Think deeper. Silverdocs, the AFI/Discovery Documentary Festival, held from June 12-17, invited guests to ponder faith, music, democracy and war, in their program of 100 films from 42 countries, in addition to explorations in documentary craft and the future of the business of documentary through their special events and conference panels. It's a lofty goal to ask film goers to "think deeper" but this years' fest did indeed provoke lively conversations and set a high bar for intellectually engaging festival attendees.
A good place to begin is with the festival's Sterling Award for Best Feature documentary, which went to "Please Vote for Me" by Weijun Chen. This charming, humorous film follows three Chinese children as they learn about democracy through the first-ever election held in a Chinese school to become their class' monitor. They clash during debates and performances, partake in back-room, power-brokering negotiations and heed the advice of their parents who take winning very seriously. The film explores raw democracy in action, illuminating some of the issues that result from handing power of governance over to the governed, and particularly to those who have not experienced democracy in their culture.
The film is part of an unprecedented series entitled "Why Democracy?," ten films commissioned by a consortium of European broadcasters, including TV2 (Denmark), BBC, Arte France and executive produced by Steps International headed by Don Edkins. During a panel discussion at the National Archives where the US Constitution is housed, BBC's Nick Fraser and TV2's Mette Hoffman Meyer along with Alex Gibney, whose "Taxi to the Dark Side" screened at the festival, Siatta Johnson and Daniel Junge ("The Iron Ladies of Liberia") discussed their hopes that the simultaneous airing of the series in 30 countries (except the US, as no broadcaster has signed on to air the series in its entirety) will generate discussion around the world about democracy through an online portal at whydemocracy.net.
The Sterling Award for Best Short went to Sam Green's "Lot 63, Grave C" which examines the murder of Meredith Hunter as the Rolling Stones played at the Altamont free concert in 1969. From footage captured by the Maysles during shooting "Gimme Shelter," we see the sad incident which was so public, yet today Hunter's grave is unmarked and his memory nearly gone. His murder marked the end of the defiant 1960s and in a certain way, marks the beginning of the decline of our critique, questioning and engagement in current events.
Important films exploring the modern result of this lack of engagment included Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" about military torture, "No End in Sight" by Charles Ferguson, which surveys the administration's handling of Iraq war policy, and Randy Stulberg and Jeremy Stulberg's "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa," while exploring a group of outsiders in New Mexico, illustrates US mishandling of veterans affairs in vivid relief. Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire" explores the complicated domestic issue of abortion which has become so mired. If you feel comfortable in your position on abortion, whatever it is, this film will call your notions into question. It is powerfully ambiguous, requiring viewers to really consider opposing viewpoints.
Debating docs in a marketplace
Filmmakers Cameron Hickey, Peter Wintonick and Amit Breuer, have been roving the doc festival circuit with DocAgora, a pre-organized debate about the future of the documentary marketplace that comprised a large section of the International Documentary Conference, which runs concurrently to Silverdocs. On Friday, Neil Sieling from the Center for Social Media presided as moderator over the main debate proposition: "New Media has redefined the meaning of Public: the wall between public and commercial media no longer exists."
The prevailing thought from the debaters, Michael Burns, of The Documentary Channel (Canada), Katy Chevigny of Arts Engine Inc., Kathleen Powell from Jaman.com, Randy Rieland of Discovery Science, Jake Shapiro from Public Radio Exchange and Angela Wilson Gyetvan of Revver, was that there is no real wall between commercial media and media, perhaps a "screen door," according to Shapiro.
One of Silverdocs' unique events is The Charles Guggenheim Symposium. "The Symposium honors Guggenheim's commitment to cinematic excellence, freedom of expression and democratic values." Guggenheim was a four-time Academy-award winner, with one for perhaps his most remembered film, "The Jonestown Flood." The film was produced on the 100-year anniversary of the catastrophic flood of Jonestown, Pennsylvania in May of 1889. Jonathan Demme, this year's Guggenheim honoree, presented his newest work, "New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward" at the festival---an unhappy reminder that history does indeed repeat itself. Also screened in outdoor free events where Demme's classic concert films "Stop Making Sense" and "Neil Young: Heart of Gold."
In addition to the top jury prizes, honorable mentions went to Eva Mulvad's "Enemies of Happiness" that followed Malalai Joya as she ran as the first woman ever for Afghanistan's parliament. The Shorts jury awarded a Special Mention to "I Want to be a Pilot" by Diego Quemada-Diez, a visual poem about AIDS orphans who dream of rising from their desperate circumstances.
The Best Music Documentary award went to "Nomadek, TX" directed by Raul De la Fuente. AJ Schnack received the Cinematic Vision Award for "Kurt Cobain About a Son." The nonprofit human rights organization WITNESS gave its first annual award in honor of Joey Lozano, a prominent Filipino activist, to Annie Sunberg and Ricki Stern's "The Devil Came on Horseback," a devastating call to action to end witness and end genocide in Darfur. An honorable mention went "The Price of Sugar" by Bill Haney, about sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic.
The Audience Award for best feature went to "Souvenirs" by Shahar Cohen and Halil Efrat, that chronicles his amusing attempt to locate any possible half-siblings, or "souvenirs," war babies left behind by his father who fought in WWII. The Audience Award for best short went to "A Son's Sacrifice" by Yoni Brook, the story of a son in Queens who leaves his job to take over his father's slaughterhouse. A total of over $50,000 was presented in the awards.
From becoming the first documentary festival to go carbon neutral to exploring issues of faith and religion in its programming, Silverdocs took chances this year and the experience was richer for it. Being international and broad ranging in scope, yet managing to intellectually engage viewers and provoke dialogue is no modest feat. This year was the fifth anniversary and it is a fest poised for a bright, continuing future.