Downtown Camden, Maine embodies a dream—derived from collective cultural osmosis—that one might have of northern towns as hubs of autumnal Americana. An atmospherically foggy view of the coast was my backyard for four days. Each morning after several good cups of coffee I made my way from the rear porch of the Hawthorne Inn down a slope dotted with chairs and a fire pit, crossing through a wooded area over to the neighboring amphitheater, where portions of Todd Field’s In the Bedroom were shot. From there, I passed the library (featuring a tribute to Mark Robson’s Peyton Place, which was also shot in Camden) over to the main strip of town, which is rich in 19th-century buildings housing a palm reader, an ice cream parlor, numerous gift shops, and a deli that serves a terrific lobster roll.
There are at least four bookstores within a quarter mile of the Hawthorne Inn. By contrast, the Virginia town where I live doesn’t have any, and I spent most of my scant spare time in Camden at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop Café, which suggests a Hobbit’s nook, as the stairs in the center of the shop wrap around the room, uniting the upper and lower floors in a cavernous pattern that turns the smallness of the place into a cozy, cuddled-up-with-hot-chocolate-on-a-Sunday-morning asset. Craig White, who co-owns the Owl & Turtle with his wife, Maggie, told me that the author Richard Russo lives close by and pops over to sign his books for fans. I felt like Dale Cooper in the first several episodes of the original Twin Peaks: exclamatory and ready to go native.
Of course, a tourist’s vision of a town is a fantasy uncluttered by the day-to-day practicalities of life. Dale’s paradise, after all, was shattered, and his efforts to rebuild it in Twin Peaks: The Return came to a terrifying and ambiguous end. As beautiful as Camden is, many of its residents reminded me that winter was a different story in this part of the country. And it’s obvious—even to a tourist—that this part of the town is geared mainly toward the wealthy, and the number of people of color who I saw in Camden render small-town Virginia diverse by contrast. Camden is a reminder of a truth that haunted the 2016 presidential election: The thriving “small community” of many stifled white Americans’ dreams is an inherently rarefied concept.
These reverberations aren’t incidental to the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF), which specializes in a vast selection of progressive and formally adventurous documentaries, both short and feature-length. Sabaah Folayan’s Whose Streets?, a searing, kaleidoscopic vision of the unrest that followed in Ferguson, Missouri after the unpunished murder of Michael Brown, received a hero’s welcome at the festival. Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest, an extraordinary study of an African-American family in Philadelphia throughout the Obama years, won an award. The legendary documentarian Steve James, in attendance with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, was regarded by filmmakers and filmgoers alike as a rock star, and was also nice about my accidentally butting in front of him and his wife in a screening line. Playing at CIFF were films about global warming, European colonialism, African immigrants and refugees, animal slaughter, alternate forms of energy, and the modern debtors’ imprisonment that empowers the American judicial system.
If you live as a liberal aesthete in Trump Country with people indifferent to art, you often feel like a cultural secret agent. Which is to say that the act of watching impassioned liberal documentaries in a new setting with like-minded people is liable to inspire a newfound sense of gratitude and perhaps a disconcerting new propensity for touchy-feely platitudinous-ness. These good vibrations intensify a sensitivity to the uncomfortable contrast that exists between the lives of the festival-goers and those shown in the films screening in Camden and neighboring Rockport, lacing your intoxication with guilt. This disconnect is an occupational hazard of festivals and art at large, and there’s the lingering question of what’s accomplished when people unite to consider issues about which they largely already agree. Watching Daniel McCabe’s This Is Congo, an operatic character study set against the M23 rebellion, I wondered what an American isolationist might make of the images of children casually watching tank warfare as one might a tennis match.
White guilt was a recurring subject of cocktail conversation during my stay at Camden, as it’s difficult to reconcile the oysters with the strife that’s seen in, say, Dustin Nakao Haider’s Shot in the Dark, which charts the lives of high school basketball players in Chicago, in a manner that somewhat suggests a blend of Quest and Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. Structured as a feel-good sports movie, Shot in the Dark was criticized by certain audience members for failing to question an American society that forces a black teen to stake his hopes for success on sports. This concern isn’t unfounded, but Haider displays a haunting feel for interfamilial texture that underlines the toil such a system has on the impoverished and nearly disenfranchised. The film preaches by not preaching, and has the potential to reach audiences (read: Caucasian sports fanatics) who might not otherwise be receptive to politics.
I rarely consider a film’s accessibility, as I find the internality of cinema to be its greatest quality, and am not especially fascinated by the communal nature of theater-going. But festival socializing temporarily reorients one’s priorities. Participating in a press preview of several virtual-reality exhibits, I wondered if VR might be more effective as a political tool if more than just a privileged few had access to it. During a preview of Greenland Melting, which offers one the illusion of standing on Greenland’s receding icecaps, I imagined the legislative change that might be initiated if this experience could be purchased in malls. The exhibit merges ecological awareness with disaster-film showmanship, cutting through political euphemism to directly show us the ice caps as they recede, signaling a landscape’s death rattle. This impotency is exacerbated by sudden shifts in the frame: Participants stand on ice in one sequence only to find themselves in simulated midair the next, surveying destruction from a vast and chilling distance.
More surprising and poetic in its simplicity was Tree, which allows you to consider life as lived by a tree in the rainforest. In addition to goggles and earphones, variations of which are necessary to every VR exhibit, you wear a heavy backpack and hold a circular remote control in each hand. The backpack almost literally grounds you, giving you a feeling of hearth and rootedness while providing mild heat at the climax. But most of the experience involves you looking down at a forest from the top, waving your arms as if they were branches, regarding birds and other trees until a twist ending brings the exhibit’s political message to the foreground, with a visceral sense of tragedy that can’t be communicated by bullet points and statistics. To borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert, Tree is an empathy machine.
Conceptions of empathy resounded through CIFF as rallying aspirations. One of the festival’s hallmarks is the Points North Pitch, in which documentarians pitch projects to industry honchos from studios and venues such as Sundance and PBS. Assuming this would be a cynical business seminar, I was inclined to skip this presentation for a series of short films, but serendipitous shuttle rides with said honchos changed my mind. I’m glad I came around, as Points North Pitch wrestled with one of the classic ongoing questions of nonfiction filmmaking: What right do filmmakers and audiences have to the people and material to which documentaries offer us free and easy access? Predominantly and unassumingly composed of women, the jury asked such questions of the filmmakers, and the pitches, which are still mostly confidential, suggest thrilling fusions of protest art and personal inquiry.