Maine audiences in a way that’s bigger, and more exciting.”

The 17th annual Camden International Film Festival returns live and in-person, Thursday through Sunday, at venues from the Strand Theater to the Camden Opera House to the Shotwell Drive-In to the brand new Journey’s End. Online screenings of this year’s films will also be running from the start of the festival through Sept. 26. For tickets, showtimes, film info, COVID rules, directions and more, head to pointsnorthinstitute.org/ciff. 


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