Doc Talk: The Camden International Film Festival — Venue, Venue, Venue
By Peter Keough
This year’s Camden International Film Festival, perhaps New England’s best documentary film festival, examines the importance of location.
If you can’t make it to Toronto for their big festival (September 8-18), the Camden International Film Festival (September 15-17; online September 15-25) might offer a great alternative. About a four-and-a-half-hour Amtrak ride along the Maine coast, Camden and neighbors Rockport and Rockland host what might be New England’s best documentary film festival (paced by Salem and GlobeDocs). You could call it the documentary version of the Toronto International Film Festival if Toronto didn’t already have Hot Docs. This year, the CIFF has programmed 34 feature films, including these three must-sees among the first. Fittingly for a festival that takes place in such a picturesque setting, all three are about the impact people have on the places they are – and vice versa.
If you lived on the northeast coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, you would have experienced one of the worst earthquakes in modern history. The ensuing tsunami killed nearly 20,000 people and thousands more disappeared. Meditative, poetic, often poignant by Jennifer Rainsford All of our heartbeats are connected via exploding stars (screens September 16 at 12:30 p.m. at the Strand Theater with live Q&A; available online September 15-25; visit here) looks at the plight of some of the survivors.
Yasu lost his wife. The wave probably swept her into the sea. Since then, he has taken up scuba diving and obsessively searches the ocean for his remains. “When I stop moving in the middle of a dive, I think of her,” he says. “I feel her close to me.” Satoko, a young woman, suffers from PTSD and survivor’s guilt. She has nightmares, has withdrawn from all her relationships and fears the return of the tsunami. Sachiko, an older woman, lost her husband. She manages to write him letters. “We have been defeated by nature,” she writes. “We can’t hold grudges. There is no one to blame.
As the film’s title suggests, if you’ve lived everywhere in the world during the cataclysm, you too would have been affected in some way. Rainsford’s voice-over narration points out that the power of the earthquake changed the earth’s rotation, shortening the day by 1.8 milliseconds. Years later, as far away as the small Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe, large “ghost nets”, piles of ropes, netting and mostly plastic debris swept into the ocean by the tsunami, washed ashore. Volunteers sort them and clear the beach of debris from 4,000 miles away and ten years ago.
Like the Hawaiian beach sweepers in All our heartbeatsZoe Lucas in Geographies of loneliness (screens Sept. 18 at 12:30 p.m. at Journey’s End with live Q&A; available online Sept. 15-25; tune here) has to deal with detritus drifting thousands of miles away. For 40 years she served as a naturalist on Sable Island—a strip of land (twenty-seven miles long by less than a mile wide) in the middle of the North Atlantic about 100 miles south- Eastern Nova Scotia — where, among other duties, she collects and inventories shipwrecks and jetsams washed ashore.
These items include thousands of plastic bottles, heaps of rope and netting fragments, and a large, colorful collection of “nurdles”, the pre-made, pea-sized plastic pellets which, along with other plastic products plastic, break down into microscopic pieces that are swallowed by animals. , often killing them. Then there are the bags of ribbons and balloons that have arrived from as far away as Indiana (she responds to senders if the address is available, politely explaining why sending helium balloons is bad for the environment).
Contrary to Sachiko’s observation in Rainsford’s film, there is blame to be shared for the island’s trashing, but neither Lucas nor Mills are actually lecturing (although a lecture that Lucas gave to school children a few years ago is intermittently extracted and is quite entertaining). Instead, the two record and catalog the Dark Isle’s surprisingly rich and photogenic resources, which include a herd of wild horses, descendants of those abandoned on the island long ago that have since developed into their own. distinct breed, hardy and shaggy. Thousands of mournful gray seals also make their home there as they moan, collapse and give birth in disarray on the beach. There are songbirds and seabirds, and Lucas discovers a surprising number of insects, some of which are species unique to the island. Collected over four decades, Lucas’ specimens and observations constitute an impressive cabinet of curiosities and a sprawling logbook compiled in meticulous spreadsheets.
All of this immersive material is shot on lush 16mm film that is sometimes subjected to unconventional exposure and development processes using natural materials found on the island. The resulting stunning images range from the macrocosmic (the arch-shaped ruins of an ancient A-Frame topped by a fountain of stars) to the mundane (ethereal, avant-garde footage such as the one titled “Horse Hair, Bones and Sand Exposed in Starlight and Developed in Seaweed”) It’s a bit like the diaries of Henry David Thoreau illustrated by Stan Brakhage.
Lucas had no intention of staying on the island when she started working as a cook for a team of naturalists in 1971, a position that quickly expanded her responsibilities and duties. Now she looks back on a life of solitude spent recounting the births, deaths, lives, saddles and posthumous contribution to the ecosystem of horses, seals, gulls and other creatures in her slender kingdom. Does she regret this career of isolation and her devotion to the study of this sublime microcosm? “It seems like my life is Sable Island,” she says. “That’s all I have. That’s all I do. I should have quit a long time ago. But I just wasn’t paying attention to what was going on. Because it’s super interesting, rewarding, engaging and fulfilling to be here, but I lost track of everything else.
Or maybe it’s everyone losing sight of what’s important and Lucas paying attention to what’s really important.
After a close friend took her own life, Lily Frances Henderson wondered what she might have overlooked in her friend’s behavior or attitude that could have warned her of her friend’s intentions. In his movie What we know (screens Sept. 16 at 2:45 p.m. with a live Q&A at Journey’s End; available online Sept. 15-25; go here) Henderson uncovers a teenage boy, Levi Presley, who committed suicide at Las Vegas around the same time as her friend. He was popular, accomplished, appreciated and happy. Neither his parents nor his friends had a clue he was suicidal until, as Henderson recounts in a chillingly fast-paced montage recounting his final deeds, he took the elevator to the terrace of sighting of the Strat Hotel (formerly Stratosphere), the tallest casino in Las Vegas, scaled two security fences and jumped.
To try to understand what happened to Presley, and indirectly to her friend, Henderson applies the quasi-scientific journalistic model of the six questions – who, what, where, why and how. The why, as usual, is the only one that really matters and it’s a puzzle. But the location, she thinks, could offer some insight. Las Vegas has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and at that time – 2002 – it was at its peak. This could in part be due to the city’s general notoriety for sleazy hedonism, deceptive materialism, and hopeless gambling. “Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of the American colonies, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1967 essay “Marrying Absurd”. But Henderson suspects something more than that is going on here. She learns that the same day Presley killed himself, the U.S. Congress had approved a proposal to bury all of the country’s nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain, located just outside the city and a sacred site for indigenous peoples. .
The floating evil of this plan – a project that was repeatedly delayed and ultimately cancelled, leaving the accumulated tons of deadly waste without a permanent resting place – would have contributed in an indirect and unconscious way to Presley’s self-destruction. ? Is the tendency to ignore painful truths such as the existence of hidden poisons with a half-life of millions of years and the ability to kill everyone in the world many times over the same that blinds us to the suffering of others? Henderson’s film doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it does provide a guide to how we can seek out the truth and how to avoid it.
Pierre Keough writes on film and other subjects and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the editor of the film boston phoenix from 1989 until his death in 2013 and edited three books on cinema, most recently For children of all ages: The National Society of Children’s Film Critics (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).