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IN LOVING HANDS These Birds Walk is a moving documentary about a Pakistani home for runaway kids. 

Its reputation secure and expanding in its ninth year, the Camden International Film Festival begins on Thursday, with more than 30 features (and a few dozen shorts) playing at locations in Rockland and Camden. If I might hastily, preemptively stamp a legacy on the festival’s 2013 slate — which begins with the universally acclaimed outsider-art documentary Cutie and the Boxer and ends Sunday with one of the year’s landmark, essential works, The Act of Killing — this would seem to be the year the festival fully grows into its skin.

Once a fairly pronounced home for loud, advertorial social-issue documentaries, CIFF’s curators now seem increasingly dedicated to stories depicting the fraught nature of our politics and environment, and in exploring protagonists whose heroism comes with significant strings attached. Take Caucus, whose undisputed hero is Rick Santorum, or Remote Area Medical, which reveals the tremendous demand for free healthcare in the states we assume are profoundly against Obamacare. Even the conventionally rousing Maidentrip, about a teenager attempting to become the youngest girl to sail around the world alone, presents us with a subject whose avowed independence occasionally seems delusional.

Along with this string of often modest but universally interesting features, this year’s CIFF sidebars include a few shorts programs, an inaugural Engagement Summit devoted to aging in Maine, the return of the Points North forum — a program of lectures, workshops, and pitch sessions for filmmakers and industry figures — and the requisite nightly shindigs. What follows are capsule reviews of ten features I had the opportunity to preview in advance of the festival. (An eleventh, The Act of Killing, we reviewed recently: see “Memories of Murder,” by Christopher Gray, September 13.)

These Birds Walk Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq’s film jolts to life, with a hurtling camera following a child on an urgent run to open waters. Once the child, later introduced as Omar, hits the shore, he seems to achieve a meaningless catharsis: he’s proven some point, but now where does he go? Similar questions burden the other characters, and the viewer, of These Birds Walk, which follows a few children at a center for runaway and unwanted children in Pakistan, and Asad, the ambulance driver who shuttles them to and from home. The center’s founder introduces the setting and then nearly disappears from the film, leaving us, by and large, with an assortment of sensitive, damaged young boys at play. These scenes — each an emotional rollercoaster — vacillate with churning immediacy between nasty and playful hits, boredom and delight, hugs and wrenching psychological games. With exquisite subtlety, Mullick and Tariq’s portrait of Asad counterbalances those sequences with indications of the center’s and region’s broader institutional and social concerns. Not to be missed.

Caucus Like his previous effort, the rousing, collaborative Convention, AJ Schnack’s latest peeks behind the curtain of one of the nation’s most prominent political pageants. This examination of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign in Iowa, though, pays more attention to optics (political, not cinematographic) and media ceremony rather than the construction of a major event. As such, the film suffers from a lack of focus, often feeling like a greatest-hits package of blessedly forgotten voices (Michele Bachmann) and temporary sensations (Herman Cain). Schnack really finds his footing when his camera falls for Rick Santorum, the also-ran who became an ephemeral frontrunner on the strength of sheer, distinctive humanity.

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 See all articles by: CHRISTOPHER GRAY