A Conversation With Ben Fowlie (CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL)

In just a few days, the ’09 Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) will stage its fifth iteration on the coast of Maine from October 1st-4th. Devoted exclusively to nonfiction cinema and tucked into a fairly remote corner of the country, CIFF is nonetheless quickly becoming a festival destination for the documentarati. This year’s program will be chock-full of the international shining lights of nonfiction cinema these days. Of course, the festival’s other key imperative is to highlight regional Maine filmmakers, as well. The entire schedule is up on the site; you can take a look here.

Between crazed trips from Boston to Maine in preparation for not only the fest, but the event’s inaugural documentary film forum called Points North, which is bringing over 40 industry guests to the tiny coastal town of Rockport, CIFF founder and director, Ben Fowlie, spared a few moments to talk to me about his passion project; why now, more than ever, we should be paying attention to our smaller, regional festivals; and how the local Maine audiences have helped him become a better programmer.

H2N: Please give us a mini-bio of basic stats—where you were born, happy/tragic childhood experiences, where you went to school, when you first fell in love with movies enough to devote your life to them?

Ben Fowlie: I grew up on the coast of Maine, born and raised in Camden. I spent most of my childhood running around the same small town. One of my first experiences with film was when crews from Man Without a Face (1993) and Thinner (1996) came to town to shoot. I was about fifteen years old and spent countless hours sitting and watching the production crews close roads, flip cars and illuminate the night with giant lights strapped to cranes. Seeing the other side of the process of filmmaking intrigued me so much. However, it wasn’t the actors that I was interested in connecting with so much, but the gaffers and the best boys walking around with wires and electronics. It made me realize film is where I wanted to be.

I spent so much time on set with these productions, the crews eventually took me in and I began traveling state-wide, staying up all night eating dinner with all the PAs. I was totally mesmerized by the whole process. Even though one of the films turned out to be a major disappointment, it didn’t matter; it was the excitement that these crews brought to my sleepy little town that got me hooked. It wasn’t really until my years at Emerson College that I realized documentary was what I wanted to pursue. Most everyone I knew decided to head out to LA and intern for major production companies, but I decided to stay back east and start working on little shorts that focused on unique characters around the Maine area. I was one of the few that stuck strictly to documentary in all my classes. I documented the rise of a record company I helped organize in Boston called Radar Recordings, and did some live visual stuff and tour documentation for my old band Constants.

H2N: Why start a local film festival devoted exclusively to nonfiction? Tell me about the genesis of that idea and what made you decide to make the leap and actually stage an annual event?

BF: This is the question that I get asked the most: why all nonfiction? My answer time after time is, why not?

The idea came out of the desire to meet and connect with the industry, a sort of an out-of-the-box approach for film school graduates. The one rule that seems to get instilled in everyone interested in working in film is that making connections is of utmost importance, more important, really, than anything. I always envisioned Camden as the ideal place where I could celebrate and support filmmakers working in an, oftentimes, overlooked medium, simultaneously allowing me to make personal connections and friendships that I could use for my own creative journey and future projects.

The idea actually came like a lightning strike when I was a junior in college after I volunteered at the Nantucket Film Festival. I walked away thinking, “Man, Camden needs one of these.” Midcoast Maine has always been a haven for tourists and has a rich history of supporting the arts. A number of renowned filmmakers spend their summers in the area. At that point I was 22, living in a van for the most part with my band, touring constantly. Two weeks before another three-month tour, I decided that if CIFF were ever going to happen, I’d have to sacrifice one love for another. So I missed a tour supporting the Appleseed Cast (one of my all time favorite bands) to move back to Maine to try and find a way to raise enough money to make this event happen.

Meeting Leah Hurley, CIFF’s producer, at a bar the next town over was what really helped me take the plunge. She provided what I was lacking, and helped with the business side of things, organizing a course through the University of Maine’s New Media Department that is still going strong five years later, and really one of the major reasons why we are still here today. Support from a number of local businesses and individuals gave us the courage to start booking flights for filmmakers and renting out venues. Education is a cornerstone of this festival and I’m really proud of the course that we’ve created through UMaine. Students have the opportunity to connect with leading filmmakers and we can provide an ancillary event for that.

H2N: What was the first CIFF experience like? What was it about it that made you decide to keep going? What surprised you about the reaction local Maine audiences had to the films you brought?

BF: The first CIFF experience was wild. I was 23 and had just finished four years of serious touring. To see the whole event fall into place was pretty surreal. I remember spending hours on the phone working on choreographing David Redmon’s travel plans after a delayed flight, in the hopes we could get him up in time for his screening of Mardi Gras: Made in China. Since day one, creating unique and original programming has been my main goal and we had quite a wonderful crew of filmmakers in attendance. The connections and relationships that were forged that weekend cemented in my mind that there had to be a year two. We brought in a representative from nearly every film and had a Q&A with Albert Maysles on opening night. If we had decided to forgo being so proactive on getting filmmakers to attend, I think it would have been a different situation, and who knows where we would be today. Visiting filmmakers is what gives festivals feeling, and without them the energy of the weekend would have suffered. I don’t see the point in putting so much time and energy into an event just to screen a film. To me, it’s all about the interaction with the artists.

H2N: How do films usually get on your radar? Happy accident? Recommendations?

BF: It’s a combination really. I spend a lot of time researching and keeping on top of things as best I can. The majority of our submissions now come from contacts from other filmmakers who’ve attended CIFF in the past, whether it’s a new film of theirs or someone they know. We’ve also been getting lots of recommendations from other programmers, but mostly it’s just lots of tireless hours and an obsession with finding new voices in the documentary world. Winters are long here in the northeast and it’s a great opportunity to organize a program that speaks to you, and hopefully your audience.

There are a few other programmers that I deeply respect and am just now getting to the point of being able to reach out to about certain films that might work at our festival. I take it as a great compliment each time someone recommends a film to our festival. It means we are doing something right and it means that our reputation as a festival for filmmakers is getting out there into the community.

H2N: One of the main tenets of the ethos of your festival is that nonfiction cinema is an art form—that docs should entertain and enlighten, as well as educate and inform. Can you recall the first documentary you watched where you felt like you forgot you were “watching a documentary”? What was it about that film that made it a transcendent movie-going experience, where you realized that there was something you wanted to pay attention to going forward in your career?

BF: One of these experiences was watching American Movie (1999) as a senior in high school. That film threw my perceptions of what a documentary is out the window and solidified in my mind that reality can really be much stranger than fiction. I also remember re-renting Koyaanisqatsi (1982) week after week from the local video store. I fell in love with this film because it was the best marriage of visuals and music I’d ever seen. It was one of those films that I really didn’t even realize was considered a documentary until years later. It also got me into [composer] Philip Glass at an early age, and for that I am forever indebted! I was also always very interested in watching any film I could about Vietnam. One day, a teacher came up to me and told me to watch Hearts and Minds (1974). It’s been difficult to watch a fictional film on that war ever since.

H2N: What, to you, is the most important thing about film festivals in the current landscape? Do you see the role of festivals changing beyond an exhibition opportunity, and, if so, how?

BF: I think film festivals do play several crucial roles for filmmakers outside of exhibition. One of the most important things is the connections that can be made with other artists, as well as with general audiences.

What a festival does best is identify and uncover films that deserve to be seen and demand attention. It’s like a stamp of approval. With so many new forms of distribution out there, especially online, festivals act as a launching pad, providing content to these rapidly growing outlets. This is just one part of what I think festivals can be in the current landscape. It seems all filmmakers need to understand self-distribution and how to get a film out on their own these days. Festivals help generate buzz and press and that can allow filmmakers an opportunity to build on that and create their own screenings outside of the festival circuit.

H2N: Do you miss producing and directing your own stuff?

BF: I’d love to start concentrating on some of my own work again soon. Creative output is so important, but I’ve also come to the understanding that when the timing is right to do that, I’ll know. I don’t like the idea of forcing a story just to make a film. I want to stumble upon something that compels me, that needs to be made, a story that needs to be told. There was a story unfolding this year on an island off the coast of Maine called Matincus that would have made for an amazing film. Unfortunately, it all started happening in July, right about when things start getting crazy with CIFF. To make a film, you need to be ready to give up everything to make it work, so until our festival is at the point where it can sustain itself without my commitment of support, my aspirations to make a documentary will have to wait. There is something exciting about the thought of having a film of yours on the festival circuit. That’s the way I approach a lot of this, and I think why we have such a good reputation with filmmakers. If I had a film out on the circuit, there would be certain things I would expect or want from a fest. We try and accommodate these things.

H2N: What’s your opinion on premiere status for fests? It’s a sensitive topic but one which doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. You have a juried festival. What are the advantages, or disadvantages, of trying to award the “best of the best”? Do you feel a sense of competition from other domestic fests to do that?

BF: I’m not really sure what to make of the premiere status conversation. As a festival that is still growing and coming into its own, it’s an important thing to discuss and think about, obviously. I do understand a filmmaker’s desire to premiere at a larger festival, but I also find it strange when filmmakers are unwilling to let their film exhibit unless it’s a premiere at a major festival. It seems very counteractive to put all this work into something and then be overly selective on where it gets play. I think the best festival strategy filmmakers can have is to be constantly thinking about their roll out plans and target audiences throughout production. Best case scenarios don’t always pan out and when it comes down to it, you should be aligning yourself with festivals that can offer you something, or provide support, beyond screenings. As an emerging artist, you are doing yourself a favor by working with these festivals.

The whole award and jury thing is relatively new to us, especially the cash component. In a lot of ways, we use this as a way to ensure that filmmakers will attend our festival. Despite covering travel and accommodations, it can still be difficult to get the amount of industry guests we would like to have here. That’s changing now, but the awards have, indeed, been one of the major reasons why filmmakers want to attend. I try to not pay too much attention to it because I don’t want it to take away from the real reason why our festival is different than most. Every film we screen we love; we want to make sure that each and every screening feels like a world premiere. I think the whole endeavor is greater than the individual victory.

H2N: Personally, what do you hope to accomplish with the festival in the next five years? What would your dream festival experience look and feel like?

BF: I’d like to see Camden continue to grow and become an annual destination for the industry to congregate and discuss the form, where the industry is headed, how we all as lovers of nonfiction can work together to expose documentary film to the widest possible audience. I want Camden to be a think-tank for nonfiction film. That kind of event works well in Maine because two weeks after CIFF comes PopTech, the annual conference on ideas where they bring in the world’s top thinkers and artists. I’m always amazed at the caliber of speakers that attend. Maine is a relaxed environment and is a wonderful place where the exchange of ideas can flourish between people from all over the world. It must be something in the air or the water, or maybe the color of the leaves, but I’d love to see CIFF make its mark as an event that connects emerging and established documentary filmmakers in an intimate environment, where for four days each year, we get to talk docs. I also like the idea of doing more year-round events like providing artists live/work space to finish projects. Ideally, I want us to become a sort of institute and center for documentary creation and consumption north of DC or NYC. There’s a major hole there and it’s one I think we can fill. We have the destination and our programs are attracting more and more attention each year from the industry, so I think it’s just a matter of time before all that is possible.

The key to our growth, I believe, will be Points North, the documentary forum that Leah and I have been working on all year, along with several of our board members, including Louise Rosen, sales agent extraordinaire! This year, we’ll be hosting a half- day forum consisting of two sections. The first will be called A New World: Nonfiction Film Funding, Trends, and Players, with a round table of industry veterans and funders presenting current funding processes and trends. This will be followed by The Survivor’s Guide, which will consist of a panel of filmmakers discussing “sustainable” filmmaking, DIY distribution and tips on how to make a living as a filmmaker in this “unique” economic climate. Panelists will include top doc filmmakers drawn from this year’s festival, as well as some CIFF alums. Guests, to date, include Patricia Finneran from the Sundance Institute, Ryan Harrington from the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, Jalyn Henton from PBS, and Sara Archambault from the LEF Foundation. This is a component that we’ve been trying to incorporate almost from the beginning and we’re really excited to be able to facilitate having these accomplished industry leaders meet the New England filmmaking community. POINTS NORTH will not only help us attract more industry attention, it will also help us reach our goal of putting Midcoast Maine on the map as a documentary hub!

H2N: Any last thoughts, philosophies, etc. you’d like to share?

BF: Scott Hamilton Kennedy [director of The Garden] said it best last year: “Story, story, story! Change the world; get important messages out there; but please make it entertaining.”

— Pamela Cohn

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