It’s hard to beat a sunny September afternoon like this: You take a back road past trees whose leaves are showing the first colors of fall. You drive by a lake, and then another, and then another. You arrive at a classic Maine village of white-clapboard houses and white-sailed boats.
A classic Maine village that happens to be hosting a pretty major documentary film festival.
The Camden International Film Festival, now in its 12th year, has become a cool stop on the documentary film circuit (and not just because of its antlers-meets-hip-graphic-design logo).
Last weekend, the festival screened about 80 features and shorts, from the latest by Morgan Spurlock (“Rats”) to the topical “National Bird,” about drone warfare. It hosted workshops, forums, panel discussions, a conversation with “O.J.: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman (read a great interview on Storyboard here) and even a reality-show-like documentary “pitch” contest.
But what really drew me in were these words by the organizers, the locally based Points North Institute: “It all starts during these four days in Maine, when summer turns into fall and people from all over come together around a shared love for storytelling.”
Sounded like a Storyboard kind of place. I decided to attend one of the workshops, and then watch two of the movies through the prism of that discussion.
I chose “The Poetics of Documentary,” a class with the film editor Joe Bini, who’s known for his collaborations over the past 20 years with Werner Herzog, including the much-praised “Grizzly Man.”
Bini talked about the something that holds for documentary film and narrative journalism alike: “You’re looking for real moments.” But what fascinated me was his preference for looking for beauty and meaning in images over words. He called it his most heartfelt feeling: “Nobody cares what people say in films.”
He says he watches a lot of films with the sound turned off. As an example, he showed a few minutes of one of his earlier collaborations with Herzog, filmed in German, without subtitles. You were forced to focus on the story that the images told you, not the words. You saw pain, and gratitude, and the shy joy of a girl being filmed, probably for the first time.
This seeming antipathy for words might seem odd in a man who also writes fiction. But he says, “I’m not anti-words. I’m anti-words-that-explain-things-to-me.” In fact, he’s proud of some of the poetic language he and Herzog have used in the films: “It reaches for more than explaining shit.” (OK, that may not be poetic, but certainly there is poetry in the rhythm and spareness of Herzog’s voiceovers.)
Then it was time to watch the movies with Bini’s words still fresh. Although the festival featured many hard-edged documentaries that riff off the news, like “Newtown” and “Do Not Resist,” I decided to pick two films that seemed to promise the “poetics” that Bini talked about. It didn’t hurt that they were very personal and had strong narrative arcs, a favorite kind of nonfiction storytelling.
The first, “Brothers,” by Norwegian filmmaker Aslaug Holm, has been called the documentary version of “Boyhood” — and even features a similar scene of a boy lying in a field and looking at the sky, which must have been filmed around the same time, thousands of miles apart.
Over eight years, she filmed her two sons, Markus and Lukas, from childhood to their teen years. Along the way, she married beautiful images and poetic thoughts in a breathtaking way.
Consider the opening scene, of the two boys getting up the nerve to jump into what looks like icy, icy cold water. Markus, the older, braver one, makes the leap into he unknown. But Lukas stands there on the edge, shivering, the doubt flickering across him like a little storm.
He stands there for what seems like an eternity. But he just can’t do it. Not this year.
“If you’re not afraid, you can’t be courageous,” he says in voiceover, like a philosopher trapped in the body of a 5-year-old boy. “You don’t do stuff you don’t dare to at first. And then one day you do.”
Throughout the film, the boys and their mom surprised me with their poetic, existential thoughts.
“Everything was ahead of us, all of our adventures.”
“At some point I realized we were losing sight of what was important. But maybe it’s not too late to get it back again.”
“You can’t stop life and rewind. But sometimes you wish you could.”
And then there are the images that will stay with me: the boys out in a rowboat, just the two of them, their golden skin glowing in the sun. Bedsheets flapping on a clothesline, and then the same sheets flapping behind the boys like the capes of superheroes. The older brother staring at the mirror, combing and re-combing his hair with his fingers, a portrait of teenage insecurity.
The next film, “Peter and the Farm,” was a more difficult one on a couple of levels. For one, filmmaker Tony Stone’s style was jarring at first after the fluid beauty of “Brothers.” He was fond of going in and out of focus, which was disorienting; but then I realized it must have been his intention, because the Peter of the title goes in and out of focus himself.
The film tells the story of Peter Dunning, a Vermont organic farmer and artist who came to his farm nearly 40 years ago as a kind-of back-to-the-lander, envisioning spending “half the year making money, half making art.”
He’s charismatic, and speaks as if reciting poetry, but he is a man who struggles. With the farm. With alcoholism. With his loneliness.
The movie tracks his emotions through the seasons — he’s hopeful in the spring, but in the winter the harshness of the weather seems to mirror a harshness in his soul.
“It’s not winter anymore,” he says. “It’s the world.”
He takes stock of his life, his wife gone, his adult children no longer in contact. And he looks with both pride and a near-despair at the farm he has created. “The old man is slowing down and the weeks are speeding up,” he says. “But what else? Where else?”
And there is the perfect Bini moment: The camera settles on his face, worn by weather and life alike. And it stays there.