The truth is out there, but only certain people know where to find it. In downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, that’s the driving sentiment behind AFI Silverdocs, a healthy alternative to the industry festivities currently unfolding on the other coast at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Now in its fifth year, the calmest of the AFI-branded gatherings hosts a refreshingly specific program of discussions, workshops, and screenings featuring many of the finest recent accomplishments in nonfiction cinema. Where other festivals derive much of their appeal from a sense of discovery, Silverdocs feels more like an annual canonization of the documentary form, highlighting some of the best practitioners of the art while observing the bigger picture presented by the industry around them.
This year’s festival, which launched its one-week run on Monday, found inspiration with two notable attendees: Alex Gibney, whose Afghanistan-based “Taxi to the Dark Side” won an Oscar in March, and Spike Lee, the legendary auteur equally compelling when working in narrative or non-fiction mode. While Lee — appearing at the packed AFI Silver theater on Thursday to receive the festival’s Charles Guggenheim Symposium honor after a public conversation — brought the larger crowd, Gibney (at a discussion in the Discovery Communications World Headquarters earlier in the day) offered essential observations about the confounding state of documentary filmmaking.
Gibney’s other directorial credits include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Gonzo: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson,” which screened at Silverdocs in anticipation of its theatrical release on July 4. Rather than brag, however, he acknowledged that documentaries have continually failed at the box office in recent months, and positioned the theatrical release as an ideal domain for bolder projects that defy conventionalism. “Last year was a bloodbath for theatrical documentaries,” he said. “I suspect there may be an overabundance of product. The virtue of the theatrical model is that, over time, you develop a pedigree and can market it.” He made a clear distinction between television fare and ideal theatrical material. “I see a lot of agenda-driven films,” he said. “Distributors have to find out how to connect with local people. The traditional method of throwing it up at the cineplex doesn’t seem to be working.”
Nevertheless, Gibney’s films continue to do business and that probably won’t change anytime soon. The director briefly discussed his next project, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” centered around the disgraced Jack Abramoff. He’s also developing a segment of “Freakonomics,” an adaptation of the best-selling book, featuring the unlikely subject of cheating in the world of sumo wrestling. As for the fleeting news of his involvement in a documentary about philandering former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, Gibney confirmed the production but had only one comment on its content: “I’m Client Ten.” Like Thompson, whose personality comes through with delirious wit in “Gonzo,” Gibney hid his message in contextualized facetiousness.
Spike Lee showed greater reserve during his public appearance, but everyone knows that’s just how he rolls. “I don’t really make a distinction with my filmmaking, whether it’s narratives, short films or commercials,” he said outside the theater. Still, his presence had a logic to it, even if he seemed less than enthusiastic about it. AFI’s Bob Gazzale introduced Lee by drawing a comparison between his work and that of the late Charles Guggenheim, whose daughter Grace presented Lee with the award. Lee’s multi-part “When the Levees Broke,” the award-winning HBO film, showed earlier in the day; in 1989, Guggenheim made his own documentary about levees breaking, “The Johnstown Flood.” Given its recent impact, “Levees” came up several times during Lee’s conversation with Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy (after she confessed that her great aunt perished in the wake of the hurricane), but Lee mentioned several other developing nonfiction projects. His detailed portrait of Kobe Bryant, which was shot with fifteen cameras trained on the basketball player during a game in April, will likely air during the next season on ESPN, and the director hopes to screen a retrospective of Michael Jordan‘s last season in Chicago at the Cannes Film Festival next year.
By now, much has been made about the contemptuous vibe Lee radiated at the event — but in between bouts of timidity, he actually managed a few sly moments of self-analysis. Pointing out that his documentaries never use narration, he explained that they rely instead on specific editing processes (in “Levees,” his favorite moment is the montage at the start of the third act). Indeed, in the clip reel of his work shown at the start of the evening, the rhythms of the cuts were undeniable, especially in the strikingly thrilling short “We Wuz Robbed,” a ten minute black-and-white account mainly centered around the rush of Al Gore‘s aids to prevent his first attempt at a concession speech in November 2000. Based around talking heads, “We Wuz Robbed” generates a fluid stream of excitement, but the subjects do all the work.
The relationship of editing to theme bleeds into Lee’s narratives as well, a factor demonstrated by the extended clip reel from his upcoming World War II drama “Miracle at St. Anna,” which focuses on African American soldiers in Tuscany around the time of the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre in 1944. The film opens decades later, when one of the former fighters commits a public murder and the public investigation generates widespread chaos. Ten years after “Saving Private Ryan” revitalized the commercial war movie, Lee appears to have recontextualized the genre from his distinctive vantage point: Suddenly, fleeting nondiegetic inserts give way to a full-on flashback to the war, revealing the details of the grunts’ experiences. The preview proved that the film moves fast — not only in terms of action on the battlefield (of which there’s plenty), but tonally as well. One moment, guns erupt across sprawling planes and shouts fill the air; then, a scene of quiet intimacy and unexpected humor, when one of the black soldiers discovers a young Italian boy in an abandoned home. The boy’s reaction to his visitor: “A chocolate giant.” The story comes from James McBride‘s novel, but there’s no doubt that “Miracle at St. Anna” is a Spike Lee Joint.
Lee’s famed ethnic slant gradually unfurled as he warmed up to the audience. Anticipating a “real chocolate city” if Barack Obama wins the presidential election (“There’s no ‘if,’ he insisted), he enthused that “it’ll change everything. It’ll change the way the world looks at the United States, back to the way people thought about America after World War II. Some folks need to get used to this. It’s gonna be a new day — and not just a new day, a better day. And I’m gonna be at the inauguration, too.” Later, he took a swipe at one of the few other black filmmakers currently enjoying mainstream success. “I can’t do everything,” he said. “I gotta leave something for Tyler Perry.”
In retrospect, it’s not hard to read Lee’s documentaries as a sort of sharp response to Perry’s sugar-coated packagings of black American experiences, another good reason for Lee’s visit to Silverdocs. Among the 108 films in the program, the majority of which come from outside the United States, human drama arises from minority struggles. Among the popular titles from other festivals, “Up the Yangtze” finds the livelihood of a Chinese family jeopardized by the construction of a dam near their home, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” recalls the efforts of Liberian women united against the country’s oppressive dictator in 1996, “Trouble the Water” utilizes home video footage of a couple as they lose their home during Hurricane Katrina, and even Werner Herzog‘s strangely beautiful “Encounters at the End of the World” discovers a handful of lost souls whose lives in Antarctica result from their frustrations with the Western world. Documentarians might not have it easy, but there’s no doubting that many of them want to do the right thing.