For the past week, Silver Spring MD played host to some of the heavy hitters of the non-fiction world as the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival and conference celebrated its tenth anniversary. Wrapping up this weekend, Silverdocs presented more than a hundred films, as well as a week packed with panels, workshops, and special events like its annual Guggenheim Symposium, which this year honored the work of doc stalwarts Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy fame.
The festival opened Monday evening with the crowdpleasing “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” in which director Ramona Diaz follows the unlikely but true story of fellow Filipino Arnel Pineda on his first year on tour as the new frontman for the legendary rock band Journey after years as a cover band singer. The screening was followed, appropriately enough, with a party featuring a band called “The Reagan Years,” whose playlist featured all the ’80s hits you’d ever want to hear, including, of course, a rousing version of Journey’s most popular song, accompanied by Diaz and members of her team.
The Guggenheim Symposium provided Silver Spring audiences with the chance to hear from not only Berlinger and Sinofsky, but their “Paradise Lost” subject Jason Baldwin as well, in a discussion moderated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez. One of the festival’s signature events, the Guggenheim Symposium presented excerpts from the filmmakers’ work, reflections on working together for 25 years and maintaining their friendship, and how they balance the craft of filmmaking, journalism, and advocacy work in their storytelling. In conjunction with the symposium, Silverdocs offered retrospective screenings of the duo’s work, both joint and solo projects, including the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, “Brother’s Keeper,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” as well as an outdoor screening of Berlinger’s most recent doc, “Under African Skies,” about the making and impact of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album.
Silverdocs’ Conference, a gathering of documentary filmmakers and industry professionals in a series of panels and workshops, addressed a wide variety of topics, from crowdsourcing and film scores to opportunities to learn what broadcasters and funders are looking for. For the second year, I returned to the festival to curate a number of sessions and to serve as a panelist or moderator for several others, which included offering advice on navigating the film festival circuit, reaching underserved audiences, and a masterclass with editors. The Conference, perhaps even more than the screenings, helps to make Silverdocs stand out in the non-fiction festival landscape. While just a few metro stops away from Washington DC, Silver Spring is a fairly quiet town with few distractions, resulting in typically well-attended Conference sessions and networking opportunities for aspiring and established filmmakers alike. The event also makes room for some lighter events, like Friday night’s Campfire Stories event, in which attending filmmakers share stories of the “best scenes they never shot,” followed by an especially energetic karaoke party that witnessed the swagger of the Ross Brothers and an especially notable performance/possession by True/False’s David Wilson, co-presenter of the campfire event.
While these off-screen events attract a largely professional audience, Silverdocs’ screenings reach larger audiences, and represent a mix of notable favorites from festivals earlier in the year that have not yet made it to the area as well as a significant number of films making their world or US premiere here. About two dozen features compete for the fest’s juried Sterling Awards for US and World cinema, while all 41 of the shorts compete for the Sterling Short Film Award. Indiewire has already reported on the awards ceremony that took place on Saturday afternoon, with audience awards announced at the conclusion of the festival last evening. What follows on the next page is a roundup of a several of the films screened in both the feature competitions, as well as the non-competition Silver Spectrum.
“Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself”
Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s comprehensive portrait of the late Renaissance/Everyman made its world premiere at the festival this week. Known for both his forays into participatory journalism and as the co-founder/editor of The Paris Review, Plimpton emerges as a fascinating subject – willing to be the ultimate amateur – trying his hand at stand-up, football, and the flying trapeze for the sake of an experiential story – despite criticisms, while also cultivating the talents of multiple generations of authors through his influential journal. Smartly constructed, using copious archival interviews to allow Plimpton to largely tell his own story, Bean and Poling’s documentary is a brilliant example of creative biographical filmmaking.
“Ann Richards’ Texas”
Another portrait of a silver-haired public figure making its world premiere at Silverdocs was the winner of the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award, Keith Patterson and Jack Lofton’s tribute to the iconic yet improbable former governor of Texas, Ann Richards. The film demonstrates how an outspoken liberal Democrat in a traditionally Republican state made her way into the gubernatorial seat and won the hearts of fans nationwide. The late Richards is brought back to life through her witty speeches and outsized personality, while admirers from Bill Clinton to Lily Tomlin reflect on her impact not only on Texas but on the country as a whole.
Speaking of size, Julie Wyman’s world-premiering film celebrates the power size brings to her subject, Cheryl Haworth, three time Olympian in women’s weightlifting. While Haworth might at times demonstrate ambivalence about her body, she clearly also takes great pride in what it has allowed her to do in her chosen sport. Following her on the road to the 2008 Olympics, Wyman crafts a film that’s less a typical sports/competition doc, and more about an incredible woman whose strength comes not only from her 300 lb frame but from her engaging personality.
Patrick Shen expands on one of the subjects of his earlier film, “The Philosopher Kings,” in this portrait of Josue Lajeunesse, a janitor at Princeton by day and cabdriver by night, who finally realizes a long-held dream to bring clean water to his rural Haitian hometown. Against the backdrop of the devastating aftermath of the earthquake, Shen presents an uplifting story of humanitarianism and development stemming from the local level.
Cab drivers are the focus of Joshua Z Weinstein’s featurette, also a world premiere at Silverdocs. In less than an hour, Weinstein offers a glimpse at a Queens taxi service, from the affable owner who recruits drivers as they await their hacker license tests, to a 90-year-old experienced cabbie and a newcomer Asian immigrant trying to make ends meet. While one gets the sense that the story could be expanded, Weinstein succeeds in capturing the workings of a perhaps too-little understood common profession, while also revealing the impact of the Recession in an understated way.
“Betting the Farm”
The economic realities for small organic dairy producers are presented in an effective and dramatic manner in Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann’s look at the efforts of a consortium of milk producers striking out on their own as MOO – Maine’s Own Organic milk. Translating the pace of the region in the same way docs like “Downeast” and “The Way We Get By” have done, Pingree and Mann are able to engender in the viewer an emotional investment in their characters, as well as a desire to see MOO succeed.
“Oma & Bella”
Alexa Karolinski achieves a similar rapport between the audience and her subjects, her ancient grandmother and Bella, her longtime roommate and friend. Opening their Berlin apartment, and mostly their constantly stirring kitchen, to the camera, these warm, inviting subjects come off as the audience’s Jewish grandmothers, offering the viewer home-made dishes to help make the more difficult memories of their past more palatable. This is no typical Holocaust doc, however – while their stories are affecting, they never weigh down what is at heart a lovely look at a close, lifelong friendship.
Making its North American premiere here, Mirjam Von Arx’s film on the bizarre new phenomenon of Evangelical Christian purity balls showcases the overly close Wilson family of Colorado Springs. The founders of the event in their community, Randy and Lisa Wilson celebrate the chastity of their daughters until marriage and hold elaborate ceremonies for all manner of events in their seven home-schooled children’s lives. Focusing on a supposedly media-savvy family whose patriarch serves as the spokesman for a Religious Right “think tank,” Von Arx manages to capture moments of pure gold – manufactured “heartfelt” confessions of familial love whose lack of spontaneity is called out by a particularly sassy daughter, or the revelation from the twenty-something daughter (who’s desperately still waiting for her husband to appear) that she didn’t go to college because it would be a “waste of money” since she just wants to be a wife and mother. If it wasn’t so infuriatingly real, the film would make for great comedy.
“Only the Young”
The winner of the US jury award, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims’ remarkable portrait of adolescence made its east coast premiere at Silverdocs. Left to their own devices, two teen best friends skateboard around their suburban California town, until a confession of a stolen kiss with the pretty Skye destabilizes the equilibrium of their friendship. Impressively intimate and naturalistic, Mims and Tippet’s film signal the emergence of a new pair of exciting non-fiction storytellers.
“¡Vivan las Antipodas!”
Finally, another east coast premiere that picked up a prize at Silverdocs – Victor Kossakovsky’s acclaimed observational film on four pairs of geographical opposite locations claimed the Cinematic Vision Award. Eschewing narration, the film captures stunning landscapes, juxtaposing China and Argentina, New Zealand and Spain, Russia and Chile, and Botswana and Hawaii – among the few populated antipodes – to offer viewers a jaw-dropping, and often playful, cinematic experience.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).