When it was announced that "Men Who Swim," Dylan Williams' feature about a British man living in Sweden who joins a local men's synchronized swimming team, was the audience award's choice for best feature (Aideen O'Sullivan & Ross Whitaker's "Bye Bye Now" was the audience's choice for best short), a suspicion I had about this year's Silverdocs Film Festival was confirmed. It seemed, through talking to audience members before screenings, that the true stars of this year's film festival were Northern European filmmakers. While films like Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington's "Restrepo" and Amir Bar-Lev's closing night film "The Tillman Story" drew packed and enthusiastic audiences, their appeal had already been confirmed at Sundance.
Led by the award-winning "Men Who Swim," a cluster of four idiosyncratic Northern European films continuously found themselves a part of my conversations with other attendees. Marcus Lindeen's "Regretters" features two subjects, Orlando Fagin and Mikael Johansson, in a spare black room, who recount their experiences as people who regret their decisions to transition to women after being born with male genitalia. We switch from seeing the two staring at a projector, which is displaying old photos of the two of them, to the subjects talking to the camera individually. Sometimes, the subjects face each other in conversation, and in fascinating exchanges, reveal to each other how different their experiences and motives are.
Two Finnish films enraptured the audiences that found their way to them: Mika Hotakainen and Joonas Berghäll's "Steam of Life" and Jukka Kärkkäinen's "The Living Room of the Nation." Both films film their subjects intimately, allowing the mostly male Finnish subjects to reveal their lives' most intimate stories and moments. In "Steam of Life," the portraits of the men are intimate for another reason: most of the interviews, which predominantly allow the men to recount traumatic, sad events in their lives, occur in saunas across Finland, and the subjects are nude throughout. In "The Living Room of the Nation," a series of Finns go about their daily, perhaps monotonous, routines in the comfort of their home. In what is perhaps the film's most stirring scene, a young man is joined on his bed by his best (male) friend, who congratulates him on becoming a future father. As they celebrate, drunk, the two gaze amorously into each other's eyes, and nearly lock lips in a more-than-just-friends manner.
Perhaps the silliest sight in the AFI Silver Theater occurred after the premiere screening of "The People Vs. George Lucas," when the lobby erupted in light saber fights following the screening of the doc, which explores the fan's outrage at the "Star Wars" prequels. Close runners-up include: the partying antics of the subjects of Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom's portrait of young men who fled the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, "Sons of Perdition" and the chuckles that rang through the audience when a logo for Comcast was broadcast on the screen before "Barbershop Punk," which tackles the issue of net neutrality through the lens of one man's fight against the company's broadband arm.
Thursday evening, a roster of documentary heavy hitters, including the Presidents of AFI and PBS, celebrated the decades-long career of Frederick Wiseman, who was universally acclaimed for being able to "help us see us" and to document how we once were. The filmmaker, who was honored as part of the fest's Guggenheim Symposium, will be featured in a special series of some of his least screened films at the AFI Silver.
The fest also showed off two investigative films that sent chills down audiences' spines. Henry Corra's "The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan" follows a lead from a Vietnam vet that claims he saw the private-turned-defector on a 2005 visit to Vietnam. The film, executive produced by Danny Glover, follows Nolan's trail through Vietnamese cafes, to Nolan's half-Vietnamese son, to the Khmer Rouge's killing fields. "As Lilith," directed by Eytan Harris, follows dead end after dead end, sticking a camera into the life of one of cinema's most unreliable characters, the eponymous hero/villain, to find out the truth behind her daughter's apparent suicide.
Though many who attended the festival regularly seemed to think that it was quieter than in years past, most agreed that the programming was strong. Two shorts, both of which challenged documentary form, were particularly striking to me: Tessa Joosse's gorgeous and fun recycling plant musical "Plastic and Glass" and Andrea Dorfman's document of her relationship with a plastic surgeon, told through voiceover and watercolors, "Flawed." It is perhaps the distinctive subtlety of this year's strongest films that made the fest a bit of a tough pitch. After all, the world jury's choice for best feature, "The Woman with the 5 Elephants" follows an 85-year-old woman who is widely considered the greatest translator of Russian into German. What unfolds is a most complicated, intriguing investigation of language, zeal for knowledge, and persistence; a true documentary gem. Those who made it out to this year's fest were treated to her forthrightness as well as that of naked Finns, couch potato Finns, and Swedes who swim and regret.
Bryce J. Renninger, an indieWIRE contributor in the New York office, is also the shorts programmer for Newfest and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Studies at Rutgers University. He can be reached via Twitter.