Three of the best at Camden 2015

At Maine’s festival safe harbour for cinematic documentaries, three motley ethnographic missives from ‘the far edge of civilisation’ – featuring rugby-playing Kiwi cowhands, roisterous Innuit YouTubers and public servants gone to seed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nick Pinkerton
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The Ground We Won (2015)

The Ground We Won (2015)

For 11 years, the Camden International Film Festival has taken place in mid-coastal Maine in late September, when the first nip of fall is in the air. Though the fest’s namesake is the city of Camden, hometown of founder Ben Fowlie, the load of screenings – all one-offs, spread over a three-day weekend – has increasingly been shared by venues in the nearby towns of Rockport and Rockland, each in its own way almost appallingly postcard-perfect. It is, in other words, an ideal spot for a vacation – which might at first have been part of the lure for visiting documentarians, who are not, generally speaking, in the right tax brackets to enjoy this kind of getaway on their own dime.

There’s not so much in the way of downtime, however, for Camden has become something of an industry hub, hosting the annual Points North forum, which includes master classes (Alex Gibney was in town this year), and a live pitch where filmmakers trot out ideas for their would-be documentaries before a panel of potential funders.

I go for the movies, myself – like Columbia, Missouri’s True/False, the fest that CIFF most closely resembles in mandate and general vivacity, Camden boasts a tightly curated slate of formally ambitious docs, diluted with no more crowd-pleasers than common courtesy demands. Of the dozen or so movies that I saw while ping-ponging up and down the coastline, these were three of the best:

 

The Ground We Won

Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith, New Zealand

The Ground We Won (2015)

The Ground We Won (2015)

It’s a daft prejudice, I know, but whenever I encounter a movie is in black and white, I have a sense that it had better earn the affectation. In the case of Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith’s The Ground We Won, which follows a single season in the life of a New Zealand rugby club based in rural Reporoa, it’s impossible to imagine the film in anything but silver-toned b&w. Pryor and Smith are able landscape artists, the vast tracts of land and sky which reappear through their film the seeming result of having studied pictorialists like Ford and Figueroa, looking for a native equivalent to their cinematographic national mythologies.

The movie isn’t just a portfolio of pretty pictures, though; in fact, it spends most of its runtime piled in a scrum of beefy cattle-hands known by nicknames like Peanut and Slug who live for their Saturday matches, and who we see variously slathered in mud, lager, sick and calf afterbirth. For contrast, these same men are seen at home and at work in tender, private vignettes, but the filmmakers have a piss-taking humour that keeps them on the right side of slipping into a paean for the Last of the Kiwi Cowboys, and when the time comes to shoot the championship game, they tell the story through faces in the crowd rather than Olympian bombast.

 

Of the North

Dominic Gagnon, Canada

Of the North (2015)

Of the North (2015)

Between The Ground That We Won and Quebecois filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s ethnographic mixtape of life among the Inuits, ‘suicidal drinking rituals conducted at the far edge of civilisation’ seemed to be the common theme of my favourite films at Camden this year.

The title Of the North refers to that mainspring of all modern documentary, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, though Gagnon has entirely ceded the business of image-making to his subjects, creating a collage of fragments taken from user-submitted videos posted on YouTube. Among the detritus are community dances, swervy snowmobiling, amateur smut including an appearance by Alaskan ‘eskimo’ porn star Lily Lust and, yes, a lot of party-’til-you-puke binge-drinking, set to a soundtrack that includes traditional throat singing as well as Inuit-produced heavy metal and hip whop. (“It’s our way of life to hunt for seals/ Back off Greenpeace, we just want some meals/ Don’t tell us what to do, Paul McCartney/ When we go clubbin’, we’re having a party.”)

Particular place of pride in the decoupage is given to encounters with the natural world, including hunting and whaling expeditions, brushes with polar bears, narwhales and a dead housecat, and some dude whaling on a baby seal while the cameraman eggs him on. Working with grimy-looking, unfiltered footage shot on commercial-grade cameras, Gagnon shares authorship with his subjects, in the process creating a work that complicates the outsider-imposed Utopian fiction of Noble Savages living in harmony with nature, instead showing a ‘harmony with nature’, disturbing to politically-correct sensibilities, which encompasses a casual disrespect.

 

Elephant’s Dream

Kristof Bilsen, Belgium / Congo

Elephant’s Dream (2014)

Elephant’s Dream (2014)

Like The Ground We Won – which I’d missed at Locarno, from whence came a number of titles at Camden this year – Elephant’s Dream had played around a bit, including appearances at IDFA and Hot Docs, before arriving on the shores of Maine. (CIFF, thankfully, ignores premiere status in the interest of putting together the best slate it can manage.)

Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgian director Kristof Bilsen’s film might broadly be said to deal with the plight faced by concerned employees of state-sponsored services in a country where the state shows little concern or ability to keep those services in working order. Bilsen shuttles between subjects employed by three different variously dysfunctional institutions in the capital city of Kinshasha: two middle-aged co-workers guarding a railway station whose tracks are thick with weeds, a single-mother employee at a dust-choked dead-letter post office, and a troupe of firefighters at the city’s chief and only fire station which, humiliatingly, was gutted by fire in recent memory.

In a pathetic and poignant scene, the latter are seen arriving on the scene of a blaze only to be mocked by bystanders for the squirt-gun water pressure of their hose – as one explains, the Chinese contractors who are re-paving the streets can’t be bothered to put in hydrants, because there’s no profit motive for doing so. It’s a boots-on-the-ground reportage of the perils of hawking the public sector to the lowest bidder, with a sustained atmosphere of enforced lassitude.

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