Opening-night film “El Castillo” is about a woman who’d been the housekeeper for a wealthy family in Argentina and inherits their mansion. Photos courtesy of Camden International Film Festival

“44 North, 70 West becomes the center of the documentary community for the next few days.” — Ben Fowlie, executive and creative director, Points North Institute.

In case you’re not up on your longitude and latitude, that makes Maine’s Midcoast towns of Camden and Rockland the most important locations in the movie world this week. The annual return of the Camden International Film Festival, taking place Thursday through Sunday, has always been a major stop on the nonfiction film festival circuit. But now, as Fowlie makes the airtight case, in its 19th season, it’s ready to take on the world. Or at least bring the entire movie world here to Maine.

“Our festival reputation has grown,” Fowlie said. “Industry people are calling us a key stop on the fall festival tour, and we’re using that as leverage to place a spotlight on the incredible talent throughout the nonfiction filmmaking community, outside the United States and in. At the same time, we want to ensure that filmmakers and audiences have a place to ask, ‘What is nonfiction film, and where is it going?’ ”

Camden International Film Festival is truly one of a kind when it comes to celebrating the limitless possibilities of a genre too often thought of as simple documentation. Said Fowlie, “We at Points North are focused on advancing the artistry of nonfiction film.” Pointing to one of CIFF’s two opening-night films, director Martín Benchimol’s Argentinian film, “El Castillo,” Fowlie extols the way the documentary melds form and content into a whole new cinematic shape.

“It’s about a woman who’d been the housekeeper for a wealthy family who inherits their mansion in Argentina, with the stipulation that she can never part with it. And how, as the giant house deteriorates, it becomes like an anchor. But it’s really about the beautiful relationship between a mother and daughter, and about how Argentina’s history and modernization exist side by side. You’ll go see it and scratch your head, thinking how much of this really happened and didn’t. But that will be secondary to how much you love these women and how you can’t believe you got to spend 80 minutes with them. It’s gorgeously shot and truly cinema at its best.”

Camden International Film Festival is like that. Audiences walk into one of the festival’s three exceptional venues (the Camden Opera House, the Strand Theatre, and Points North’s pop-up waterfront theater, Journey’s End) and come out seeing the world – and the art of documentary – in a completely different way. Excited to share this year’s impressive and dizzyingly eclectic slate of nearly 70 features and shorts with CIFF’s always receptive crowds, Fowlie promises, “Fundamentally, we present documentaries. But we’re always trying to be one step ahead in order to bring audiences and the industry along. In presenting this work, we want to engage, but it’s also about moving the thought process forward and broadening the understanding of the form together.”


“Beyond Utopia” follows a family escaping North Korea.

Looking over CIFF’s ever-impressive 2023 lineup is all about getting pulled into one singularly fascinating world after another. Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia,” another opening-night feature, follows the harrowing journey of one extended family who makes the perilous decision to escape from infamously authoritarian North Korea, a more straightforward nonfiction tale that Fowlie promises is as gripping and moving as any fictional Hollywood thriller. The winner of Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award, the film will be marking only its third U.S. screening at CIFF, with Fowlie noting that, among the festival’s many visiting filmmakers and subjects this year, the post-show guests here will make for a once-in-a-lifetime audience experience. “Not to give anything away, but this will be one of the most emotional experiences people will ever have had at the cinema.”

“In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” chronicles the now 81-year-old music legend’s life and career as he works to complete his latest studio album, “Seven Psalms.”

As always, I set Fowlie the task of plucking out a few personal favorites from CIFF’s carefully curated roster of films. It’s a tough job, especially since, as Fowlie explained, “The number and quality of submissions just gets larger and better every year. It really makes our job harder.” Still, Fowlie is game, first pointing to the sure crowd-pleaser “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” from Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney. At a mighty three-and-a-half hours, the film chronicles the now 81-year-old music legend’s life and career as he works to complete his latest studio album, “Seven Psalms.” Said Fowlie of this U.S premiere, “It’s just super-special, and we’re thrilled that our audiences will be some of the first in the country to see it.”

Delving deeper into the stylistic adventurousness CIFF seeks to foster is Vlad Petrie’s “Between Revolutions,” a cross-cultural conversation between two women who may, or may not, have ever existed. Said Fowlie, “It’s really about the power of the archive. Two fictional characters, one in Tehran and one in Bucharest, both in periods of national turmoil, begin a letter-writing relationship. The filmmaker is scripting a narrative from archives that exist in a certain place and time. What emerges is a poetic desire for hope, fear and joy while being in the midst of a struggle, and this is just one film this year that shows how archives can become time capsules for forgotten, erased, or stolen histories.”

Iconic nonfiction filmmaker Errol Morris’ new film, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” sees the director matching wits with legendary spy novelist (and former spy) John le Carré. As Fowlie notes, “It’s Errol at his finest. At times, you don’t know who is interviewing who, what is real and what is not. It’s just a beautiful dance between these two deeply intellectually curious people.”

“Eastern Front” is one of two films playing in the festival about the war in Ukraine.

The ongoing war in Ukraine perhaps inevitably forms a running theme in this year’s festival, with Karim Amer’s “Defiant” and Vitaly Manskiy’s “Eastern Front” (both in U.S. premieres) providing two very different but equally intense depictions of a country under siege. “‘Defiant’ is about the politics behind building support for Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion and Russia’s disinformation campaign. ‘Eastern Front’ is on the ground and in the trenches, jumping between the helmet cam of co-director Yevhen Titarenko, a civilian volunteer medic and long, beautiful shots of the volunteers and their families swimming, eating and talking about what they imagine for Ukraine after the war.”

And these are just a taste of what promises to be another stunner of a Camden International Film Festival. (I’ll throw in a plug for Mainer Ian Cheney’s ruminative and delightfully eccentric “The Arc of Oblivion,” which I wrote about in July.) As Fowlie puts it of Points North’s ongoing mission (which has seen the organization hand out over $400,000 in funding to filmmakers this year alone), “We give unrestricted grants to filmmakers at various stages in their careers so they can continue to take those creative risks that are a priority of ours going forward. And now we’ve got over 50 filmmakers coming to Maine for the biggest documentary gathering in the United States this year. Having so much talent concentrated in a small community like ours – that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

The Camden International Film Festival takes place from Thursday to Sunday. In addition, the online virtual CIFF will be available from Sept. 18-25, if you’re not up for a lovely trip up the coast to see some amazing movies, for some reason. For tickets, directions and information on this year’s stellar crop of nonfiction films, check out

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