As with many fests, 2009 marked a year of transition for SilverDocs. Founding director Patricia Finneran left the fest, and programmer Sky Sitney became Artistic Director. On the programming side, any additional responsibilities seem only to have spurred Sitney to greater triumphs, as the fest put forth what was arguably its strongest lineup of films ever, and further cemented its position as one of the most important gathering spots for the US documentary industry.
With a well-balanced lineup of premieres, festival favorites and overlooked gems, downtown Silver Spring, Maryland (and its bizarro downtown mall) bustled with energy and excitement throughout the week.
Below is a sampling of some highlights of the fest, on-screen and otherwise.
- "October Country", a premiere from directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, combined gorgeous footage, deft use of metaphor and the kind of intimacy that is only created by family (Mosher's) to tell the story of a multi-generational family battling ghosts both real and imagined. The kind of "small" film that doesn't readily lend itself to outreach campaigns or sponsorship by NGO's, "October Country" deserves to be widely seen and marks the arrival of a pair of extraordinary talents on the nonfiction scene.
- Equally well-crafted, Marshall Curry's new film, "Racing Dreams," is the Yang to "October Country's" Yin, bringing the roar of NASCAR to the screen via the stories of three young Go-Kart racers who all strive to grow up as NASCAR heroes. Though industry observers have spent plenty time already pointing out the disconnect between traditional doc and racing audiences, this film deserves views from both sides of the aisle, and could see real theatrical success if handled correctly.
- In the tradition of "The Class" or "To Be and To Have" comes "The Apprentice," a French film of impeccable craft and careful observation. Samuel Collardey's quiet, but never slow, debut feature, looks at a young man who apprentices on a small family farm in France. "The Apprentice" offers one exquisitely framed scene after another and, though it may fall well outside most viewers definition of documentary filmmaking, delivers abundant lessons on the art and craft of verite-style storytelling.
- Another SilverDocs premiere, "Riseup," from director Luciano Blotta, discovers one of THE great screen presences of any doc I've seen this year. Kimoy Reed, introduced as a slip of a Jamaican country girl with a goosebump-inducing voice, is our entry point to this glimpse inside the modern Jamaican music scene. The film is light on its feet and so deft in its portrayal of the three subjects that it transcends the "music subculture" genre with abundant grace and style.
- The Good Pitch, brainchild of the prolific and creative folks over at Britdoc (and with an invite list curated by host extraordinaire Sandi Dubowski), came roaring into Silver Spring with a vengeance, bringing eight documentary filmmakers face-to-face with representatives from a number of nonprofits and other nontraditional film funders (along with some familiar faces like Cara Mertes from the Sundance Documentary Fund). While much of the discussion spun on how filmmakers could take advantage of an organizations email list, etc. there were also some wonderful surprises of synergy, and moments that crystallized partnerships and opened eyes to the new memes of strategic partnership for documentaries.
- One of the best signs of a well-curated fest tend to be the small "surprise" films - work that may have officially premiered somewhere slightly off the radar, but is given a well-deserved boost by prestige positioning at an event like SilverDocs. One such film is the sublime "Superman of Malegaon," directed by young Indian filmmaker Faiza Khan. Though "making-of" docs are plentiful, few have the same joyous spirit or crisp storytelling that Khan displays as she chronicles the attempt to make a Superman parody infused with the local culture of Malegaon, India. This is far from Bollywood, but the special effects are impressive and the whole project should inspire filmmakers in every country.
- In the "What's next?" category, be on the lookout for the first feature from prolific (and ubiquitous) queen of the documentary short, Eva Weber, here at SilverDocs with two shorts ("Steel Homes" and "The Solitary Life of Cranes"). Produced through their Odd Girl Out shingle, the feature will be called "L.A. Storage" and continues the exploration of life in a storage facility that they began with "Steel Homes."
- A few other titles to watch out for as they make the festival rounds... "Mugabe & the White African" won the international jury prize, "Junior" received great buzz around the fest and marks the directorial debut of "Jesus Camp" cinematographer Jenna Rosher, "Only When I Dance" features fantastic ballet footage and is sure to prove very popular at fests, along with "She is the Matador" and "RIP: A Remix Manifesto".
- Finally, at a raucous karaoke party on Thursday night, Sitney secured her spot at the top of the doc programmer karaoke challene, belting out not only "Jolene," but tackling the soaring strains of "Purple Rain" as well. Though this reporter missed the Trouble Funk (let's hear it for go-go!) outdoor concert on Friday night, one imagines that it provided another high point in the party life of a festival charting a strong course to the future.