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CAMDEN WORKS! A fiercely loyal home-grown audience fills the theaters, but the quality of programming shows why this event has become a mecca for makers — and fans — of documentary films.
We've all had that irritating waitress who, asked what she'd suggest on the menu, answers cheerily, "Everything is great!" Thanks for the help — and what credibility!

Well, I'm suddenly in that weird position, film critic-as-cheerleader, chirping, "Everything was great!" about the selections at the September 29-October 2 Camden International Film Festival. Please believe me, I saw nothing but excellent features, one after another, at the 7th incarnation of this documentary-only event. I'd never been before, but I understand why much of Boston's documentary community now makes an annual trek to Camden, Maine. It's already on my 2012 calendar.

Credit Fest Director, Ben Fowlie, for a discerning eye and superb taste. And also for having forged the connections to attract so many fine films and important filmmakers. Fowlie, who is also the co-director of the popular DocYard series at the Brattle Theatre, travels between a place in Somerville and home in Camden. He has capitalized on his local-boy creds with a host of Maine-based sponsors and also a fiercely loyal home-grown audience, who fill the theatres each fall for screenings both in Camden and nearby Rockland.

What Fowlie has done isn't easy. I think of the failure and ultimate folding of the Newport Film Festival, where the Rhode Island populace of boaters and yachters (similar to Camden's demographics) never connected and stayed away.

Instead, Camden works! And also, the maraschino cherry on top: cool party after cool party, on boats, at galleries, at a vineyard.

But on to some movie highlights:

HELL AND BACK AGAIN | Camden's sterling opening night documentary was the tale of a fiery, macho soldier who is wounded in Afghanistan, and then spends punitive time in a wheelchair and in rehab back in North Carolina. He's angry as hell. Filmmaker Danfung Dennis was allowed to hang around only because he's been there with his camera during the battles in Afghanistan. Sergeant Nathan Harris, the subject of the film, considers Dennis a pal from the war.

SEMPER FI: ALWAYS FAITHFUL | Another stirring military saga, from filmmakers Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon. A career Marine, drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, comes to believe that his young daughter died of cancer because of pollutants in the water at Camp Lejeune, a mammoth military base in North Carolina. Ensminger goes on an obsessive crusade to unearth a Marine cover-up, and finds, horribly, that many other children have died also. Lucky for us (sorry, Rick Perry) there's an intervention from the EPA because of Ensminger's untiring, heroic efforts.

AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA | Even more military, but this time it's the Russians, in this Polish-made documentary following a group of six soldiers whose absurd duties are to guard the northern-most border near the Arctic Ocean. A finely tuned, intimate story of the daily life of the valiant six in the frozen north, embedded with vodka, guitars, but no women anywhere. Our Everyman is a handsome young soldier who has just joined the crusty unit, and he's feeling cheated that he wasn't assigned to an area where there are young women in bikinis.

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