October 8, 2019

Camden and Points North: Shining a Light on Power

The Points North Pitch Forum at CIFF. Courtesy of Camden International Film Festival.

Here I am, three weeks out from the immersive experience of the Camden International Film Festival and Points North Forum, and the rhythms of everyday life are tugging on me hard once again. Still, my mind's eye keeps finding its way back to the vivid imagery of the weekend—young children laughing and playing in the most ordinary way while in a refugee camp in Bulgaria (Midnight Traveler); a female truck driver combing her hair in a roadside truck stop (Driver, the Points North Pitch winner); buckets of silvery baby eels writhing and shimmering after being harvested late at night on the coast of Maine (Elvers); the prolific doodles of artist Alan Magee on Post-its, notes and scraps of paper offering windows into the nuance of the human experience (Alan Magee: Art Is Not a Solace); and fanciful, hand-illustrated deer chasing each other around an endless circle before transforming into something anew in the CIFF bumper. I am so grateful for the tremendous freedom in being reminded how much bigger the world is than me.

This was the 15th year of CIFF and Points North, and the 15th fall I’ve spent in the small coastal towns of Camden, Rockport and Rockland, diving deep into worlds near and far in the comfort of dimmed theaters less than 20 miles from where I grew up. Let me just let that sink in again: I was 24 the year of the first festival, and Founder/Executive Director Ben Fowlie was just 23. Over the years my roles with the festival have drastically shifted—from deep-in-event-production mode in the early days, to host-and-support mode during my time on the Board of Directors, to now, the second year of soaking it all in purely as an audience member. But what remains true across each iteration of the festival is the incredible container it creates—one that takes us out of the daily hustle and bustle for pause and reflection on the stories that bind and separate us, the masks we wear and the way our stories become a part of us, inviting a deeper knowing of each other and ourselves. Yes, it’s about the films, but it’s this container that feels so special and has kept me coming back year after year after year.

Fifteen is a milestone year, and it felt like it. This time I missed opening night, and coming in midstream was a little like learning to canoe in white water, but I fell into the groove quickly.

From its inception, CIFF has been committed to being an event where the local community feels welcome. That feeling remains and the foundation of a loyal local base of sponsors, supporters and film-goers seems to have only grown stronger over time. Daily emails highlighted marquee events and featured films, as well as a category called "Local Flavor"—things to do, explore or eat in the surrounding area, which helped to encourage this alchemy.

As I dove into the weekend, issues of power rose up front and center. On Saturday morning at the Points North Pitch, where six filmmakers pitched their projects to a panel of the doc world elite in front of a packed crowd of 500+ at the Camden Opera House, themes of power ran through all six projects. Questions about power in terms of access, representation and privilege to be the one choosing to tell the story came up in the pitches and dialogue with the panel. But also these questions bubbled up organically in the stories themselves unfolding on the screen and through the filmmakers' narrative.

Roleplay, for instance, follows 11 college students as they create a theater piece exploring the toxic culture of sexual assault on their campus. In her pitch, filmmaker Katie Mathews asked, "What are the implicit ways we perpetuate power inequities and silence our voice?" It's a question that stays with me.

And then there’s filmmaker Nesa Azimi, bringing us into the world of female truck drivers—the challenges they face but also the incredible community they create as they fight for equal representation and protection from rampant sexual assault. Azimi expressed hope that Driver will reflect "a portrait of a life, a community, a whole universe" through the stories the women tell.

Tailings, a Special Jury Award winner, illustrates the rapidly growing role of documentary film in filling gaps in journalism—in this case, media lockdown in Brazil. Brazilian filmmaker Pedro De Filippis tells the story of Minas Gerais, a mining community, where two tailing dams have recently broken and the threat looms of more to come. The film seeks to boldly share the stories of underrepresented voices, offering truth as an antidote to tremendous consolidation of power. At the Pitch, Chris Hastings of PBS World Channel asserted, "This is an under-reported, investigative story the world needs to know about."

Under the leadership of Fowlie, Program Director Sean Flynn and Senior Programmer Samara Chadwick, this intentional thread of power, representative storytelling and access was woven throughout the festival. At the beginning of each panel or film, time was taken to honor the ancestral land of the Wabanaki people that we were on. And a series of conversations in the Points North Forum focused on power: Audiences & Power: How to Watch a Doc; Subjects & Power; Reality & Power: Can Documentary Make Space?; and Story & Relinquishing Power. Through this all, there was a felt awareness of the privilege to be at a film festival on the coast of Maine talking about issues of power in the first place, while so many are living out the realities in a much more visceral way. And with this awareness comes a hopefulness for the way this paradigm shift will continue to transform us as a society and individuals.

The film Midnight Traveler offers a gateway into this future, capturing the unimaginable trek of Afghan director Hassan Fazili and his family when they are forced to flee Afghanistan under threat of the Taliban. Using their cell phones, Fazili and his wife, Fatima Hussaini, document their journey with their two young daughters, through refugee camps, long border crossings in the woods, and nights spent sleeping on the side of the road. The film brings a human face to the refugee crisis from the inside out. Numbers and facts become living and breathing people, fighting to keep everyone warm, fed and safe in the face of unthinkable odds. A scene of their oldest daughter Nargis singing and dancing to Michael Jackson's "They Don’t Care About Us" still haunts my heart. But yet through it all, there is a normalcy to the life that Fazili and Fatima are able to maintain for the children, and in their relationship as partners and lovers and friends. It's a film that shows the incredible resilience of the human spirit to find joy and laughter and love in even the darkest moments of life. 

From Hassan Fazilli's 'Midnight Traveler." Courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

I've always seen the festival as a microcosm of the larger world—condensing and reflecting themes bubbling up in our communities and minds and hearts. As a world we are in a moment of incredible upheaval and darkness on so many fronts, a feeling that was absolutely reflected by the program. But even in the dark times, there is beauty to behold, and I left the festival feeling so hopeful about the transformation that can happen as we learn to see the humanity in each other and hold onto it with all we have.

 

Leah Hurley is an entrepreneur with a focus on communication strategy and social innovation through her agency Craft (crafttomorrow.com) in Portland, Maine. She grew up in Belfast and believes strongly in the power of independent media to effect positive change.

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