The Camden International Film Festival is a small-town festival with big ambition. Now in its eighth year, the festival boasts a slate of more than 70 documentary films (it’s a documentary-only festival), an industry forum (Points North) and fans that aren’t just local. POV even named Camden one of America’s best small-town documentary festivals earlier this year.
The 2012 edition opens with Betting The Farm, a vérité film about organic dairy farmers in Maine, and closes with Chasing Ice, a climate-change documentary that won the Excellence in Cinematography award at Sundance earlier this year. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (Girl Model, POV 2013) return to the festival with Downeast, a documentary about a businessman attempting to resuscitate a lobster-processing plant.
As this year’s festival gets underway, we talked with founder Ben Fowlie and Points North Forum director Sean Flynn about how the festival came to be and their philosophies on running a community-based festival with broad appeal. The Q&A below was edited down from a longer conversation.
POV: How did the idea come to you to start a film festival, specifically for documentaries, in Camden, Maine (pop. 5,250)?
Ben Fowlie: That’s kind of the question of the day. I’m from Camden, actually. I was born and raised here, went to high school here and then went off the college to study film and journalism, and ended up in the music scene in Boston for many years. When I was around 23, I got tired of the touring biz and decided that this area would be right for a cultural event like a film festival. There weren’t many in Maine, and Camden is one of those removed communities that is desirable for people to go to anyway.
I think at the time it seemed like there was a kind of resurgence to appreciating the documentary form, especially by younger people. There are activists-turned-filmmakers or people who are just trying to experiment with nonfiction storytelling.
POV: Given that Camden is a fairly remote town, how do you go about attracting an audience to watch nothing but documentaries?
Ben Fowlie: There was no film festival here before. There were a few independent artists here that would screen documentaries, but there was no organization that said “we are documentary only.” Most of the time when you go to screenings they are very well attended and our core local audience is about as engaged as you can get.
There’s this energy that happens. It’s kind of vibrant, with community members interacting with each other in a different way, striking up conversations with people you might not know from out of town. And then of course you’ve got 50 to 60 filmmakers coming together that are engaged with each other on a much higher level just because it’s a small community. They’re seeing each other day after day, as opposed to maybe one event here and there three or four days later at another event, like in an urban environment where there’s just so much more distraction. That’s the focal point that we’re trying to pitch.
Because people understand that film festivals are hard and documentary film festivals are probably even harder so in the sense to engage an audience I would imagine that anyone working in documentary would be appreciative of a bunch of people trying to support the work of artists.
Sean Flynn: Cultivating an audience that opens their minds to documentary storytelling and filmmaking and building community around that, it paves the way for other filmmakers to come through, screen their work here. It would be great to see that happening in as many small regional communities across the country as possible. I think small festivals like Camden are a great way to start that because it is a long-term process. Even now, in 2012, we still have to demystify or dispel some negative stereotypes that people might have about documentary film to show them the kind of incredible renaissance that’s happened in the form in the last few years or so. It’s an important role for regional festivals.
Ben Fowlie: It’s a festival, so no matter what, we’re focusing on documentaries, but we want it to feel like a festive event and that means just having everything buttoned up so the community is as excited as we are. It’s really about the energy because that’s what people remember.
To me it’s all about who you can bring into this community and how you can engage and interact with an audience. That’s been something I’ve been committed to since Day One and that’s probably one of the reasons we’re respected in that capacity.
POV: What have you learned about running a local documentary festival since that first festival, back in 2005?
Ben Fowlie: The first year we probably bit off more than we could chew. We had a lot of venues going on, but it was really, really exciting. We were all pretty young, all involved in the production aspect, but had no formal training in event production. We did not have any connections to the film industry.
We lucked out in the sense of being able to start with a bang and I think in a lot of ways that helped us with our programming later on in the second, third and fourth year. We were flying in filmmakers from all over with a pretty modest budget. I think the second, third and fourth year were the years we needed to figure out how to keep the organization going in the sense that okay, you had one good year, but how do you actually build a sustainable operation?
We scaled down quite a bit in 2006, 2007 and 2008. We mostly focused on screening enough films that we had the budget to bring the filmmakers in. We’ve been really committed to that since we started — we’ll screen as many films as our budget allows to bring those filmmakers in.
I can remember sitting at a table at Hot Docs with some of the most amazing programmers in the world and they were all very curious about what we were doing up in Maine. That was an eye-opening experience for me to realize that there’s this small little festival in this small little town and there’s an appreciation for our commitment to screening work that is somewhat challenging, work that is a little harder to program in the sense that we’re not just taking low-lying fruit. We actually have a program that speaks to a large audience.
POV: Do you have any tips for anyone interested in starting a documentary festival?
Ben Fowlie: I think it’s a lot like when you’re starting a film: You’ve got to know your audience. It’s important to know your community you’re working in. Make sure there’s support there because it’s going to be really challenging, and these organizations are not easy to grow and certainly not easy to sustain. Would the festival be as big if it were outside of Camden? I don’t know. I know that we have one of the most supportive donor bases out there. We rely heavily on support from the community and they support us.
If anyone is interested in getting involved in making a film festival it’s also important to make sure you have the commitment to support the artists.
It’s important when you’re screening other people’s work to have an understanding that the artist should be present, so that’s another thing.
The final thing is a commitment to engaging with the documentary community itself. A lot of my job involves traveling. It’s a lifestyle. Like filmmakers, it’s not an easy lifestyle, so I think to really be successful you have to commit your entire life to being engaged with the community and being a spokesperson for whatever you’re trying to push.
The Camden International Film Festival begins Thursday, September 27, 2012 and runs through Sunday, September 30. For information about the festival, visit camdenfilmfest.org, and for the Points North Forum, visit camdenfilmfest.org/pointsnorth.