It's no secret that documentarians are some of the most independent and hardworking filmmakers in the biz. In a film's credits, it's not unusual to see a movie written, directed, edited and shot by the same person. Documentaries are passion projects. Showcasing stories that could not be left untold and doing it with pertinence and persistence. The fourth annual Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival opened June 13th and ran through June 18th in and around the historic AFI Silver Theater in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, just a stone's throw from Washington DC and called out to filmmakers and the community with this year's powerful slogan, "Independent Thinkers Welcome".
In addition to showcasing over 100 films from 22 countries the festival also included a multi-layered documentary conference, and a conversation with Martin Scorsese and a keynote address from former vice president Al Gore. With most films only screening once and each panel different than the one before it, it was impossible to see, do and learn everything. But one thing is certain, Silverdocs and its' home city Silver Spring have grown exponentially every year since the festival's inception. While the festival added new programs including DOCS Rx with films exploring global health and Celebrate South Africa! showcasing docs both about South Africa and made by filmmakers rooted there, Silver Spring itself has becoming a bustling marketplace with bookstores, shopping and a restaurant for every kind of food you can think of. Add the free parking, free wi-fi, outdoor concerts and screenings and a nicely furnished Cinema Lounge and you've got one heck of a film festival vibe.
The fest kicked off Tuesday night with "Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters". Director Bill Couturie explores the nation's recent pastime of talking about what's doing well at the box office and what's bombing and how that affects moviegoers and can make or break industry careers. Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart wrote the book "Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters", which was produced in conjunction with Variety's 100th anniversary and inspired the film.
Peter Bart wasn't the only high profile showbiz face to attend Silverdocs. Many popular documentary filmmakers, subjects making the rounds and indie films' finest were on hand to talk about the movies. Painstaking investigative filmmaker Nick Broomfield brought the U.S. Premiere of his latest doc feature, "His Big White Self", which chronicles the controversial African Nazi Party leader Eugene Terreblanche. Popular festival attendee since Sundance and film subject of the crossword puzzle doc "Wordplay", Will Shortz, showed up for a crossword challenge and Times Talk. John Pierson, independent film guru, and member of the 2006 Silverdocs shorts jury is always good for a quip. At a Doc Talk between Pierson and Silverdocs Director of Programming Sky Sitney he talked about what it was like to be the subject of a documentary ("Reel Paradise") and reminded anyone dealing with film subjects to, "just be nice to them".
Other hot events were the conference keynote with Al Gore and the Guggenheim Symposium with Martin Scorsese. Judith McHale, president and CEO of Discovery Communications introduced Mr. Gore and I was sitting close enough to hear him chuckle when she called him a media mogul. He seemed truly moved to be involved with the documentary community saying, "The reason I am so passionate about documentary film is because I sincerely believe that in order to solve the climate crisis we need to solve the democracy crisis." He continued, "Using the medium of film coupled with the new technology we have we can fix the democracy crisis." It was hopeful.
At a private Silver Session with Gore following the keynote he urged filmmakers to submit short films to Current TV, saying, "You can make anything you like as long as it's absolutely fascinating." Grace Guggenheim, daughter of the late Charles Guggenheim and his longtime producing partner brought up Martin Scorsese and interviewer Jim Jarmusch for a conversation about films and filmmaking saying, "There is a major movement going on. There's a documentary explosion and we are part of it." After a montage of clips of Scorsese's doc work Jarmusch launched into a hang out session resonant of a meeting of a high school film club. The conversation between the two was one of mutual appreciation for one another's work. It was refreshing to hear a moderator truly ask what they want to know and not getting overblown answers. When asked what the secret to getting a natural response from documentary subjects Scorsese responded, "You can hold a camera on a person and they talk." Their talk seemed cut short and the two film lovers agreed as Jarmusch read this Scorsese quote saying, "it's not a question, I just love this quote", "As with heroine the antidote to film is more film."
The festival hosted 12 world premiere docs this year; "21 Up America", "Addicted to Oil": Thomas L. Friedman Reporting", "Beyond Eyruv", "The Blood of Yingzhou District", "The Breast Cancer Diaries", "The Bushman's Secret", "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?", "A Certain Kind of Beauty", "Punk's Not Dead", "Senzeni-Na", "Soweto Blues", and "Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey". In addition to the premieres the festival also proudly projected many great docs that have been riding the festival circuit including "What Remains", "La Persona De Leon N.", "American Blackout", "The Trials of Darryl Hunt", "Air Guitar Nation", "Fuck", "KZ", "Darkon", and "Walking to Werner". Truly a treasurebox of documentaries that have also been showcased at major film festivals worldwide.
The festival closed out Saturday night with the world premiere of Christopher Quinn's 3rd installment in the American version of Michael Apted's 'Up' series, "21 Up America". The film follows 16 young people asking the same questions Apted asked in the original British version. The film is both obvious and shocking examining their lives as they come crashing into adulthood. 14 members of the cast were on hand for a Q & A after. They all sang the praises of Quinn and Producer Victoria Bippart. They sat at the edge of the stage, it was very surreal, one of the guys said it best, "We haven't seen each other since we were 7. So it's sort of an awkward and wonderful dynamic."
Silverdocs announced festival winners during two separate but equally modest award ceremonies. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Jesus Camp" won the Sterling Award for best Feature. The film is an angering look at kids who attend a camp for young Christian evangelicals. The directors will receive $10,000 cash and $10,000 in-kind services from Video Labs and $5,000 in film stock from Kodak. Ewing and Grady's "The Boys of Baraka" won the Silverdocs Sterling Award in 2005. A Special Jury mention went to "Chairman George" by Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin.
The short jury awarded "Seeds" by Wojciech Kasperski with the Sterling Award for best short. The filmmaker will receive $5,000 cash. Honorable Mentions went to the animated and experimental "McLaren's Negatives" by Marie-Josee Saint-Pierre and "The Aluminum Fowl" by James S. Clauer and a Special Jury Mention for Student Short for "A Girl Like Me" by 17-year-old Kiri Davis.
The Music Documentary Award went to Stefan Berg and Magnus Gertten's "Rolling Like a Stone."
While the DOCS Rx Global Health Documentary Award went to Ruby Yang's
"The Blood of Yingzou District". With a special Jury Mention for "Before Flying Back to Earth" by Arunas Matelis.
The $10,000 ACE (Animal Content in Entertainment) Grant went to "Cougars On The Edge" by Janice Jensen.
For the first time in Silverdocs history a short and feature paired together both won audience awards and it's no wonder - the energy in the room for the screening was palpable. The Feature Audience Award went to "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" by Frank Popper and short "The Sheriff of Gay Washington" by John W. Poole tied with short "A Girl Like Me" by Kiri Davis.
Silverdocs 2006 was a refreshing mix of new filmmakers and seasoned veterans, conference and film festival, parties and special events. Most importantly the festival and the dedicated staff truly honor the documentary genre and community that surrounds it. Supporting the craft like only a documentary festival can do.
EDITORIAL DISCLAIMER: Sarah Jo Marks is the producer’s rep handling the Silverdocs audience award-winning feature, "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?
ABOUT THE WRITER: Sarah Jo Marks is a producer's rep and a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine. She writes more about docs at Documentary Insider.