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Last year, the big stories out of the Camden International Film Festival were its newfound industry cachet and a very noticeable uptick in Portlanders making the trip up to Midcoast Maine's annual documentary showcase. (CIFF 2011 begins September 29 and runs through October 2 at theaters in Camden, Rockland, and Rockport.) Now that festival founder Ben Fowlie has established a reputation and a sustaining audience for his seven-year-old project, he's rather suddenly given it something most other film festivals lack: an identity.
CIFF has always been framed by what I think of as the "necessary hodgepodge" of the film festival. Marquee screenings are devoted to slick single-issue social or environmental documentaries whose titles (Crude, King Corn) tell you exactly what you're in for. They fill seats and fulfill expectations. The remaining real estate gets devoted to more intimate films — character studies or aesthetically innovative takes on life in the margins. These efforts are more divisive, but they're also more revealing examples of a festival's modus operandi, where its passions lie. Moreover, they're the films people leave Camden talking about every year, like 2009's October Country or last year's Marwencol.
Take a look at CIFF's 2011 docket and you'll see a nearly universal embrace of the notion that something singular — a person, a family, a river, an airport, a cabaret — can serve as a proxy to explore unique questions and dilemmas. This weekend's lineup is as diverse as ever, but it's devotion to small stories that become big ones evinces a new confidence on the part of the festival's staff. Not coincidentally, this confidence has begot one heck of a lineup, highlighted by the latest from old master Frederick Wiseman (Crazy Horse is his latest foray into a single cultural institution, this one a French cabaret). Here's what I've seen so far.
• AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA, by Michael Marczak, follows a 19-year-old Russian soldier through his first year at an outpost in Siberia, guarding an irrelevant border in a desolate tundra. The story, then, turns to the young man's hazing by a group of grizzled older soldiers, who teach him the nobility of ritual, folklore, and the excessive downing of shots of vodka. The film slowly evolves from its absurdist premise into a work of unexpectedly tender humanism.
• BETTER THIS WORLD, by Kelly Duane de la Vega and Bradley Crowder, trolls the aftermath of arrests of protestors at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota. The directors do a fine job of conveying various injustices of life under the USA PATRIOT Act while maintaining a strong focus on the strained bond between two young men suspected of domestic terrorism.
• THE CASTLE (IL CASTELO) documents a year in the life of Milan's Malpensa airport through the clinical eyes of directors Massimo D'Anolfi and Martina Parenti. The film's long, static shots of antiseptic environments build to a great cumulative impact, and a single take of a man patrolling the airport's runways is as rich and complicated as something by Abbas Kiarostami.