AFI/Discovery's Silverdocs Shines in Second Year
by Lily Oei
Given the current vogue for documentaries and its inside the beltway location, this election year edition of Silverdocs, the documentary film festival held in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Md., had every advantage going for it and did not stumble. Now under the leadership of IFP/NY alumna Patricia Finneran and program director Mary Kerr, the festival screened 70 titles before enthusiastic and curious crowds under the banner, "Life. Now Playing." In a town where cops ride bikes, horses, and Segway scooters all around the same little plaza, one senses that order is important in Silver Spring, so it wasn't surprising to see how smoothly the festival was running in only year two.
Co-created by neighborhood anchors American Film Institute and Discovery Communications, Silverdocs is just one element of the (sub)urban renaissance going on in Silver Spring. There's construction everywhere with the promise of new shops and restaurants evident all over. Anyone who has suffered through a screening at a rundown art house theater should really check out the newly refurbished AFI Silver Theatre, with its plush seating and a concession stand that sells beer and pizza.
Currently, there's very little to do in the strip between the Hilton Hotel where guests stay and the fabulous theater. Luckily, by this time next year, the scene won't be limited to the Red Lobster and Macaroni Grill, there are also Thai and Vietnamese nosheries preparing to open. Another harbinger of promise for the festival's future were the intrigued locals who stumbled upon the event, peering through the windows of the Cinema Lounge or startled by the presence of the glam rock reps of "Venus of Mars" -- not dressed like your average policy wonks.
Prizes were handed on Sunday morning at a brunch that had festival staffers cutting up fruit for sangria as well as handing out the annual Sterling Award snow globes. (Lest you think the festival is some dowdy homespun affair, guests were shuttled about in Cadillac Escalades, courtesy of sponsor GM.)
Sterling feature film honors were shared by James Miller's "Death in Gaza" and Carey Schonegevel's "Original Child Bomb." Sterling prize for a short film went to Juan Alejandro Ramirez's "Porter." Silverdocs' audience prizes went to "Born into Brothels" by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski in the feature category and "Life to Live" by Maciej Adamek in the shorts field. A trio of jury special mentions were handed out to Jonathan Stack's "Liberia: an Uncivil War" and shorts "Foo Foo Dust" by Gina Levy and Eric Johnson as well as Brent Huffman's "Welcome to Warren."
Although the festival had a 90 percent filmmaker attendance rate, Sunday's event was more sparsely attended, in part because it fell on Father's Day. Programming director Mary Kerr good naturedly took up the task of accepting prizes for filmmakers in absentia -- in one case, in Polish as well as English.
Topically, the films ran the gamut, although the festival did have an "On the Road" category. Besides award-winning "Death in Gaza" (for which the director/cinematographer Miller gave his life) and current affairs-y "Control Room" by Jehane Noujaim there was lighter fare, such as "Dirty Work" by first time directors David Sampliner and Tim Nackashi. Anyone who has had a bad day sitting in a climate-controlled cubicle should really be grateful that he or she is not employed as any of the following positions explored in the film: bull semen collector, embalmer, or septic tank pumper. And we should also be grateful that documentaries are not distributed in Odorama.
Here's a factoid from the film: to arouse a bull, cow on cow action will sometimes do the trick. Such lessons helped "Dirty Work" attract a standing-room-only crowd, as did the fact that Edward Norton executive produced the film. On hand to introduce "Dirty Work," Norton described his contribution as loaning his dining room for post-production space.
The festival kicked off with the world premiere of "Seeds" by first-time directors Joseph Boyle and Marjan Safinia. The film is about the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine, which brings together teenagers from Israel, Palestine, Indian, Pakistan, and other conflicted regions. Simulcast in three theaters, each room was filled beyond capacity, including the likes of Sheryl Crow and Lance Armstrong. And while an encore showing the following afternoon was much more lowkey, that also sold out, which Boyle accredited to one girl and her cell phone on opening night calling everyone she knew to check out the doc.
Beyond queuing up and seeing films, there were also a number of special events. Nearby, an international conference on documentary filmmaking drew in representatives from more than 55 countries.
On Thursday, the focus was "Documenting the Candidate," in which clips of presidential hopefuls were screened. Most impressive was a little seen Charles Guggenheim short about Robert F. Kennedy from 1968 that premiered that year at the Democratic Convention. In all honesty, it's probably the only time I didn't roll my eyes hearing someone croon "If I Had a Hammer." It's amazing to see how adoring of candidates we once were. The Guggenheim family is trying to clear the rights for wider distribution of the film.
Given the topicality of the session, I would have expected this one to be better attended than it seemed, but there was a sharp and eager audience in on hand. Naturally, the conversation turned to "Fahrenheit 9/11" a number of times. Up for discussion, Michael Moore's particular style of filmmaking -- that is, ambush tactics and creative editing -- and whether such documentaries would have effect on an election.
Filmmaker George Butler ("Pumping Iron") shied away from making grandiose statements about his forthcoming John Kerry doc "Tour of Duty," demurring, "I don't know what the final impact will be" and advising the audience to "wait and see." On the one hand it was surprising to see how passive Butler seemed when he could have really been tub-thumping, but I'm chalking that up to him being wise enough not to plant any pre-conceptions in the audience's mind.
Other special events at Silverdocs included an outdoor "drive-in" screening of Dick Rude's "Let's Rock Again" with performances by Mary Timony, French Toast, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. While it didn't gather as large a crowd as say, the finale of "Friends" at the Tribeca Film Festival, Rude's doc was a solid look at Joe Strummer's last year on tour with the Mescaleros -- even though I was hoping for more Clash references. Despite a few rain bursts, the weather held up and an estimated 700 people showed up to watch the film outdoors, while another 350 were safely seated indoors.
Because of the rain delay, Rude was unable to do Q&As at both venues, sacrificing the outdoor crowd for the indoor. That said, he was flattered that people braved the rain to check out the film. The doc is still looking for distribution but Rude knew that Silverdocs would be "a good outreach festival" to shore up the contacts he needed for this film and his next.
Friday's second-annual Charles Guggenheim symposium honored Barbara Kopple with a screening of her 1976 doc, "Harlan County." Having seen it for the first time, I now understand why this Oscar winner is in the National Film Registry. The audience hissed at all the right moments, siding with underdog labor against the mine owners. The event was a sold-out affair, and included a discussion with the ubiquitous Elvis Mitchell, Kopple's mentor, Albert Maysles, and her protégé, Kristi Jacobson ("American Standoff").
Mitchell inquired as to what made the documentary world "so pop" now, and Kopple answered: "It's finally getting marketing bucks." She said, "I always knew documentaries were what would connect people. All we needed is marketing and publicity."
That night ended in high style with a party across the street at Discovery's corporate offices complete with bluegrass sounds more commonly found in Eastern Kentucky.
Even after the awards were handed out, the festival kept going. Sunday was Speed Levitch's Cruise around Silver Spring (I didn't attend, but it seemed to be mostly on foot) and -- in keeping with the message of program selection "The Beauty Academy of Kabul" -- a mini spa day where guests could have hair, nails, or henna tattoos done to benefit Beauty without Borders.
If I had a hammer -- or a hair dryer.