It was the seventh year of the Camden International Film Festival and I thought it was high time to explore this cultural phenomenon, right under my nose. Ben Fowlie and his crew had assembled a bewildering array of documentaries from Russia, Poland, Portugal and Belgium, just for starters.
I decided to stick to the Maine films for my first exposure to the local festival last weekend. I am an aggressive lowbrow, and the highlight of my brief visit (the Patriots were playing, for heaven’s sake) were the last two films offered at Rockland’s classy Farnsworth Art Museum (no gum under the seats) on Sunday.
“Finding Donn Fendler,” unfortunately, was more about two college students who want to make a Fendler movie than about Fendler himself. But Fendler was at the Sunday museum session, which made it all worthwhile.
Fendler, you will recall, was the 12-year-old New York lad who got separated from his party while climbing Mount Katahdin in 1939 and spent the next nine days fighting black flies in the Maine woods while a search party of 500 combed the area.
Many gave him up for dead while the search became national news.
In the film, Fender said he reached the peak of the mountain to face a severe storm. He hid behind some rocks, then decided to search for his father, hiking behind him.
“That was the stupidest thing I ever did,” he admitted. He took the Saddle Trail but ended up going around in circles before deciding, as he was taught, to follow a stream to civilization.
The next nine days were a nightmare of eating dirt, sore feet, hallucinations and bugs.
“The bugs were the worst part,” Fendler said Sunday. Mosquitoes and black flies. “Mostly the black flies.”
Several times he lay down on the ground to give up and die. But something, “my guardian angel,” lifted him up and forced him to go on. He emerged on the East Branch of the Penobscot River where a couple gave him tomato soup and applied salve to his bug bites, then called authorities.
The book about Fendler’s adventure has sold “thousands and thousands” of copies and has become a staple in Maine classrooms. Fendler said after the movie showing that he doesn’t get a dime from the sales since his father sold the rights a long time ago.
“But I am constantly amazed what the story has meant to other people,” he said.
Likewise, the movie rights were sold a long time ago, and despite numerous false starts, no progress on the project has occurred. Young filmmakers Ryan Cook and Derek Desmond want to change that, somehow. Their documentary is part of a fundraising effort to make a full-length feature film on Fendler.
Filmmakers Stu Silverstein and Richard Searls didn’t plan on making a “cult movie” when they shot the life of backwoodsmen Bob Wagg and Walter Lane in 1976. But their Sunday audience informed them they had done just that. “Dead River, Rough Cut” has been shown many times, including on Maine television, but the Sunday showing was digitally remastered and included several added scenes.
If you ever wondered what happened to Huckleberry Finn, Silverstein and Searls have your answer. “Dead River” follows the four-season lifestyle of Wagg and Lane who turned their back on jobs and families (a dozen children) to live in a shack in the woods without water, power or even ESPN.
They survive by trapping beaver and hauling wood with oxen. The documentary opens with Lane giving a lecture on the basics of backwoods dentistry.
“No sense paying a dentist $8. You just snap it out of there,” he said.
With many comments made off-camera, it was impossible to determine which man said what. But they agreed that city living was not for them.
“Too many people in one little place. I don’t know how they live like that. I got sick of it.”
It was agreed that automobiles were the curse of civilization. Once you paid for gas, oil, repairs and tires there was damn little left. But out in the woods there were no worries, no hubbub. At the end of the week, you kept what money you had instead of giving it all to a bank or finance company.
The workaday world was not for them. An eight-hour shift in the mill seemed like 20.
The Wall Street economy was based on greed.
“No man ever made that much without stealing. It can’t be done. There is no need to have that much money.”
The answer is not a stimulus package.
“The only way to save the country is to get back to nature,” they said.
They liked women all right. They just didn’t like women hanging around all the time, or smelling too nice.
“With perfume, shaving and deodorants, a woman doesn’t even smell like a woman anymore. And a bath ruins it every time,” Wagg said.
I like to think that Wagg and Lane are still out there in the woods, felling trees. But the filmmakers said the paper company forced the pair off the land and leveled their cabin. Wagg died in 1980 and Lane in 1999, they said.
The four men met at The Forks over a discussion of cultivating exotic plants, “and we were happy to accommodate them,” Silverstein said. He said the documentary was made to capture “the friendship and freedom” shared by Wagg and Lane, not to create “a cult film.”
Next year, if I attend the Camden International Film Festival, I promise to branch out, broaden my horizons beyond Maine and take in all of those Russian, Portuguese and Israeli documentaries.