I feel lucky not to have to travel far to go to what has arguably become one of the best festivals for documentaries in the United States. Every June, SILVERDOCS comes to Silver Spring, Maryland for six days of films, panel discussions, and industry networking opportunities. I make a point of going every year, not only to check out the latest and greatest in the world of documentary, but also because I feel a special pride in seeing movies in the AFI/Silver Theatre. I went often to that theater as a child, growing up in Silver Spring when its downtown was home to no less than five single-screen movie theaters -- the Silver being the most magnificent of them all. Seeing E.T. in the Silver made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place.
This year I think was one of the strongest years for SILVERDOCS in terms of the quality of the films. It was also apparently one of their strongest years ever for ticket sales, resulting in lots of sold-out screenings and the resulting scramble to add screenings and do their best to ensure that filmmakers and other industry passholders could make it to the head of standby lines for the numerous sold out films. They also added some industry-only screenings at Discovery headquarters this year which made a big difference in appeasing those who shelled out a few hundred bucks to ensure they did not get shut out of films.
The festival opened Tuesday night with PETE SEEGER: THE POWER OF SONG, an American Experience-style biopic on the life of the folk singer. I took my mother, a long-time folk fan who has caught Seeger's performances since the 1950s, and she sang-along to the whole film. Following the screening, we were all treated to post-show musical performances by Tom Paxton, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Odetta who, while frail and preferring to sing from the audience, was unfazed by the sound of a cell phone going off during her performance. Also featured on stage and at the post-film Gala were the Mammals, a band including Seeger's grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger.
I spent the next few days, balancing my time between films, conference sessions, one-on-one networking, and trying to catch a few Zs between it all. While scheduled meetings meant I didn't have a chance to attend as much of the conference as in the past, I did make it to a few sessions from the Future of Real 2.0 series. One session on Cutting Edge Technology Issues featured a panelist in avatar form from Second Life. Another interesting session focused on the impact of digital downloads on distribution, with updates from JAMAN, DER, and New Video. One of the most interesting exchanges of this session related to rights for Internet distribution, with Debra Zimmerman from Women Make Movies suggesting from the audience that, if filmmakers cannot convince a broadcaster who is not offering digital downloads or streaming rentals as an option (but still wants to retain those media distribution rights) to let the filmmaker retain the Internet rights entirely, they should at least try to negotiate a time limit on those rights, perhaps having the Internet rights revert back to the filmmaker in six months or a year.
I also had a chance to drop in on a bit of DocAgora, a relatively new initiative which has been traversing major film festivals worldwide to provide a platform for interchange between the documentary film community about socially-engaged documentary content. At SILVERDOCS, one of the main features of DocAgora was a debate around the proposition "New Media has re-defined the meaning of Public: the wall between public and commercial media no longer exists." The discussion, while somewhat academic, was intriguing and I wish I could have stayed beyond the panelist debate to see how the audience took on the proposition. But unfortunately, I had to run to catch another panel -- one of the biggest challenges of SILVERDOCS is deciding which panels to attend. There were more than a few that I wanted to see which were all scheduled simultaneously. Some of them were recorded so I will post an update if SILVERDOCS uploads any podcasts.
Speaking of podcasts, Joel Heller of Docs That Inspire (one of the best documentary resources in the blogosphere) recorded one of the most poorly attended panels on one of the most important advocacy issues for documentary filmmakers today -- a special session on the controversial Academy Award qualifying rules. Moderated by Sandra Ruch from the International Documentary Association, the panel featured different points of view from outspoken filmmakers A.J. Schnack and Marco Williams and producer/distributor Julie Goldman on the topic of what it takes to qualify for an Oscar. Frieda Lee Mock, Governor of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was also invited to participate, but was unable to do so. However, IDA distributed a handout which included contact information for her (email@example.com), as well as for questions related to the ever-changing Oscar qualification rules (Torene Svitil - Awards Office, Department Head of AMPAS, firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-247-3000) and for questions related to technical formats (Andy Maltz, Director of the Science and Technology Council, email@example.com or same phone number as Svitil). To listen to the panel discussion, click here to download an unedited MP3.
Every SILVERDOCS features numerous films related to war and post-conflict. This year, one of the best panels took on the topic of how documentaries cover war -- or, more specifically, the war in Iraq. Among the panelists were Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE), Charles Ferguson (NO END IN SIGHT), and David Modell (WAR TORN: STORIES OF SEPARATION). Almost stealing the show from the filmmakers were Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff (who is featured in both Gibney and Ferguson's films) and Paul Hughes, who served on the Iraq Study Group’s Military and Security Expert Working Group (and is also featured in Ferguson's film). While Hughes (who currently works for the U.S. Institute of Peace) maintained the normal Washington diplo-speak, Wilkerson pulled no punches in his outspoken criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
I did not have a chance to see NO END IN SIGHT (I can only take so many war films and thankfully this one will start its theatrical run at Washington DC's Landmark E Street theater next month). But I did see a sold-out screening of TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, a powerful follow-up to Gibney's previous film ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM. The access he was able to get (particularly to U.S. soldiers who had been convicted of abuses at Bagram prison in Afghanistan) was incredible. More importantly, he builds an effective case that torture has essentially become an accepted part of U.S. doctrine in a post 9/11 world. His film is free of the partisan polemics that mar so many documentaries related to the War on Terror.
I also saw WAR TORN, part of a shorts series titled Embattled. It was impossible to keep a dry eye during Modell's film, which focuses on the impact of the war in Iraq on the home front from the perspective of the families of British soldiers who have died or been damaged as a result of the war. The film is told as four vignettes, with voiceover of wives or mothers on top of still images of the soldiers, their families, and their lives in both Iraq and England. Originally conceived as an Internet project for Channel Four, the WAR TORN series received such an overwhelming response that it was ultimately aired on television over consecutive nights. Even Modell was surprised by the emotional impact on the festival audience, watching the four vignettes back to back. The Embattled series was probably one of the strongest collection of shorts I have ever seen in a festival. It also included SARI'S MOTHER, James Longley's film about the relationship between an Iraqi woman and her son who has AIDS. Shot at the same time Longley was making his Oscar-nominated feature IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS, SARI'S MOTHER retains much of the same style of beautiful cinematography and visceral storytelling, letting the story unfold not through dialogue or any form of narration, but through careful observation of human interaction and moments of facial expression which speak volumes about the characters. A third short about Iraq, Ed Kashi's IRAQI KURDISTAN, looks at the relatively peaceful Kurdish region of Iraq through images of various people engaged in everyday activities. Like Longley, the film eschews dialogue in favor of slice-of-life closeups of Iraqi people. But, unlike SARI'S MOTHER which has a languorous pace, IRAQI KURDISTAN uses an experimental style, reminiscent of animated flip-books, setting a rhythm which stops at moments to reflect on a particular human expression. Another film in this shorts series was BULLET PROOF VEST, a film about children living in a tent city as part of a protest against neighborhoods which provide no safe havens for children to play. The film was impressive, especially since it was a student work and was created with only a small amount of 16 mm film available to the students. The final film, LOT 63: GRAVE C, looked at life, death, and obscurity from the perspective of Meredith Hunter whose murder at the 1969 Altamont rock concert was captured in the Maysles classic GIMME SHELTER, but who remains a mystery and is buried in an unmarked grave.
Perhaps the flip side of LOT 63: GRAVE C was to be seen in FOREVER, the latest work from one of my favorite directors Heddy Honnigman. Festival programmer Sky Sitney confessed to the audience that, while she loves all her "children," this was one of her favorite films in the festival. I would have to agree. Once again, Honnigman finds a way to take a topic on the surface and delve deeper so that it becomes something else entirely. We enter Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery purportedly to tour the graves of some of France's most famous writers, artists, and composers. Ultimately though the film becomes about the legacy these dead artists have left for the contemporary living, as each "guide" relates the visit to the grave to something in their own life. The film leaves us with the notion that, as Egon Schiele once famously wrote, "art is eternal" because it lives on in all of us and how we react to it.
Life, death, art, and fame were recurring themes throughout the festival...or at least in the films I chose (hmmmmm). One of the biggest surprises to me was KURT COBAIN: ABOUT A SON. Neither a fan of music documentaries nor of Nirvana in particular, I added this film to my list because I know of its filmmaker, A.J. Schnack through his popular (and sometimes controversial) blog on documentaries, All These Wonderful Things. I was blown away by the film which ultimately is not as much about Cobain or Nirvana, as it is about the relationship between man and place. The film employs the sound of a long conversation that music writer Michael Azerrad had with Cobain about his childhood, upbringing, and obscure path which led him to fame. Almost all of the visuals are landscapes, streetscapes, and humanscapes which evoke the three Washington cities which formed his life's arc. The visuals were story boarded and edited to work side by side with the sound of the interview and a music soundtrack which includes nothing by Cobain or Nirvana, but a wide variety of his musical influences. This film renews my strong belief that documentary is not a genre in and of itself. Instead documentary has its own sub-genres which can employ visuals as effectively as any fiction film, even when those visuals are very carefully constructed and controlled.
With so many serious and (at the risk of sounding like Jerry Seinfeld at the Oscars) frankly depressing films on my plate, I was glad to break it up a little bit with some more humorous documentaries. Interestingly the two funniest documentaries I saw were actually part of very serious funding initiatives. STAND UP: MUSLIM AMERICAN COMICS COME OF AGE was partially funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's America at a Crossroads grant initiative. While the film did not air with many of the other funded films as part of the PBS series earlier this year, it was in many ways a more interesting look at the impact of post 9/11 America on our popular culture and social commentary. Two of the comedians featured in the film -- Ahmed Ahmed and Dean Obeidallah joined filmmaker Glenn Baker at the Q&A.
The other film which had plenty of laugh-out-loud moments was PLEASE VOTE FOR ME, which, along with TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, was one of the 10 documentaries funded by the Why Democracy? initiative, an international effort of nearly 40 broadcasters and institutional funders to support projects which address the various meanings of the word "democracy." PLEASE VOTE FOR ME looks at democracy from the perspective of Chinese third graders running to be elected by the peers for the office of Class Monitor. Hijinks ensue, with the candidates (and their "campaign manager" parents) taking on every politician dirty trick stereotype -- bullying each other in debates, looking for their opponents' weaknesses, and even trading favors for votes. Though the film looks at a microcosm of democracy, it has a larger reflection on a changing Chinese society, where the One Child Policy has left a generation of children (especially boys) spoiled by parents and grandparents in their efforts to achieve at all costs.
Other films I had a chance to see included:
Maria Yatskova's MISS GULAG, which takes us into the world of a Russian prison beauty competition and, by extension, into the psyche of the post-Soviet Generation Y. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and Silverdocs was its North American premiere (soon to be followed by screenings at the Seattle International Film Festival).
Esther Robinson's A WALK INTO THE SEA: DANNY WILLIAMS & THE WARHOL FACTORY, which also addresses the flip-sided themes of life and death, fame and obscurity through the lens of the filmmaker's uncle who was part of the Factory scene until his untimely disappearance.
Marco Williams' BANISHED, which looks at the legacy of ethnic cleansing in United States when, especially in the Reconstruction era and early 20th century, a number of communities forced African-Americans to move out.
And, of course, WAR/DANCE and MADE IN L.A. which we plugged as our picks in our most recent blog posting. The former was made especially poignant by the fact that the filmmakers were local and had a loyal crowd at their screening. The latter was emotional because several of the garment workers featured in the film joined the filmmakers for an English/Spanish bilingual Q&A.
If there are criticisms that can be lodged this year, the two biggest ones were beyond SILVERDOCS' control: the weather and the location of the Cinema Lounge. The first few afternoons of the festival were marred by monsoon-like downpours which made even a one or two block walk between locations the equivalent of a moonlight swim under a waterfall. While SILVERDOCS is trying to do its part against global warming by becoming the first carbon-neutral film festival in the country, maybe next year some enterprising sponsor will include as swag in the welcome bags an umbrella or recyclable rain poncho.
As for the Cinema Lounge, regular SILVERDOCS-goers were dismayed to learn that last year's location for the lounge on the second floor of one of the stores in the shopping strip behind the Silver Theater had become a dance studio. The new Cinema Lounge was now located three blocks from the venues where most of the screenings and conference sessions were taking place. While three blocks may not seem a long distance, it was far too far to become a place to drop by for a quick 15-20 minutes between sessions or films as it had been in the past. As a result, the Cinema Lounge did not have the same feel of a thriving, energetic networking place as it had in past years, although it did liven up a bit around lunch and in the evenings when it hosted some of the parties. With Silver Spring hopping with new restaurants, stores, and businesses, it is probably becoming more difficult for SILVERDOCS to rely on a close-by space that is between renters to turn into the Cinema Lounge. But to keep the importance of the Cinema Lounge as a place to meet, it is essential to have something for industry. Especially given the vagaries of June weather and the very full festival and conference schedule, it would be great to have something within a block of the main festival venues. But if these are the two worst things to complain about, then I'd say it was a pretty successful year.
Sterling Award: Feature - Please Vote for Me
Sterling Award: Short - Lot 63, Grave C
Special Jury Mention - Enemies of Happiness
Honorable Mention: Short - I Want to Be a Pilot
Cinematic Vision: Feature - Kurt Cobain, About a Son
Cinematic Vision: Short - My Eyes
WITNESS Award - The Devil Came on Horseback
WITNESS Award Honorable Mention - The Price of Sugar
American Film Market Award - Big Rig
Beyond Belief Award - Audience of One
Music Award - Nomadik TX
ACE Documentary Development Grant - The Concrete Jungle
Audience Award: Feature - Souvenirs
Audience Award: Short - A Son's Sacrifice
Erica Ginsberg, Co-Founder of Docs in Progress