How a Small Maine Town Turned Into a Mecca for Awards-Seeking Documentary Filmmakers

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Immediately following premieres of their latest documentaries at major awards-circuit festivals, veteran filmmakers Liz Garbus, Robert Greene and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi headed to a small, remote village on the coast of Maine – two hours from a major airport.

The trio made the trek so they could attend the 17th edition of the Camden Intl. Film Festival. Each brought with them their Oscar-contending docus — “Becoming Cousteau,” “Procession” and “The Rescue,” respectively.

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Fresh off showings at Telluride and the Toronto film fests, Garbus’ ‘Becoming Cousteau” kicked off CIFF, which was held in-person Sept. 16-19 and continues online until Sept. 26. During its first weekend, a who’s who of the docu community — including Oscar winner Alex Gibney, Cinetic Media founder and principal John Sloss, former Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam, NBC News Studios’ head of documentary Molly O’Brien and POV executive director Erika Dilday — could be seen at various festival venues in the Penobscot Bay towns of Camden, Rockport and Rockland.

Kathryn Everett, XTR head of film, served as a panelist on CIFF’s Points North Fellowship pitch session, where six teams of filmmakers selected for the program pitch their works-in-progress to funders, producers and distributors. It’s one of many fellowship programs tied to the festival every year.

“Every platform and streamer is here,” says Everett. “Big business is happening here.”

Two types of business happen at Camden: securing funds and/or distribution and Oscar campaigning.

“Because Camden is such a beautiful location there are tons of AMPAS members here and there is a huge documentary branch access,” explains Everett. “So filmmakers get face time with people who could be big advocates of their film.”

In addition to “Becoming Cousteau” and “The Rescue,” National Geographic Documentary Films, which is a CIFF sponsor alongside Showtime Documentaries, also brought Max Lowe’s “Torn” to CIFF. About legendary climber Alex Lowe, who died via avalanche, “Torn” premiered earlier this month at Telluride.

Kinema head of film Ryan Harrington executive produced all three Nat Geo projects. Like Everett, he has noticed “more and more AMPAS members”” in attendance at the fest. But he notes that “this festival is really an opportunity to celebrate filmmakers in an idyllic, accessible setting in front of a film loving community.”

While there is an element of kumbaya at CIFF, there is also a desire among filmmakers to stand out.

“There’s a glut of films, frankly,” says Greene. “So Camden’s a great place to spotlight some of the best documentaries out there right now.”

Camden marks Greene’s second festival screening of “Procession,” which garnered Oscar buzz after premiering earlier this month at Telluride. About six survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests, “Procession” was acquired by Netflix less than a week ago.

“Our (AMPAS) documentary branch is really filmmaker driven, and here, in Camden, filmmakers come to the screenings and I think that that matters,” Greene says. “Obviously, we want local audiences to see our film and have bigger conversations, but it’s exciting that last night we had a packed theater (for “Procession”), full of some of my favorite producers and directors. That meant a lot and I think that’s who gets excited about it and you need those folks to get excited.”

Ben Fowlie, executive and artistic director of the Points North Institute and founder of CIFF, says that he wasn’t being strategic when he chose to hold the fest at the launch of award season.

“At one point the festival was later in October,” says Fowlie. “The move to mid-September was really to help the local economy bridge a season between Labor Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Later we discovered that it’s a really great time because we are happening during the second weekend of TIFF and you have a lot of U.S. premieres landing. So we’ve stuck with that mid-September date and really tried to be a counterbalance to the TIFF experience.”

This year, more than 60 filmmakers and Points North fellows were in attendance at CIFF. While Fowlie says that this year’s program is two-thirds the size of what it would normally be, to date CIFF 2021 is one of the largest in-person documentary gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

In addition to National Geographic docs, CIFF 2021 also included screenings of CNN Films and HBO Max’s “Citizen Ashe,” which Gibney produced, as well as Showtime’s “The Real Charlie Chaplin” and Neon’s “Flee.” Each film premiered at Telluride.

But Fowlie is quick to point out that CIFF is not solely a festival that spotlights filmmakers seeking Oscar glory.

Says he: “We have defined ourselves as an organization that not only is trying to develop a pipeline to a major premiere space for the fall early Oscar contenders, but also a place that supports up and coming filmmakers and international artists.”

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