In “The Intersection (Le Carrefour),” past and present immigrant experiences intersect in Lewiston when a Franco-American retiree and a Congolese asylum seeker discover a sense of belonging thanks to their shared French language.
In “The Intersection (Le Carrefour),” past and present immigrant experiences intersect in Lewiston when a Franco-American retiree and a Congolese asylum seeker discover a sense of belonging thanks to their shared French language.
In 2018, during monsoon season, the Wild Boars, a Thai youth soccer team and their 25-year-old assistant coach, went into a cave system in northern Thailand looking for a cool place to have a birthday party for one of the boys and were stranded four kilometers deep when heavy rains flooded the caves. The incident was international news for more than two weeks as a team of 90 divers from around the world put their heads together on a problem unlike anything any of them had faced before. During the rescue, a dive-shop owner in New Jersey, interviewed by a local television news station about the rescue, was asked to rank the difficulty of the dive on a scale of 1 to 10. This is a 15, he said. Elon Musk offered to make a “tiny, kid-size submarine” out of a component from a SpaceX rocket. If you watched any TV at the time, you no doubt remember some of this, and that — no spoiler here — all 12 members of the soccer team survived.

Perhaps just as miraculously, from a cultural standpoint, much of the rescue — zero-visibility diving through claustrophobic crawl spaces of the cave — was filmed. That archival footage, along with reenactments and new interviews, form the core of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s documentary “The Rescue,” which gets its first New England screening at the Camden International Film Festival this weekend.

CIFF, the all-documentary film festival now in its 16th year, runs Thursday through Sunday, September 16–19, with virtual screenings continuing through September 26. Organizers have reintroduced three indoor venues: the Camden Opera House, the Strand Theatre in Rockland, and a pop-up screening venue at Journey’s End Marina in Rockland, a 15,000-square-foot barn with 40-foot ceilings. All will have limited seating, and guests will be required to show proof of vaccination status and wear a mask during the screenings.

This year’s festival includes 13 world premieres and 17 films getting their first showing in North America or the U.S., including the beautifully filmed “Ostrov,” about a jinxed fishing community on the Caspian Sea; the equally gorgeous, but less doomed, “Silence of the Tides,” a portrait of the world’s largest intertidal areas along the north coast of the Netherlands and Germany; and “A Cop Movie,” a documentary with some of the sass of fiction about two police partners in Mexico City.

The program shows a surprising diversity and ambition of work, coming off 18 months of a global pandemic. But after the lockdowns and restrictions of the early pandemic, Ben Fowlie, co-founder of the festival and artistic and creative director, said filmmakers were able to get back to work or finish projects that were shelved in the early stages of the pandemic. On the organizational side of the festival, COVID has been right in the foreground, but the program doesn’t show it. In fact, none of the films is explicitly about the pandemic.

Instead, it’s just there once in a while, as it has been for all of us, in the background. The same is true for the hot topics of the zeitgeist. You won’t see titles on the program that lay into agribusiness or the Black Lives Matter movement, QAnon or malfeasance on Wall Street. Fowlie said that was intentional.

“What we found was that some of the more intimate stories or intimate relationships that filmmakers are letting us dive into as viewers can have a significantly larger impact than some of the more straightforward, clear-cut, issue-based documentaries. There are certainly platforms for those, but they’re not the work that we felt like we wanted to necessarily be highlighting in abundance this year.”

In some cases, current events conspired to give a creative piece added relevance, as in “Flee,” an animated documentary about a refugee from Afghanistan that happened to drop as thousands were fleeing the cultural tsunami of the new Taliban regime in August.

“If you were to have told me in June or July, or even early August, that a story about an Afghan refugee was going to be probably the most timely story, I would have been like, ‘I don’t know,’” Fowlie said. “But it just goes to show how strange and bizarre and how quickly things are moving.”

Fowlie credited CIFF programmers Jeanelle Augustin and Milton Guillén with adding connections to communities and organizations that weren’t on CIFF’s radar in previous years.

Made-in-Maine films on the program, always a substantial part of CIFF, include the feature-length “Truth Tellers,” about painter Robert Shetterly’s ongoing series of portraits of activists and other thorns in the sides of the powerful. (See page 17 for more about this film.)

Shorts from Maine include “Death and Her Compass,” an allegorical film about Maine death doula Molly “Bones” Nelson; “Keep Moving,” featuring three people talking about how moving their bodies keeps them grounded and motivated; “The Captain,” a portrait of Rockport-based lobster boat captain Sadie Samuels; “Talking Dog,” an ode to Maine dogs by their people; and “Big Ash Sled” a 12-minute film about “Four friends. Eight seconds of terror. And one very large tree” (it’s about toboggan racing).

Daniel Quintanilla and Jessamine Irwin’s “The Intersection (Le Carrefour)” looks at the connection forged between a Franco-American retiree and a Congolese asylum seeker in Lewiston based on the French language they share.

In “The Way Life Is,” by Sophie Nacht and Maple Razsa, a Mainer of color talks about the heartbreaking dead end of long-term incarceration. The title is a play on the wistful Maine slogan: “The way life should be.”

Asked for a pick from the festival program, Fowlie recommended “Torn,” an autobiographical film by photographer Max Lowe, about his family’s reckoning with the legacy of his father Alex, an extreme climber killed in an avalanche, when his body is unearthed 17 years after his death.

“I think a lot of times when it’s a film about an alpinist or a climber, you’re like, okay, I know where that story is going,” he said. “This is a story about tragedy and family and healing.… It’s one of the most emotional and profoundly moving family stories I’ve seen in all my years as a programmer.”

“Torn” and “The Rescue” are two of three National Geographic films (read: big budget, high production value). The third, “Becoming Cousteau,” revisits the visionary red-capped oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, whose innovations in scuba diving and underwater photography allowed him to share the original life aquatic with mass television audiences in the 1960s and ’70s.

Many of the films at CIFF are available for streaming during limited windows of time and geography. The hybrid festival has made it easier than ever to let a few of them cast shadows into your cave, Platonically speaking. Schedules and more information are available at Previews for many of the films are available on YouTube and Vimeo and well worth a look.