iPOP and More, SilverDocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival

by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Just a few Metro stops from downtown Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, MD, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, SilverDocs, has staked out a home at the stunning AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center. Large crowds jammed screenings last weekend (June 14-19) for the popular third annual event.

Outside the Silver Theater on Friday night at the festival, "Murderball" co-director Henry Alex Rubin chatted with indieWIRE after another rousing festival screening. Since its debut and audience award win at Sundance this year, the festival has had a stellar festival tour, from SXSW and Sarasota in February and True/ False in Columbia, MO and New Directors/New Films in NYC in March, to Full Frame and Cleveland in April, not to mention recent stops at HotDocs, Nashville, Atlanta, CineVegas and Nantucket in May and June. Reflecting on the experience, Rubin explained that he is ready for the film to open and not surprisingly thrilled by audience reaction at festivals around the country. An action-packed and emotional look at the lives of a group of quad-rugby players, the crowd-pleasing film will no doubt draw an audience when it finally opens in theaters next month. Indeed at SilverDocs, the response was again effusive.

The other big Friday night screening at SilverDocs, coincidently the 20th anniversary of festival co-host Discovery Communications, was the east coast premiere of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man." Also set for a summer theatrical release, the film looks at the Timothy Treadwell, a man so obsessed with native grizzly bears in the wild of Alaska that he spent thirteen summers living among them and documenting his experience. Perhaps creating his own first-person adventure program, Treadwell talks at length about their bears and their experiences out of hibernation, referring to them by name and emotionally proclaiming his undying love for the animals. Following Treadwell's death after being eaten by a bear, Herzog picks up the story, offering an array of first-person footage and visit to Alaska to talk with the people who knew Timothy Treadwell.

Talking about the film after the screening, Herzog posed, "I think 'Grizzly Man' is a direct sequel to 'Aguirre: The Wrath of God," referring to his 1972 film, then calling his new film simply, "The Bear Witch Project."

Of the documentaries that rose to the top at SilverDocs this year, a number of them have dominated discussions at other festivals as well. Hubert Sauper's "Darwin's Nightmare," winner of the Sterling Award for best film at SilverDocs this year, is without a doubt among the most probing of recent docs, tackling the important topic of globalization. Exploring the unique case of the Nile Perch, a popularly consumed fish that has destroyed other life since being introduced into Lake Victoria in Africa forty years ago, the film addresses a number of crucial issues addressing both the local region and the international community, from famine and prostitution to regional war and the AIDS crisis on the continent.

"There is no difference between a prostitute in Tanzania and a woman who runs a business in America," Sauper said provocatively, talking about the movie with the SilverDocs audience. Introducing the film, filmmaker Sauper posed one direct question to the audience, "What the fuck are we doing?" And then he added, "I don't have the answer."

The other Sterling Award winner at SilverDocs, nabbing the best short film prize, was Arlene Donnelly Nelson and David Nelson's "Positively Naked," about a naked photo shoot of HIV+ subject by Spencer Tunick.

Music and comedy was a distinctly strong trend at SilverDocs this year to lighten the mood a bit, with the festival offering such comedic docs as Paul Provenza's "The Aristocrats," Michael Blieden's "The Comedians of Comedy," and Tamara Barschak's "Rebel Without Applause" and a program of music-themed projects including Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary's "Favela Rising," Heather Rae's "Trudell" and Kevin McAlester's "You're Gonna Miss Me," about Roger "Roky" Erickson, winner of the prize for best music documentary at the festival.

While comedic and music docs were popular, it was more serious films that won the audience prizes. The feature audience prize was shared by Marshall Curry's "Street Fight" about a Yale Law School graduate seeking to unseat the four-term incumbent mayor of Newark, NJ and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "The Boys of Baraka" about a group of students from a Baltimore, MD ghetto living in a boarding school in Kenya. Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman's "God Sleeps in Rwanda" won the audience prize for best short.

Chatting with indieWIRE over brunch a few moments before the Sunday awards program, festival director Patricia Finneran noted that while the comedy and music doc programming was quite popular at the festival and certainly lightened the mood for attendees, it was still the more serious films that the audience seemed to especially connect with, as reflected in the audience awards.

On Friday night in Silver Spring, MD, crowds milled around outside the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center after a screening of "Murderball."

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

American Film Institute Director & CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg at the festival's Sterling Awards ceremony.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

After Sunday's audience awards presentation, "Street Fight" director Marshal Curry with "The Boys of Baraka" co-director Heidi Ewing.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

"Darwin's Nightmare" director Hubert Sauper at the podium accepting his Sterling Award for the best feature at SilverDocs '05.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Posing for a quick shot at Saturday's party in the lobby of the Discovery Communications building, across the street from the AFI Silver Theater, are IFC's Kelly DeVine, a short film juror this year, with festival director Patricia Finneran and festival producer Colin Stanfield.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

AFI Silver Theater Director & COO Murray Horwitz with festival manager of marketing and operations Amy King, at the popular Saturday night NETFLIX party at the Moose Lodge.

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At the NETLIX party, Hubert Sauper poses for a shot with the festival's programming director Mark Kerr.

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Chatting with indieWIRE for a few minutes in the internet corner at the festival's popular Cinema Lounge is "You're Gonna Miss Me" director Kevin McAlester.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Accepting the Sterling Award for best short on behalf of Arlene Donnelly Nelson and David Nelson, is "Positively Naked" subject Spencer Tunick.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

A pair of visitors from Columbia, MO, site of the upstart True/False Film Festival, hang on the sidewalk outside the Silver Theater: filmmaker Kerri Yost and True/False "co-conspirator" and filmmaker David Wilson.

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From Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco (left to right), juror Gail Silva with Jane Clemmons of the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, at the Discovery Channel party.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Hanging out at the SilverDocs Cinema Lounge (left to right), the fest's Amy King, with an unidentified friend, Docurama's Liz Ogilvie and DocuClub's David Nugent.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Outside the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center.

Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

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