The Camden International Film Festival glides into its 14th year on September 13th. The four-day affair takes place in the nautically bucolic towns of Camden, Rockport, and Rockland, Maine, and will feature over 100 documentaries this year, both short and feature-length. That’s quite a few films for four days, and given that so many are world or US premieres, that’s an especially overwhelming amount to attempt to sort through prior to attending.
That’s why I’m here. I’ve been lucky to watch almost all of them, and I’ve done so in order to help guide you. I still encourage you to seek out the titles, filmmakers, genres, and subjects that draw your mind’s eye because there is so much to discover. I assure you, CIFF does not let just any ole film waltz into their fantastically curated festival. But, if you’re feeling a little lost, or simply want a critic’s opinion, I’ve got you covered.
What follows is a selection of the 12 best films that 1) vary in subject matter—a little something for everyone—and 2) will not disappoint. Without further ado: the crowned jewels of CIFF18:
There’s a reason this film is the first on this list. Refreshingly funny, infinitely sweet, and desperately painful all at the same time, Cameron Mullenneux‘s Exit Music might be CIFF’s most significant offering (and that’s saying a lot). The camera follows the last months of late twentysomething Ethan Rice, born with cystic fibrosis and well beyond his professionally predicted years. The transparency of Rice and his family will open your heart in ways you cannot prepare for. As we watch his final days, the story lingers into the realm of the father as much as it does the son, and the product is sheer beauty and tears. Rice also scored and provided stop-motion animation for the film and both are exquisitely fitting.
The sweet success of any societally marginalized group of people is always a documentary treat on screen. However, Alex Holmes‘ Maiden is particularly special (as expressed in my review). This is the true story of the first ever all-female women’s crew to sail across the globe in the Whitbread Round the World Race. It’s thrilling, moving, impassioned, and downright delightful. If the inspiring heart of the story somehow manages to slip past your emotional grasp, the very nature of the roaring waters they brave is sure to capture and reel you in.
Of Fathers and Sons
I find it hard to believe that we will ever get another documentary like Of Fathers and Sons in the foreseeable future. Talal Derki does not merely chronicle the civil war that plagues Syria. Posing as a sympathizer working to spread the cause, he takes his camera behind enemy lines into the camp of the jihadist Muhajideen for over two years. He hones in on a specific man and his many sons (there are no women featured in this film because women are not treated like people behind these walls), inching ever-closely toward the core of their beliefs, and, ultimately, manages to intimately infiltrate a radical army whose communal makeup is nothing short of horrific.
The Gospel of Eureka
The Christian faith gets a bad rap these days, and while it can be well-deserved, it’s often the corrupt or backward kind that makes the news. You know, like the “president” and his gaggle. But Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri‘s The Gospel of Eureka offers a glimpse into the backcountry Christian world that doesn’t steal headlines with its MAGA hats. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is a town of around two thousand folks where pastors and drag queens and passersby alike enjoy each other as they abandon the stereotypical tendency toward mutual condemnation. Sure, Eureka Springs is an anomaly, but by God is it a rousing example of what could be. Forget the plague that politics has wrought on us for just a moment and look straight into your neighbor’s eye with the intent to graciously understand. That is Eureka.
Welcome to the courtroom of Honorable Judge Toko Serita. It’s not like most courtrooms you’ve seen for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens. Secondly, it is run by women. Thirdly, Serita makes sure that every woman who runs the legal gauntlet through her gavel is treated with care, empathy, and the fairest prosecution possible. Serita and GEMS counselor, Eliza Hook, are there to help these women clear their charges as swiftly as they can while dealing with the range of women who end up there—some still terrified and dumbfounded as to how they ended up in sex work in a massage parlor, others proudly choosing the line of work. Regardless, as seen in Stephanie Wang-Breal‘s Blowin’ Up, this is a courtroom where women sex workers are treated with remarkable respect in the face of an otherwise ignorant criminal justice system.
The Truth About Killer Robots
The title here is a bit revealing, but The Truth About Killer Robots isn’t exactly what you think whether you wish it so or not. Director Maxim Pozdorovkin begins with the truth about killer robots and quickly merges the topic with the plight of the working class across the world. Ruminations on dystopia and future fallouts are plentiful, but it is the factory workers, line assemblers, and other such laborers that transform your fascination into concern. You might tremble at how recognizable this seemingly cinematic reality is once you realize it is your own, but if I’m not mistaken, that is the point. Science fiction is starting to become nonfiction.
For the more experimental wanderers, CIFF brings you Andrea Bussmann‘s Fausto. It’s the kind of film that never makes its purpose clear, but we do know that the Faust legend is deep in the dark Oaxacan coast. Wistful and peculiar, we drift in and out of ghost-like renderings in the night recounting stories and a pitch black ocean accented only slightly by a small, bright moon. It is visual poetry accompanied by mythical poetry—a numinously investigational exploration of literary intrigue.
What is Democracy?
It’s heady. It’s lengthy. It is, in essence, an academic text. But studying the truth behind anything is rarely simple, short, or easy. And it does not get any easier when the focal point revolves around one of the most historic, widely instituted, and routinely abused forms of government. From Plato to Obama, democracy has stood the test of millennia only to bring down its adherents time and time again. Likewise, its benefit to the world over the same period of time is impossible to refute. Pull up a chair, unsheathe your notebook, and start scribbling. Astra Taylor‘s What is Democracy? is essentially a grad school seminar, one you will not regret attending.
Vitaly Mansky offers us something so special, relevant, and raw it almost seems like a hoax when you hear about it. Once the head of documentary operations for a major Russian television station, Mansky was asked to film the accession of Vladimir Putin to the presidential throne of Russia after Boris Yeltsin shocked the nation by stepping down on New Year’s Eve in 1999. Mansky was asked to document Putin for a year in his new role with the assumption that Putin would continue Yeltsin’s legacy of democratic development at the turn of the millennia, but, of course, we all know that Putin had other plans. The behind-closed-doors footage is close and daring enough to have resulted in Mansky’s recent exile. If that doesn’t pique your interest, then I just ask you to trust me. Putin’s Witnesses is nothing short of astounding.
Angels Are Made of Light
James Longley’s Angels Are Made of Light would undoubtedly collect the award for Greatest Film Title at CIFF if there were such a thing. But there is much more than just a name to this riveting work. We spend all of our time with the lives of teachers and students at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan: a young boy whose love for learning combats the tradition of manual labor held by his hardworking father and brother, a woman who is old enough to remember Kabul before it was seized by the Taliban and turned to ruin. No matter the person before us, Longley presents them vividly, granting each a sincerely human perspective that was denied them by the fierce aggression of the Taliban and the ever-invading US military forces.
The Ancient Woods
Calling all despairing Planet Earth zealots, if you thought CIFF left you unconsidered like so many other festivals, you will be glad to know you are wrong. A close friend once told me that the Lithuanian woods will always be the most beautiful place he has experienced. I assumed he wasn’t lying, but I didn’t have proof until now. This deep dive into the forests of Lithuania is dense with lingering, spiritual, speechless, and ethereal imagery. Buckle up for photography because Mindaugas Survila‘s The Ancient Woods does not contain even a single word. But, it is that meditative silence that becomes so enrapturing.
Think Eighth Grade meets David Hyde Pierce’s throng of “inside kids” in Wet Hot American Summer (but demographically diverse). Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster‘s Science Fair is a riot. We follow nine high schoolers in the heat of competition as they steamroll their way into the international science fair. I don’t mean to suggest that the camera doesn’t take them seriously. There is nothing comical about this scenario for anyone involved. Yet, the true to life intensity and extravagance of this cast of characters (complete with nemeses) is so Hollywood-esque it is bound to delight and intrigue you.