Nestled way up in the south of Maine, the Camden International Film Festival is galvanized by incredible programming which spotlights offbeat, unusual films. The festival is a celebration of the best and boldest genre-bending experimentation. Here are six of the most fascinating films from this year’s slate, presented in alphabetical order.
[All photos courtesy of the Camden International Film Festival]
Commissioned in 1998, premiered in 2007, and shelved almost immediately afterwards for over a decade, the story of Olivier Meyrou’s Celebration might be as interesting as those of its subjects, French fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his short-tempered manager/lover Pierre Bergé. Originally intended as a, well, celebration of Laurent’s career, the film ends up a curious portrait of asymmetrical symbiosis as Bergé overtakes his partner as the primary subject. At first the film’s treatment of Laurent is coy and detached—the opening shot sets the scene with black-and-white footage of him drawing a dress, his hand making a few deliberate pencil strokes before pausing above the paper, fingers trembling with indecision for almost a full minute. There are a handful of interviews where he manages to say very little of substance despite interviewer prodding. And then the film cuts away, almost embarrassed, to see a pair of Laurent’s seamstresses exploring the interior of one of his old ateliers. It’s hard to miss the subtext: with a subject as famously reticent as Laurent, the film can only exist as a kind of post-mortem exploration of his legacy, crawling around in the empty spaces left by his life. But more and more we see Bergé pop up, browbeating employees, schmoozing with models and other designers, and in perhaps the most telling shot of the entire documentary, staring at his lover from around the corner of a wall, arms locked akimbo as he glares at the man who’s dominated his life. Or is it the other way around? Before long we’re interviewing him, not Laurent, and watching as he impetuously steals the spotlight, even ripping an award out of his partner’s arms during a ceremony and muttering like a child that he earned it too. Is it any wonder Bergé demanded the film be locked away until he finally gave his blessing in 2015? By then Laurent had died and could no longer be asked for his side of the story. But the film remains now, a madcap collage of bits and pieces that somehow coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s said that Meyrou once privately screened the film for a handful of directors. Among them was Paul Thomas Anderson. Anyone who’s ever seen The Phantom Thread (2018) will realize there’s more than a little Laurent and Bergé in Woodcock and Alma.
THE CHANGIN’ TIMES OF IKE WHITE
Perhaps a better title for Daniel Vernon’s documentary The Changin’ Times of Ike White would’ve been The Changin’ Faces of Ike White. Here is a film about a man who changed lives and identities as often and as radically as Frank Abagnale in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002). The documentary itself assumes a similar chameleon fluidity, beginning as a rote musical biopic before morphing into, respectively, a true crime mystery, a found footage collage, and finally a gutting meditation on healing and forgiveness. To understand Ike White, we must know the first person he abandoned—a talented musical prodigy who fell in with the wrong crowd as a teenager, accidentally killed a shop owner during a robbery, and got sentenced to life in prison at only eighteen. While in prison he became a minor celebrity thanks to the music he’d constantly play in his cellblock. (One anecdote worthy of the best Southern Gothic involves a guard letting White play the electric guitar while seated on the electric chair during a break while on janitor duty.) He became so famous that LAX Records built a custom portable studio in the back of a truck so they could record his debut album Changin’ Times while he was still incarcerated. The album—still a classic among rare vinyl collectors—in turn grabbed the attention of Stevie Wonder who helped appeal White’s parole board into releasing him in 1978 after serving only fourteen years. Slick, magnetic, and supernaturally talented, the White we see here is a superstar in the making—until he disappeared soon after being released. After vanishing for nearly forty years, Vernon uncovered White living in California under an assumed identity with a new life, a new wife, and an unexpected eagerness to open up about his clandestine past. At least until he unexpectedly commits suicide shortly after Vernon begins interviewing him, leaving the director and his new widow to untangle the pieces of his life, discovering forbidden histories of hidden lovers, secret children, and possible mob ties in his archive of video and audio diaries. Was White a monster? A sociopath who took what he wanted heedless of other people? Or was he a victim himself? An ego fractured by prison life and premature fame? Vernon doesn’t know, and neither does he hazard a guess. He must’ve known he’d be lying just like White if he even tried.
Sam Ellison’s Chèche Lavi—translated into English as “Looking for Life”—is a documentary about waiting. Not about stillness, not about inaction, but waiting; the tireless, endless slog of wasted anticipation and day-to-day lethargy as hours tick by into nothingness. Set on the US-Mexico border, the film follows the lives of two Haitian migrant workers named Robens and James who previously worked in Brazil until its economy crashed in 2016. Upon hearing a rumor that America was giving special treatment to Haitians seeking asylum, Robens, James, and around 10,000 of their countrymen traveled up through Peru, Central America, and Mexico to the US border. Upon arriving they discovered they’d have to wait several months for even preliminary asylum interviews, stranding them in a foreign land with no money or work. And so the waiting began, the soul-killing, mind-deadening waiting for an interview that may ultimately prove useless if they’re rejected. The film features several interviews with Robens and James, the former an orphan who left Haiti when his mom and brother died and the latter a devout Christian with a wife waiting in Florida. But the heart of the film is Ellison’s observations of them simply existing in stasis in Tijuana as they navigate America’s Kafkaesque immigration processes. They lounge on sidewalks chatting about NBA teams; they wander neon-stained alleyways at night; they walk along the graffiti-tagged jerry-rigged border wall between Mexico and America. Elsewhere young black boys shoot marbles in the road, folk singers play worship music on buses, cooks sell food to asylum-seekers for a buck a pop. In many ways the film mimics the decentralization of time and space seen in RaMell Ross’s masterful Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018) which examined the lives of impoverished black people in rural Alabama. But while that film allowed audiences to draw their own conclusions from the footage, Chèche Lavi is more pointedly direct, deliberate, and political, particularly in the second half filmed following the 2016 election of Donald Trump where all Haitian asylum applications were stonewalled and the handful who’d made it across the border legally—like James—were summarily arrested, incarcerated, and deported by ICE. Now trapped in Tijuana, Robens gets a job in a machine shop. Rejected by America, James returns to Haiti. Even now, they wait. But for what? It’s doubtful either of them could say.
MY AUTONOMOUS NEIGHBOR
A common failing among art documentaries is the tendency to approach one’s subject with a too sterile objectivity. There’s almost a fear that drawing the audience’s attention to the filmmaking itself might dilute their interest or admiration for the art or artist they’re examining. The end results are stylistically dull and intellectually myopic puff pieces that play less like documentaries than Saturday night PBS specials. Michel Negroponte’s My Autonomous Neighbor defiantly rejects these banalities as it seeks not only to explore the mind and work of its subject but to emulate said work through the filmmaking. The film examines outsider artist and philosopher Fred “Tate” Billings, a retired member of the National Guard who’s spending his twilight years assembling bizarre and beautiful collages and automatic drawings. Nestled away in the Catskills, his home is a ramshackle shrine to cultural camp ephemera with his walls, cupboards, and crannies all stuffed with all manner of cheap doodads and knickknacks he’s rescued from gift shops and goodwill stores. While his physical collages sanctify the chintzy detritus of our disposable capitalist society, his automatic drawings attempt to channel what he describes as the unconscious pulsations of the bardo, the liminal state of consciousness between death and rebirth. He travels to an area charged with some kind of energy—a beautiful landscape, a Civil War battlefield, an ancient Manhattan church—and scribbles circles and waves on an easel with pencils in both hands. After he’s covered said easel, he looks for patterns within the lines that form objects and figures which he isolates with an eraser and inks with a pen. The result are collections of psychically generated curios he assembles into scrapbooks like collections of escaped figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Billings is just as interesting as his work, going on long tangents about his creations and philosophies, especially those concerning the tyranny of linear time and resurrection. (He claims his first words were “Oh no, I’m back again.”) But what makes the film particularly unique is how Negroponte channels Billings’ collage process, creating a loose, non-linear experience stuffed with color-filtered footage from Republic Pictures serials, old postcards, and surrealist green screen segments of Billings dancing or posing for photographs. This is a film so enamored with its subject that it tries to mimic him. And miraculously, it succeeds. That old saying about imitation and flattery has never been more true.
When he was only twenty years old, CJ Twomey shot himself in his car after an argument with his parents. Though he’d seemed depressed and detached in the months after failing to qualify for a special forces post in the US military, both his parents were shocked and horrified by his sudden suicide. His mother Hallie was particularly devastated, and in the depths of her grief she put out an open call on Facebook for people willing to help her with a strange project. In life, CJ had loved traveling. Now, in death, his journeys would continue. Was there anybody out there, she asked, who would help scatter CJ’s ashes in beautiful or special places? To her surprise, almost 21,000 complete strangers volunteered. They came from all walks of life from every corner of the world: a father and son on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro; a scuba diver at the Great Barrier Reef off Australia; even astronauts who take his ashes to space on a shuttle. It’s a story of communal healing the likes of which could soften the heart of even the most jaded cynics, and director Andrea Kalin captures it with all the respect and dignity it deserves in her new documentary Scattering CJ. The film hits all the beats one would expect: the first fifteen minutes serve as a CliffNotes biography of CJ leading up to his death followed by teary-eyed interviews with his surviving family, none more devastating than the parts where Hallie and her husband recount the suicide itself. Then comes the uplifting montage of total strangers taking CJ all over the world, many scattering his ashes after saying a brief eulogy. It’s remarkable how many of these volunteers do so with their entire families, and it’s equally surprising how many of them burst into tears while dispersing the ashes of someone they never knew. For a time it seems like Scattering CJ will be effective but rote inspirational junk food. But the film takes a surprisingly bitter turn in the last half where Hallie admits she loves and hates the project because, for all the comfort it brings her, it won’t bring her son back. This is the film’s strength—it’s not a feel-good post-mortem of a social movement but a portrait of ongoing grief and recovery. Even now, Hallie and her family have a long road ahead of them.
WHERE MAN RETURNS
Egil Håskjold Larsen’s Where Man Returns does something I’m confident I’ve never seen a documentary do before: it puts its expository inter-titles not at the beginning, not in the middle, but at the very end right before the credits. In them, we learn the first and only concrete information we get about the film’s subject Steiner, a septuagenarian spending his twilight years living off the land on the Norwegian/Russian border: he worked in an iron mine for twenty-eight years until it was shut down in 1996 and has two children and two grandchildren. And that’s it. Quite scanty info for a man we’ve spent seventy-one minutes observing, isn’t it? It comes almost as a shock that he isn’t some mythic figure who sprang fully formed from the ice shelves, but an actual person who at some point chose to abandon society for a life of wintry solitude. If there’s a reason for this self-exile, Larsen is largely uninterested. He’s more fascinated with observing the natural rhythms of Steiner’s life and the unfeeling placidness of nature. Much of the movie is practically a meditative still life as Steiner putters about his cabin, muttering to himself and his faithful dog Tussi as he chops firewood, fiddles with the radio that gives him weather reports and soccer news, and munches handfuls of freshly caught fish. In one hypnotic scene he butchers a seal, his knife slicing the fat and tissue like hot butter, pausing here and now to scrape some meat into his mouth to chew while he continues his grisly work. Elsewhere he crouches over the tundra like a migrant farmer and gathers crowberries, marveling over how quickly they’ve popped from the ground. Though Tussi is his only companion, Steiner seems to have developed a paternal affection for a neighboring flock of seagulls living on a nearby cliffside. He collects scraps of meat for them, checks their nests to see if their eggs are healthy, and wages a brutal war against the crows and foxes that prey on them. It’s during these scenes that we see Steiner truly happy, much happier than he is when he gets a phone-call from his family that he has a new grandson. Whatever force compelled Steiner into the wild seems to have stripped him of some of his humanity. He’ll die in that cabin one day. Will anyone ever know?