Mostly Gold at the First SilverDocs: Crowds Come Out for Non-Fiction (and Skateboarding) in Silver Spring
by Wendy Mitchell
In its first year of existence, SilverDocs has already seemed to outgrow itself, with standby ticket lines for many screenings. That probably isn't much of a surprise considering the two forces -- AFI and Discovery Communications -- behind this first in a hopefully annual series of documentary festivals. SilverDocs wasn't born as a necessarily must-attend event, especially for industry folks who might have clocked time at Hot Docs or Full Frame, but it certainly impacted the community of Silver Spring, Maryland (a Washington, D.C. suburb). Many of the screenings here were sold out, or at least well attended. Also, some special programming of this festival that might seem incongruous at a more industry-driven event -- like an NFL Films tribute night and an appearance by skateboard legend Tony Hawk -- had Silver Spring residents out in droves.
One thing that made SilverDocs instantly likable was its home, the AFI Silver Theatre, a stunningly plush yet homey 49,000-square-foot, three-screen venue that reopened earlier in 2003 after being restored to its original 1938 glory (with more high-tech projection systems of course). As one would expect from this new theater complex, films here for the most part looked terrific (although I did hear a few sound sync problems). The theater's location was ideal for a festival: it was just a few blocks from a metro station for anyone coming from D.C., it was next door to the Discovery Channel headquarters, and it was just a block from a Hilton where festival guests were housed. As an added bonus -- for the festival at least -- there wasn't much to see in the "urban environment" (as the fest put it) that is downtown Silver Spring, so unless one had an urge to go shopping at Burlington Coat Factory or grab a bite at Ruby Tuesday's, there was no excuse not to see tons of films. And festival events, thanks to some deep sponsorship pockets, were rather classy affairs, especially a Saturday night party following the Charles Guggenheim symposium, where endless platters of haute cuisine were on display. (Ted Gesing, the filmmaker who made a delightful short called "Nutria," about Louisiana water rodents being peddled as food, offer to pan fry me some nutria at a festival after-party at a nearby bungalow; thank God I'd already had my fill of salmon, brie, and chocolate truffles earlier).
Of course, as with any new festival, there could be a few improvements. For starters, those sold-out screenings meant some people were disappointed... and also showing most films only once meant it was hard for many people to see all the films they wanted to see. There's an easy solution: next year, perhaps the festival will augment the AFI Silver screenings with second showings at the AMC screens in the mall next door. Another complaint would be the festival trailer that showed before each program. The first time I saw it, I thought it went on far too long, stretching several minutes and showing choppily edited sections of festival films. By the eighth time I saw it, I wanted to start editing it myself... or start making shadow puppets with my hands. I also was surprised that some (although certainly not all) theater and festival staffers who I spoke with were sometimes uninformed (or even curt) when asked questions.
The lack of repeat screenings coupled with my short two-night stay at SilverDocs meant that I missed some highlights. In fact, I sadly missed all of the festival's winners -- Nathaniel Kahn's "My Architect," which captured the jury's Sterling Award for a feature documentary; Etienne Sauret's "Collateral Damages," about New York firefighters after September 11, winner of a special jury award; Peter Schnall's "This is a Game Ladies" (audience winner for best feature); and the program of audience-winning shorts "Billy," "Left Behind," "Welcome. A Docu-Journey of Impressions," "Life as it is," and "Hide Your Words."
But I did see plenty that hinted at the quality programming here. As you'd expect at any festival, there were some great films, some good ones, and a few that should've been left on the cutting room floor. Among the greats were "Lost Boys of Sudan," Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's examination of Sudanese teenagers who are brought to the U.S. in hopes of a better life than they had at a refugee camp in Kenya. What they find is far from the stereotypical American dream, and we see them struggling with blue-collar work and barely scraping by to pay rent. "Lost Boys" proved to an extremely telling doc about American life, told with drama and humor. We see these boys' bewilderment, excitement, and pain after they land in middle America in search of education and a better life.
To go along with the selection of sports-themed films, SilverDocs also presented a program entitled "Tight on the Spiral: An Evening with NFL Films' Steve Sabol," which included a chat with the charismatic Mr. Sabol and a selection of clips from the NFL Films catalog. As someone who knows more about tiki bars than Tiki Barber, I was expecting to be bored out of my mind at this program. Shockingly, it turned out to be the most entertaining evening of film I've been to all year (one particular butt-slap montage had the crowd in stitches). I now understand why a program on NFL Films was included at a film festival -- these pieces aren't mere sports journalism, they are works of filmmaking that explore "the human spirit," as Sabol said, not just touchdowns. As one filmmaker later told me, it's like Sabol can turn a football game into Greek mythology. The many Redskins fans in the audience seemed thrilled with this program (and the "tailgate" party that followed). Those in the know (not yours truly) were able to spot NFL players like Howard Stevens, Mark Washington, Ollie Matson, Roy Jefferson, Mike Bragg, and Lenny Moore in the crowd.
The next night's symposium attracted a less brawny crowd, among them Madeline Albright, for SilverDoc's inaugural Charles Guggenheim Symposium. This year's symposium was devoted to the late Mr. Guggenheim's last film, "Berga: Soldiers of Another War," about American POWs during WWII who were forced into slave labor because they were suspected of being Jewish. Guggenheim was certainly a pioneer among docs, and a four-time Oscar winner, but I have to admit that I had a few issues with "Berga," most notably the fact that many of the scenes were filmed recreations using actors. Can a contemporary actor adequately portray a dying Holocaust victim? Should we really be putting blood on barracks walls and stacking up fake body parts to approximate these horrors that happened long ago? I have my doubts...and I also was very disturbed that actual photos and staged scenes were intermingled seamlessly, without tipping off the audience as to which were real and which were recreated. Still, "Berga" is an inspiring story, and an important one that has never been told before. At an emotional chat after the film, NPR's Juan Williams talked with Charles' daughter and producer Grace Guggenheim, MPAA president Jack Valenti (wearing his trademark cowboy boots), New York Times editor and book author Roger Cohen, and Berga survivor Bill Shapiro.
Other features shown here include Nicolas Philibert's "Etre Et Avoir" (To Be and To Have), a true charmer about a remarkable teacher and his precocious students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France; Jesse Moss' wildly entertaining "Speedo," about a beguiling demolition derby driver, and Rory Kennedy's "A Boy's Life," an unexpectedly complex story of the troubled dynamics of a Southern family. Shannon O'Rourke's "In the Name of Love" was a telling look at American men searching for Russian brides. O'Rourke thankfully doesn't start out showing the men as total losers and the women as one-sided damsels in distress, but with more and more interviews, the women let us into some of their more deeper thoughts on their suitors, and the men are revealed to be extremely creepy. As one gent so eloquently put it while wooing a woman who doesn't speak English, "communication is pretty tough when you can't communicate with one another." I'd love to see a sequel on these couples in five years.
As for the films that were bronze at best, foremost was Michael Perlman's "Eyes of the World," about journalists working during the Balkan Wars. Perlman's doc was making its world premiere here, and I wouldn't expect to see much more of it. The only thing that kept my interest were the very moving photos that are like a slide show in most of the film, taken by photographer Ron Haviv. I was wondering why the whole doc felt so thrown together with shoddily filmed interviews, and then the director noted in his Q&A that he started the film because Haviv was a buddy of his from high school. When a filmmaker sitting next to me asked Perlman a provocative question about the graphic images in his film, he didn't seem to comprehend the subject, much less answer the question.
Among the shorts, Jay Rosenblatt's "I Used to Be a Filmmaker" was his cutesy but effective pairing of his infant daughter's many moods and developments as they relate to film terms; Tiffany Shlain's "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," was a kitschy and clever pro-choice short; Richard Linklater's "Live from Shiva's Dance Floor," was a showcase for the captivating rants of New York tour guide and cruiser Timothy "Speed" Levitch; and Jorgen Leth's "New Scenes from America," a follow-up to his 1981 "66 Scenes from America," had some beautiful images but it didn't captivate me. In the "Southern Culture on the Skids" shorts package were Ted Gesing's aforementioned charmer "Nutria"; Wes Justice and Mamie McCall's "On Six-Mile Pond: The Four Wheelin' Way of Life," a mostly amateurish look at four-wheeling rednecks in Florida; Annie J. Howell's "Grace and the New Rules," a well-crafted and unpretentious doc about a wise and spunky 87-year-old maid named Grace (so captivating she could potentially sustain a full-length feature); and Arlen Tarlofsky's crowd-pleasing bluesman biopic "Little Sammy Davis." Shorts playing before features included Vance Malone's "Ocularist," which was hyper-stylish with a techno beat, bringing an old-world craft into the world of the MTV generation; Jon Rubin's "So Many Women, So Little Hair," a self-indulgent look at the director's techniques for (unsuccessfully) hitting on women; and Sandy McLeod and Gina Reticker's "Asylum," about a woman who escaped from Ghana to the U.S. to avoid female circumcision, which was powerfully told and also beautifully shot, in part, by Ellen Kuras.
There weren't many industry folks or acquisitions execs schmoozing at this festival, but the community was clearly drawn in by SilverDocs. Maybe some of the academic-leaning films weren't sold out, but SilverDocs certainly was successful in getting the locals to celebrate cinematic culture with the opening night selection, Richard Schickel's "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin," talk politics after a symposium covering Ron Frank and Ann Benjamin's "Only in America" and Spike Lee's "We Wuz Robbed," or cheer on skateboarder Tony Hawk, listen to local bands, and pet baby goats at the Animal Planet booth during Sunday afternoon's community day (sunny weather even showed up). Sure beats an afternoon at Silver Spring's Burlington Coat Factory.