The Camden International Film Festival will show movies at this newly-built drive-in theater in Rockport. Anna Finocchiaro photo

In 2020, we look for silver linings where we can find them. For Camden International Film Festival founder Ben Fowlie, having to change the entire structure of a Maine film institution in a few short months makes for a particularly challenging treasure hunt. Still, he and his intrepid team managed, with the 16th annual Camden International Film Festival defiantly taking place, starting Thursday.

“We knew at the end of March,” said Fowlie, allowing that, at least such a quick decision to overhaul this year’s 16th annual showcase of all films nonfictional gave him and the CIFF board time to hit the ground running. After all, the two-week festival traditionally gathers not just the most prestigious documentary fare, but attracts filmmakers and crowds to the Camden area each year. CIFF’s become a must-attend destination on the festival circuit – a circuit that, thanks to COVID-19, nobody can actually attend in person. 

Well, almost nobody. As part of the run-up to this year’s Camden International, Fowlie and his band of ingenious volunteers and staff at festival organizers The Points North Institute decided what Mainers really needed was some big screen, communal movie experience. With all rational experts (and film columnists) urging everyone to take the year off from enclosed spaces, however, CIFF decided to take matters into their own, endlessly creative hands. 

So they built a drive-in. 

This year’s CIFF will – in addition to a typically robust lineup of nonfiction films available to stream online – take place partly at the newly born Shotwell Drive-In Theater in Rockport. Calling CIFF 2020 a “hybrid festival,” Fowlie and his industrious colleagues have gone the extra mile to preserve some silver screen magic. Not that building a working, “semi-permanent” drive-in theater from scratch was anything but a dream come true for Fowlie. “It’s given me everything I needed to keep going,” Fowlie said of the months-long project, and noting that having a no-joke NASA engineer volunteering with the construction didn’t hurt in transforming a disused former elementary school site to the venue where Points North has been showing outdoor movies since mid-July. 

But one screen, no matter how huge, can’t contain the annual bounty that is Camden’s roster. And while Fowlie concedes that this year’s pared-down lineup is about a third smaller than usual, he’s equally pumped up about how CIFF has taken to the challenge of a mostly virtual film fest with a creative zeal born of necessity. 

“Having to change the format doesn’t mean changing the work you’re presenting,” stressed Fowlie. “If anything, this year has made us double down on championing more innovative and lesser known films and filmmakers. Everything we’ve done is aligning with our core values. Honestly, programming the festival has felt no different.”

What is different is, well, a lot. In addition to the drive-in (which is showing six features and selected prefilm shorts over the festival’s two-week run), CIFF has built what Fowlie terms “ground control for the festival,” in a state-of-the-art studio where organizers will present online attendees with livestream or recorded talks with every one of the 40 or so filmmakers represented in this year’s festival. In addition, viewers can access other virtual elements like CIFF’s pitch sessions, where in-progress documentarians are paired up with industry professionals to develop and promote their films. And then there’s the money. 

“We’re able to give away over $100,000 this year,” said a proud Fowlie of Points North’s year-round filmmaker grants programs. Citing lowered production costs thanks to the fact that accommodations, venues and the like aren’t part of this year’s budget, Fowlie cites the increased financial support as just one more of those silver linings we were talking about. “We’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Fowlie said of reaching that level of giving and credits colleague Sean Flynn with “and incredible job transitioning artists’ programs” in this year of unprecedented adjustments. “We haven’t skipped a beat,” he said. In addition, CIFF’s Filmmaker Solidarity Fund means that, this year, half the (quite reasonable) price of each festival pass and ticket goes directly back to the filmmakers themselves. “We’re all in this together,” said Fowlie.

Of course, most of us are just here for the movies, and this year’s CIFF – pandemic or no – provides its traditionally head-swimming variety of subject and style when it comes to the art of documentary film. Fowlie says the Saturday, Oct. 10, screening of filmmaker (and Bill of “Bill and Ted Face the Music”) Alex Winter’s musical documentary “Zappa” is a perfect fit for the Shotwell Drive-In. Calling the film “a portrait of a true creative,” Fowlie said both Zappa fans and others should thrill to Winter’s “loud, colorful” examination of rock’s late, great musical contrarian. 

As ever, getting a festival organizer to pluck out just a few favorites from their lovingly curated slate is a tough ask, but Fowlie is especially enthusiastic about films like the wordless barnyard documentary “Gunda,” a stylistic tour de force about a mother pig and her piglets from director Victor Kossakovsky, where Fowlie says, “the final shot is a film in and of itself.” Then there’s the festival-long celebration of the vital and thought-provoking work of Dutch-Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel, four films documenting the plight of people abiding in Palestinian refugee camps. And Fowlie praises the groundbreaking, first-out-of-the-gate documentary about the coronavirus crisis, “76 Days.” Says Fowlie of the U.S. premiere of that already-acclaimed film, “It’s a historical document we’ll be referencing back to for many years to come. 

Like his experience with the drive-in, Fowlie cites director Garret Bradley’s festival-opening film “Time” as one of those special things that helped him keep going through this long and troubled year. A real-life love story about a wife’s attempt to secure the prison release of her husband, Fowlie says, “getting to know a filmmaker still early on in her creative process make something so profound and as masterful as this” was all the inspiration he needed to help make this year’s most unusual Camden International Film Festival happen. 

“Seeing an artist really understanding her own voice in the form, doing exactly what she wanted to do, and seeing it resonate so strongly with audiences – it’s just incredible. ‘Time’ is the film I just kept referring back to as a statement film over and over again, telling everyone, this is why the show has to go on, people.” 

The Camden International Film Festival is, indeed, going on, Thursday through Oct. 12. For festival passes, or tickets to individual films, plus a handy rundown of all of the films in this year’s festival, head to the CIFF website. And if you’re itching to get out of the house for some outdoor, socially distanced movie fun in the crisp Maine fall air, the Shotwell Drive-In is calling your name.

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

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