Camden International Film Festival 2019
by Tayler Montague
The Camden International Film Festival takes place across three scenic cities in Maine (Rockport, Rockland, and Camden), and the calm and beauty of the surroundings became the backdrop against which attendees sought to unpack this year’s theme, “Power and Story.” The festival is focused primarily on documentary, and a series of discussions that ran concurrently Camden International Film Festival were meant to interrogate documentary’s past, present, and future, asking who is in front of the camera, who is behind the camera, and how power is ultimately wielded in a film’s making and subsequent distribution.
I spoke on a panel entitled How to Watch a Doc, a forum to discuss the colonial histories entangled in documentary filmmaking, the preconceived notions a viewer brings to a film, and the way power imbalances manifest between subject and director. My colleagues on the panel were Rob Moss, a filmmaker who also teaches documentary filmmaking at Harvard, and Devika Girish, Assistant Editor at Film Comment. We shared films clips that dealt in some respect with direct cinema and cinema verité: Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, and Louis Malle’s TV series Phantom India. We deconstructed and discussed how even when a filmmaker’s intentions are to portray reality with truth, the outsider’s gaze may still peek through in unproductive ways, and that editing, filming, and other technical aspects of production are rooted in a history of colonialist filmmaking not at all concerned with lending humanity to those in front of the camera. These clips and the conversations they provoked felt like a bridge between documentary’s past and present.
As a viewer and participant, I was increasingly aware that the objective of the festival was to be a space in which we questioned and looked closely at the historical work and power imbalances that have long existed within the documentary form. At the same time one must acknowledge that terms like “power” or “decolonizing” can often feel like hollow buzzwords, especially when juxtaposed with a largely homogenous festival landscape, where the few Black and Brown faces were imported from elsewhere.
Talking to people from the surrounding community who bought festival passes and were engaged in our discussions, though, it was clear that they had also brought with them their own conceptions of what a work of cinematic nonfiction was meant to do. In short, to inform audiences, bring them closer to worlds they’d never themselves inhabit, or shed light on some humanitarian crisis.
The programmed films didn’t always fit into these clichéd categories, although some felt selected to test the festival attendees—as though they were chosen precisely to see if we had been immersed in the conversations happening concurrently, so that when we’d watch them we’d question the manner in which they engaged with their subjects. One such film was Daniel Vernon’s The Changin’ Times of Ike White about a musical prodigy and R&B singer who garnered acclaim while incarcerated for a robbery that left a storeowner dead. Ike, the getaway driver, was sentenced to life. In prison, he recorded an album that exhibited his great talent, but then seemingly fell off the face of the Earth. Ike White, whom we learn came to be known as David Maestro, deserved so much more. Early in the film, we discover that after Vernon tracked the musician down and filmed him for two weeks, his wife found him dead, hanged in his home. She soon takes on the role of collaborator with Vernon. Together, using the extensive archive he left behind they piece together all they can about his life. What does it mean for someone to commit suicide so shortly after the arrival of a man with a camera— a man whose intention was excavating Ike/David’s painful past?
David/Ike’s album Changin’ Times was recorded at California Men’s Colony in 1976. Former cellmates recount anecdotes about Ike’s then-inevitable stardom. Music producer Jerry Goldstein appears to tell us about the recording process, bringing a mobile studio to the prison. (This isn’t completely unheard of for the time; the Escorts were an R&B group that recorded their first album at Rahway State Prison in 1970 after being discovered during a prison talent show). Ike’s musical prowess was undeniable, even catching the attention of Stevie Wonder, who advocated for his release. After fourteen years served, Ike is out in the world again, and from there we retrace his steps using his videotapes, Polaroid photos, and voicemails.
Most of what’s showcased from the archive focuses on David’s womanizing; we hear a husband on a voice recording asking that David keep away from his wife. But what initially feels like comic relief becomes the film’s dominant narrative. He bounces from woman to woman (we catch up with just a few of them), leaving families in his wake; finally we find him in a house in a California suburb with his new wife.
The framing of David Maestro as rolling stone feels shallow, as there seems to have been so much more at play behind his decisions than wanting to womanize his way across California. In one of his most famous songs, played briefly in the film, he sings sincerely about having “to change to carry on.” As opposed to a con man who changed personas like the seasons, it shows instead a brilliant musician who took to reinvention in the midst of great personal struggles: a failed attempt at a successful music career, the loss of his son in a car accident, being robbed of his adolescence after taking a job as a getaway driver to support his family after his father’s death. The Changin’ Times of Ike White oversimplifies a man who left behind so much, who was clearly storing and collecting so he could one day write himself back into history. A former friend asks, “How could a man who fought so hard for life suddenly take his own?” It’s a question that lingers, and the film never quite addresses.
Varda by Agnès is also a film that makes use of an artist’s archive, but in this case the subject gets to tell her own story. Following the legendary French filmmaker’s recent passing, it now doubles as her swan song. Varda sits in front of an audience and talks through her oeuvre, bringing us closer to her process in a way that doesn’t feel overly intellectualized or distant. She narrates clips from her films and illustrates her intentions in her work, including but not limited to her thoughts on “cinecriture” or “cine-writing.” In an interview with Film Comment, she said, “For me, a film is not written by the screenplay or the dialogue, it’s written by the way of the filming.” The most compelling aspects of Varda by Agnès are when she discusses bringing documentary elements to her fictional work, using her New Wave classic Cléo from 5 to 7 as an example. “Nothing is trite, if you film people with empathy and love,” Varda remarks matter-of-factly, and this ethos is precisely what made Varda by Agnès one of the best films I saw at the festival.
A Love Song for Latasha—pictured above—is a short film directed by Sophia Nahli Allison made with empathy and love for its subject that many other filmmakers could stand to learn from. It tells the story of Latasha Harlins’s brief life, using memories and anecdotes recounted by her cousins and closest childhood friends. “Life” is the important distinction, as Latasha’s narrative has so often been grounded solely in her murder: her untimely death came at the hands of storeowner Soon Ja Du, who wrongly assumed she was stealing and shot her in the back of the head; the money to pay for her purchases was found folded within the palm of her hands after her death. The tragedy has long been regarded as a footnote in the larger story about the Los Angeles “Riots” of 1992.
In this film, Allison bridges the past with the present, as we see Black girls in contemporary L.A. occupy the blocks and establishments where Latasha and her friends came of age. Inevitably, the film must contend with her passing, but Allison makes the decision to not include the oft-seen surveillance-cam footage of her murder, a refreshing choice in an era where such videos can be pulled up on YouTube. (If you type in Latasha Harlins, “death video” is the second auto-fill option). In the film, her friends and family talk about the traumatic impact of having to witness that video over and over, on television and later in documentaries covering the era. Instead of seeing this footage, we hear the story of how her community first heard of her death, while pastel animation flits across the screen. This frees Latasha from the image with which she’s been immortalized: a young Black girl murdered over orange juice. We hear her own words when a childhood friend and classmate reads aloud a poem she wrote in high school, listing the ambitions she would never be able to realize. The empathy and love Allison has extended to Latasha’s story breathes new life into her narrative and calls into question how the media creates people’s stories for posterity.