A scene from "A Shot in the Dark"

Interview: Camden Film Fest Programmers Ben Fowlie & Samara Grace Chadwick on Creating a North Star for Doc Filmmakers

Just a year ago, Samara Grace Chadwick had come to the Camden Film Festival in Maine to serve as a juror at the documentary festival. Then a programmer for Montreal’s International Documentary Film Festival RIDM and a filmmaker herself, she had attended plenty of other film fests, but this one was different.

“People are their best selves while they’re here,” says Chadwick. “They’re having so much fun that projects emerge, connections emerge. You engage with films differently. As a viewer and as a filmmaker and as an industry member, you’re primed to just maximize your time here, so a lot happens in the four days that then plays out over years in terms of future projects and future collaborations.”

Chadwick can’t help but stifle a chuckle to herself during this full-throated endorsement since she doesn’t want anyone the impression she’s biased, though she loved her experience so much she decided to stay, becoming a programmer for Camden. In its 13th year, she isn’t the only new addition to the festival, which runs from September 14th through the 17th. But as someone passionate about what the festival was already doing in terms of convening the documentary community and showing some of its best work, Chadwick’s arrival is emblematic of how Camden is building on an already sturdy foundation.

From its inception, Camden has leveraged its unique position both geographically, a township that dates back to the 19th century set just off the North Atlantic Seaboard, and on the fall calendar to become a haven for filmmakers and audiences alike. While the carefully curated lineup has remained relatively small – just 37 features and 35 shorts this year, allowing programmers to hone in on presenting the best nonfiction films of the year domestically and internationally, giving the locals a chance to catch up on festival hits such as Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” Lana Wilson’s “The Departure,” Jairus McLeary’s “The Work” and Miao Wang’s “Maineland” while premiering others, such as the festival’s opening night film, Dustin Nakao Haider’s eagerly anticipated “Shot in the Dark,” that will be enticing to even the most well-traveled festival hounds who come to Maine for its impressive gathering of industry professionals.

“When we started this fest in 2005 and held a documentary festival in the fall, there weren’t any other ones,” notes Ben Fowlie, the festival’s executive director, who has seen a resurgence of interest in adventurous nonfiction work at festivals such as Toronto and Locarno, many of which land at Camden to make their U.S. debut. “It’s really a breakout year for us in a sense of we’ve been able to land some of these major titles, but I also think it’s because of the industry’s recognition of the festival and of the Institute and of all the work that we’re supporting and promoting that it’s allowed us to really reach the level of brand awareness to really pull in titles like this.”

However, as the festival’s profile has risen, their ambitions have grown beyond showing films, fostering an atmosphere of discovery well before films are projected onto a screen. Beginning with the creation of the Points North Forum in 2009 to bring together filmmakers, financiers, broadcasters and distributors in conversation, the festival has actively nurtured filmmakers to realize their ongoing productions. On one end of the festival, there is the Forum, which this year includes panels on archival material, sound recording and interviewing that delve into the nitty gritty of skill and technique with the best in the field, while Camden programmers’ devotion to booking films from first- and second-time directors and those filmmakers can then talk about potential next projects with those with the ability to aid them in some way.

Even a passing glance at this year’s lineup reveals that many of Camden’s selections have been produced by alumni of the Points North Institute’s year-around efforts to cultivate promising documentary projects and the filmmakers behind them which isn’t a sign of preferential treatment, but a reflection of the success they’ve had beyond the festival. The Institute has created an entire ecosystem with their various grants and programs, such as the Points North Fellowship, which annually offers six filmmakers to come to pitch their films amidst potential investors and seasoned documentary pros at the festival, and the Shortform Editing Residency, where all-access passes to the festival are accompanied by meetings with financiers and distributors to hone their shortform or episodic projects. Films that have benefitted from the assistance from the Points North Institute include the Sundance sensation “Whose Streets?”, Tribeca premieres “The Reagan Show,” “No Man’s Land” and “The Sensitives,” the True/False phenom “The Cage Fighter,” Visions du réel winner “All That Passes By Through a Window That Doesn’t Open” and Rotterdam selection “Commodity City,” all of which will have a homecoming of sorts when they arrive in Rockport not only finished but with plenty of acclaim from their festival travels.

“The Points North Institute is is an opportunity for us to work more concretely on artist development initiatives and really working with 15-20 feature and short projects throughout the year to help them hone their creative process, but also complete their projects and get them out into the world. says Fowlie. “We’re thrilled that our platform can reach this full-circle mentality where we’re working with a number of projects a year and a smaller number of those projects do end up getting completed and again end up coming back and be a part of our feature competition.”

The depth of Camden’s lineup extends to how the films connect to one another as much as their connection to the festival itself. With issues such as race relations and the refugee crisis on the minds of many, Fowlie, Chadwick and the programmers at Camden thought long and hard about how to create intersections within the festival where scheduling films to compliment one another could enhance the discussion around them, and with a North Points Forum to program as well as the festival’s screenings, the festival encourages a dialogue that can start with a screening to ripple throughout the four days no matter what part of the festival one partakes in.

“There’s a cohesion to the programming that is really fun and I think very generative because we’re going to be guiding the audience, giving them maps through the programming,” says Chadwick. “So if you saw this film, then you should see this film because it’ll give you a whole other take on what you think. Wherever that film landed, this film will take you in another direction.”

At Camden, that is likely to include places you’ve never been before, and in some cases, entirely off the map. Fowlie’s particularly excited about bringing films like Ziad Kalthoum’s “Taste of Cement,” about Syrian construction workers building a skyscraper in Beirut while their homes are reduced to rubble, Lee Anne Schmitt’s all-too-timely “Purge This Land,” which tours American landmarks of racial oppression inspired by the legacy of the anti-slavery activist John Brown, and Violeta Ayala’s Bolivian-based, ground-level look at the drug trade “Cocaine Prison” to the festival, while Chadwick notes a really robust collection of shorts, highlighted by Zofia Kowalewska’s Sundance selection “Close Ties,” and new work from “The Patron Saints” co-directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (“Animals Under Anesthesia”) and “Remote Area Medical” directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman (“Nobody Loves Me”), among others. And after launching a new section last year called Storyforms as a platform for nontraditional nonfiction filmmaking such as installations and virtual reality projects, the possibilities in the program run by Sean Flynn have grown as the filmmakers have become more accustomed to the cutting-edge forms and expanded their horizons accordingly.

“This year, VR has kind of elevated itself to another strata where you’re no longer even a human being,” says Chadwick. “A lot of the VR in past years has taken on this idea of what would you do if you were in someone else’s shoes kind of narrative, and [there are projects in Storyforms] playing a lot with scale and spatial representation that normal documentaries can’t ever present to a viewer, so VR is becoming more interesting, less dogmatic and we have some of the best works out this year that play with scale and allow you to be totally transported outside of your body.”

Yet it is the personal touch that is still stressed over all else at Camden, something evident in the fact that of the 37 features coming to the festival, all but just a handful are being accompanied by their filmmakers in the midst of a very busy season to the somewhat remote locale.

“It’s been a major initiative of ours to make sure our budget allows for us to fly the filmmakers in and put them up so they are part of these conversations and part of the community,” says Fowlie. “[We] try and make it an experience, not only for the community that gets to experience these films, but also the filmmakers who come together as another community and get to engage with the industry and fellow filmmakers in some of the complex, challenging conversations that we’re trying to start or continue at the festival.”

Adds Chadwick, “It’s really a festival’s responsibility to utilize that space to create conversations. There aren’t too many moments in contemporary life where you get to sit in a room for two hours with a group of people and get to experience a trajectory of emotions together and [Camden] really allows people to continue the kind of trajectory that the film has set them off on or to interact in new ways with the people around them and with the filmmakers themselves.”

The Camden Film Festival runs from September 14th through 17th in Camden, Maine.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.