Zarifa Ghafari in “In Her Hands,” playing at this year’s Camden International Film Festival, where co-director Taman Ayazi will be in attendance. Courtesy of Netflix/CIFF

“Documentary is an art form with limitless potential.”

Ben Fowlie knows that better than anyone, and I always look forward to hearing him expound on the idea. As executive and artistic director of the Rockport-based Points North Institute, Fowlie has been instrumental in making that organization’s annual Camden International Film Festival a vital and growing destination for the world’s best, boldest and most innovative nonfiction filmmakers since 2005.

Now preparing for CIFF’s 18th season (taking place at venues in Camden, Rockport and Rockland – and online – from Sept. 15-18), Fowlie took an hour from his hectic, pre-festival schedule to give Mainers the lowdown on this year’s films, the role of documentary filmmaking in understanding our world, and his vision for Camden International as a worldwide filmmaking hub.

“This year feels bigger, and more robust,” Fowlie said. “The pandemic has meant that the last few years have been a little smaller, but the roster of films this year is back up to 2019 numbers. Plus, the biggest shift this year is that, by far, this is the most ambitious festival from an international standpoint.”

With dozens of filmmakers coming to Camden from places like Bangladesh, South America and all over Europe, the festival continues on its mission to provide an immersive, interactive and vibrant experience for audiences looking to dig deep into the wide array of styles and themes on display.

“We celebrate documentaries of all shapes and sizes,” Fowlie said. “And while we want to push boundaries, this is a festival – they’re supposed to be festive. We want to feature works that resonate fundamentally with audiences, but that also strike up a conversation and provoke audiences to think more deeply about who’s behind the camera, and what’s the relationship of film with the community.”


That community aspect is something that Fowlie says has been “a cornerstone and the foundation of what we are,” with this year’s CIFF eagerly tossing off some of the most stringent COVID-related restrictions festival organizers responsibly put in place for the past two fests. (Points North built and ran a full drive-in movie theater – the still-successful Shotwell Drive-In – for Mainers to be able to have a communal viewing experience, if anyone needed further proof of how dedicated Fowlie and his team are.)

Speaking of the pandemic guidelines enacted for last year’s festival, Fowlie says, not without justifiable pride, “Last year, we were looking down the barrel of another significant wave, so we dedicated ourselves to providing an environment that was safe. We restricted capacity at every venue, and that worked out organically and quite nicely. Tracing showed no new cases coming out of the festival, as far as we can tell, even though we had over 1,000 in-person attendees.”

And while the pandemic is not over (emphasis by the still-masking author), Maine’s robust vaccination numbers and dwindling new COVID cases will see CIFF welcoming back even greater numbers of movie-hungry Maine film fans.

“We’re going in with the desire to maintain our track record of safety,” said Fowlie, “and since we understand that people’s comfort levels are different, there will be many options. Full immersion is one way, but people can choose to visit the Shotwell for the drive-in experience, and there’s also our virtual component for those who’re still come comfortable watching our films at home.”

As ever, there’s going to be a bountiful selection of films for Camden International audiences to choose from this year. (And here, I’ll clue everyone in: Festival passes are the best option, with CIFF’s new six-pack discounted ticket bundle a respectable second.) One of the highlights of my movie-writing year is listening to Fowlie get excited as he runs down some of his favorite films in each year’s festival, so let’s let the man talk.

“CIFF is really a collaborative exploration of what we mean by a documentary,” he said in preface. “There’s no question we’re living in bizarre times, facing a lot of challenges, and a lot of this work does it. They open up those conversations – about the environment, about Indigenous rights. It’s political disruption, but in ways that are not so direct, but subtle. They allow audiences to dive into films as film, but some out wanting to dive deeper into the subject.”


“Cowboy Poets,” playing at this year’s Camden International Film Festival, might change your mind about what cowboys stand for. Photo courtesy of CIFF

As an example, Fowlie points to filmmaker Mike Day’s feature “Cowboy Poets,” about the National Cowboy Poet Gathering.

“It’s fascinating in that it confounds assumptions about what we believe cowboys stand for,” he said. “It’s an environmental film, set in the American West, listening to some of the most eloquent and profound writers you don’t know about speaking about maintaining some sense of relationship with Mother Nature, and the land they need to make a living. It’s beautiful and, like all (CIFF alum) Day’s films, completely immersive.”

Switching gears, Fowlie is equally thrilled to present Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s feature “In Her Hands,” which explores the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan through the eyes of Zarifa Ghafari, who, at 26, became one of that war-torn country’s first female mayors.

“I’m excited for a number of reasons,” Fowlie said. “First, it’s about the ripple effects of last year’s decision to leave Afghanistan, and how quickly we’ve seemingly forgotten that story as a country. The film is a stark reminder of those left behind, or who leave but have to face the trauma of forced removal. Zarifa Ghafari was a young woman focused on promoting women’s rights and education in remote areas. When the Taliban returned to power, she made the decision to leave the country, while her bodyguard, whose support of her put him on the Taliban’s radar, chose to stay. It’s set against a background of a tumultuous time, and the fact that co-director Tamana Ayazi (who’ll be in attendance) is from the same community where Ghafari was mayor makes the film that much more insightful.”

Having scanned CIFF’s offerings with customarily overwhelmed curiosity, I couldn’t resist asking Fowlie about Charlie Shackleton’s “The Afterlight.” Part archival exercise in immortalizing long-dead actors from around the world, part performance art piece, the film sees the British filmmaker putting together clips of actors from some 14 countries, their long-ago cinematic efforts unearthed and reassembled into a new form.

As part of Shackleton’s message however, the resurrection will be short-lived, as the filmmaker struck only one 35mm print of the film, which will be projected at screenings until the sole print finally decays into unplayability.


“I don’t know what state it will be in, but that’s part of the excitement,” said Fowlie. “There’s a throughline in his work – the power of the archive, how it can be manipulated by the editor to tell a story different than you expect. The Strand Theatre is one of the few places that still has 35mm projector, and this is the first 35mm film CIFF has shown since our first year.”

Plumbing the archives produced another Fowlie favorite in Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis’ “Rewind & Play,” a canny and insightful assemblage of the raw footage from a contentious French TV interview with jazz great Thelonious Monk in 1969.

“It’s an experimental film that shows, through archive footage of that interview, how even a legendary figure like Monk would be forced to answer questions that don’t pertain to his creative process. I left with an unnerved feeling, but still excited to think about how the project to reexamine an issue like race relations through abstract outtakes of archival footage. It stuck with me in terms of the subtlety and impact of letting the archive speak for itself. The beauty of the work is in the editing, the discovery of these outtakes and the real story they’re telling.”

And all that is just scratching the surface of this year’s Camden International Film Festival. There are documentaries about everything from a restless Saudi filmmaker encountering a heavy metal-listening Japanese monk (“Crows Are White”) to indigenous people in Brazil fighting to protect their land (“The Territory”) to a portrait of Maine-born Native baseball player Louis Sockalexis (“Deerfoot of the Diamond”) to an affectionate look at the life of cult indie filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. (“Sr.”). Plus, Fowlie swore me to secrecy about the Sept. 15 festival screening, described in the film notes as simply, “A new film by an academy award winning director.” (You want to check this one out.)

The world is huge, and complicated. Artists see it in ways others don’t. A great documentary film festival is a chance to glance through the eyepieces of dozens of unique and talented filmmakers, and see the world in new ways. Said Ben Fowlie of CIFF’s ongoing mission, “It’s our interest and desire to champion work we have painstakingly curated, to say, ‘Let’s do everything we can to make sure these projects leave CIFF with confidence, a little momentum in their step, and the promise that these filmmakers will get paid for their hard work. It’s also to push the industry to take risks on artists that are taking risks.’”

Tickets and film information are available at Go on, take a risk.

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

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