Silverdocs: A Film Festival Comes of Age


When Silverdocs began three years ago, it may have seemed like a noble but pointless idea. Who would be interested in a film festival with only documentaries? No oneís asking that question now, as the festival enters its fourth year. Documentaries are hotter than ever, with the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, Murderball, March of the Penguins, and, most recently, An Inconvenient Truth. Silverdocs has emerged in a very short time as a major player, with sellout crowds and the attention of film distributors. Four out of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary this year played at the 2005 Silverdocs.

The 2006 Silverdocs starts June 13, with a total of 100 films from 22 countries. As always, the films will play primarily at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Tickets are available by phone at 1-877-DOCS-TIX, online at Silverdocs.com, or in person at the Silver Theater.

Recently I sat down with Sky Sitney, the new Silverdocs Programming Director, to discuss this yearís festival:

Adam Spector: Silverdocs has grown pretty fast, hasnít it?
Sky Sitney: There has been unbelievable growth this year. We received more submissions, which was both a wonderful fact and a startling fact because we werenít quite prepared for the extraordinary growth we had. We have doubled all of our premiere status films. Itís been incredible for four years to be at the place where we are.

AS: How many submissions did you have?
SS: There were 1,700.

AS: In addition to the submissions, will you travel around and look for films?
SS: Absolutely. I go to quite a lot of festivals. There are a number of reasons for doing that. Obviously itís great to see the films there. Itís also really important to cultivate the relationship with distributors, with agents, with the filmmakers themselves. Have a presence, be able to represent the festival at other festivals where the kind of key constituencies are there. So itís a combination. Wanting a film and selecting it for the festival you have to have a relationship with the filmmaker, the distributors. Assure them that this is the right place for their film.

AS: Is that a little easier now that youíre more established?
SS: Absolutely. Itís very rare that weíve been in a position to be trimmed down as a venue for a film to go.

AS: There has been a tremendous surge in documentariesí popularity and it seems like there are more being produced. Has Silverdocs contributed to that, benefitted from it, or a little of both?
SS: I think itís a little bit of both. I think that there are many reasons for why this growth has happened. Some of it is the increasing economic opportunities, the equipment thatís available. To make a documentary film production-wise is much less expensive than a narrative film on 35mm.

AS: You mean with digital video?
SS: Exactly. Also, the way in which reality has become more mainstream. People with their webcams and their MySpace blogs and the way in which this kind of hybrid reality television is very pervasive. Almost every person has in some way or another made their own documentary with their own home video camera or even with their own cell phone. The mode of production is so pervasive and become so familiar. Also I think thereís a great demand for it, greater comfort with it and obviously in the past number of years the theatrical success of documentaries has made it more of an important genre that distributors are picking up.

AS: What are some of the new features in Silverdocs this year?
SS: There are certain kinds of structures that are in place from year to year. We have films in competition. We have an ongoing music documentary program. There was one last year and we realized it was so popular, that there are so many films in music that we wanted to continue it. We always have what we call strands, thematic programs. One is called ďDocs Rx.Ē Itís on global health films. While documentaries can be very fun and be very entertaining they also have the power to create incredible change politically. In this arena, where we have the avian flu on the horizon, there are countries where the AIDS epidemic continues to persist, we felt that it was really important to dedicate some energy to a program in which we looked at documentary filmmakers who were using film as a way to articulate these issues and create change. Another program is called ďCelebrate South Africa.Ē We have done a cultural exchange program where the members of Silverdocs brought some films from the previous years to South Africa, to Johannesburg and Cape Town. We would then bring the emerging filmmakers back from South Africa to show their work here. Weíre very excited about the filmmakers that are coming.

I think there are a number of films on our program that our quite exquisite. One of them is called Jesus Camp by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady who won our audience award last year for Boys of Baraka. This film I think is a very balanced portrait of the newest generation of Christian evangelicals and the parents and the teachers and all the people who are involved in teaching them very specific beliefs. Depending on where you fall in that spectrum youíll take no offense to anything in the film. But for those who feel that this is inappropriate, that religion shouldnít mix with politics, I think youíll find the film quite startling. So thatís an example of one of the films that deal with religion in the program.

AS: There are many political films this year, including ones that deal with Iraq, Guantanamo, Katrina. Is that more a reflection of the types of documentaries that are out there or is that consciously knowing that you have a DC audience?
SS: I very strongly feel that this is what was out there. Itís in many ways a part of the growth of documentaries and the political climate which weíre in. I think that people feel compelled to make works that are something alternative to the media that they see, when they donít feel that certain positions are being articulated. I think that itís no mistake that there is an enormous amount of work out there right now and has been for the past few years that is highly political in content because of the highly politically charged environment that weíre in.What is very exciting about being in DC is that when we bring the films here we have the opportunity to enhance the program by bringing really interesting moderators and special guests who engage in discussions that you wonít find anywhere else. A brief example: One of the films that weíre showing is called The Trials of Darryl Hunt about a man who was grotesquely, wrongly convicted for a crime. There was absolutely nothing that could suggest that he had done the crime, including DNA evidence to the contrary. Someone else had confessed to this crime.

AS: Kind of like a Thin Blue Line situation?
SS: Even more vulgar in how there was ample evidence to the contrary. Whatís exciting about bringing the film here is that weíre also pairing up with The Justice Project and theyíre bringing to the discussion Darryl Hunt and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first man in the US to be exonerated from death row with DNA evidence.

AS: Youíre having Martin Scorsese and Al Gore this year. In other years youíve had Barbara Kopple and Geraldine Chaplin. How important is it to get big names at Silverdocs?
SS: Itís a question of if a tree falls in the forest, you know what I mean (laughs). The truth of the matter is that we are utterly thrilled to be able to honor Scorsese in the most genuine of ways. If it werenít for the incredible success of his narrative work heíd also be known as a tremendous contributor to the documentary form.

AS: You donít think of him that way, but when you list his documentaries...
SS: The Last Waltz, Italian-American, A Personal Journey Through American Movies... So weíre kind of excavating it in a certain way and saying ďLook at this body of work thatís been in the shadows of this other body of work that winds up with more attention.Ē Iím really excited that Jim Jarmusch is going to be moderating. Itís unexpected and itís going to be really interesting.

AS: Letís discuss some of Silverdocs outdoor events.
SS: We have a number of outdoor events. Weíre continuing with the outdoor screenings. We have an outdoor screening this year for the restored print of The Last Waltz on the night that Scorsese will be there (Thursday, June 15). Then also, as part of our South Africa program, weíre showing the world premiere of a film called Soweto Blues on June 17, which happens to be the 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, which also happens to be one of the critical youth uprisings that spurred the beginning of the end of apartheid. So this film about the music during the time of apartheid was very political but became, in some ways, a backdrop to it. Prior to that screening weíre going to have a wonderful concert with South African musicians, including dancers.

We also have a number of things going on as part of our music program that are not outdoors but in our Cinema Lounge that are for our ticketholders. One of them is a film called Danielson, a family movie about a Christian rock band. Itís about how difficult it is for them to break into the indie rock scene with this kind of religious aspiration. They tend to dress in various costumes while they perform--theyíre almost performance artists. So the film will be screening Saturday at 5:00pm followed by a performance by the Danielson family. Weíre also having a world premiere of a film called Punkís Not Dead, which is not just about the origins of the punk movement, but how it is today, how itís been co-opted to some extent by the mainstream culture. True punk still exists. The film touches on many important DC bands. Iím going to have a party following that screening for the ticketholders as well with a number of punk bands performing. We try to create ways in which the films have a life outside the screening facility.

AS: Any thought to making the festival longer? Iíve noted that in previous years there would usually be two or three showings of a film, and this year itís only one. Any thought to maybe expanding the length of the festival?
SS: Our thought is that we would either move from six days, where we are, to ten days, or, if we had access to other screening facilities, we could conceivably have more films being seen simultaneously. We absolutely see it as necessary and it just requires careful thinking and planning so we can make sure that we can maintain the integrity of the festival and the cohesiveness of it. But growing is definitely part of our future.

AS: Letís talk about Jonestown: The Life of Peopleís Temple for a moment. Everyone knows about Jonestown. The phrase ďDonít drink the Kool-AidĒ has been around as long as I can remember. Whatís new in this documentary?
SS: The footage is largely taken from actual survivors, footage that they themselves shot. I have never, ever before seen such intimate footage and have had such insight. And when I say the subject, I mean the subject broadly--not Jim Jones specifically although you see a great deal of footage from him. Director Stanley Nelson weaves in all this archival material, which has never before been seen, with interviews with everyone, including Jim Jonesís son. One thing that came as a surprise to me was actually how, in its earlier incarnation, how idyllic it was. I felt that I understood why and how people were enticed by this. It was a kind of utopic dream that turned dystopic. It turned into a nightmare.

AS: You earlier mentioned South African films. One of them is His Big White Self, which features the head of the African Nazi Party, Eugene Terreblanche. Is there any concern about giving someone like that a platform?
SS: Youíd realize right away that itís not the case whatsoever. People will say this is Nick Broomfieldís greatest film and Broomfield is a superstar of documentary. He did Kurt & Courtney and the Aileen Wuornos film. Heís one of the big ones on the scale of Barbara Kopple--working for decades and, like him or not, he is a very significant filmmaker. We have the US premiere of the film. Itís important to know that this is a follow-up to another film he did (The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife). Whatís fascinating about this film is that politics have changed so much in South Africa since the original film and Nick is trying to have an interview with this guy. Itís largely a cat-and-mouse chase. Really what the film is about is the new face of South Africa post-apartheid. Also what you discover is how this Terreblancheís own attitudes have changed significantly. Itís a little bit of a reconciliation.

AS: Has he mellowed some?
SS: Yes he has. Whatís fascinating is that Broomfield tracks down a lot of the same characters who were involved at the time and sees how theyíre doing in a post-apartheid South Africa. Itís kind of depressing because many of them deeply long for the days prior to it when--
AS: When they had power.
SS: Exactly. But I think the trip is important. The reality here is that Terreblanche is not given a platform here at all. However, even if he were, even if there were some room in the film where Nick Broomfield allowed him to articulate his views, Iím not afraid of it. I feel like an intelligent filmmaker is not afraid of presenting provocative points of view as long as itís framed intelligently. As long as itís not propaganda, I donít think we should steer away from challenging material even if itís offensive.

AS: Not all the documentaries are on such serious subjects. I couldnít help notice one on the F-word. Is that going to be this yearís The Aristocrats?
SS: We really believe it will be. Itís an absolutely hysterical, engaging and thoughtful film that truly breaks down in every possible way the F-word and probes into it. But itís also symbolic of questions of censorship, of the power or words and the superficiality of them. If you choose to, you can find something deeper under the surface, which is precisely the way in which certain things can take on power.

AS: Wordplay is another doc that has already gotten a lot of buzz. After that showing New York Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz will host a crossword challenge. Are you signing up for that?
SS: If Iím not introducing a million other films I will sign up for that. But I would highly recommend others do. I love Will Shortz and Iím delighted heís going to be here. His persona in the film could not be more delightful. But it is more than just about Will Shortz. You get to know all these wonderful subjects where the crossword puzzle is an important part of their life. Some of the subjects include Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Jon Stewart but also everyday folks who have a particular talent for this. The dramatic structure of the film is a crossword challenge that they do every year. I love this film in so many ways--I think that itís a real crowd pleaser.

Another film that Iíll mention is Once in a Lifetime. Itís interesting that the World Cup is going to be happening simultaneously to Silverdocs. This is a film about an attempt in the 70s to create a soccer team, the Cosmos. This was a world class team.

AS: Was that the one with Pele?
SS: You got it. Itís a look at the rise of it, all the promise, looking like it was going to be a tremendous success. It just didnít happen. I think that would be something for the family to come to see during the weekend.

AS: One other one thatís more on the lighter side is Air Guitar Nation. I didnít know there was an air guitar contest. That might be the only music contest where Iíd actually have a shot.
SS: There you go. You know what, weíre going to have an air guitar contest so if you really think you have a shot you should show your ďaireokeĒ charms, but basically itís wonderful. It both takes it seriously and irreverent all at the same time. There is a world championship in air guitar. Some of the characters youíre going to see on the screen have talent. This is an incredibly fun film. Itís the type of thing that anyone could walk out of and say, ďI could do that.Ē Weíre going to have a number of the air guitar champions here post-screening and see their whole journey. Essentially what the film follows is the fact that there is an international air guitar championship that the US has never participated in. The film follows a number of people in the US who decide that they want to bring the US to Sweden to participate.

AS: I know itís hard choosing, but what are some of your other favorites?
SS: Iíll tell you about some films not because they have a closer place in my heart, but that they would be of particular interest to the community. One of them is Darkon, which is definitely also on the lighter side. This is basically about a number of people in Baltimore, our neighbors, who engage in real life fantasy role-playing, action-playing. They have this whole world, the world of Darkon.

AS: These arenít people sitting around playing Dungeons and Dragons.
SS: No, itís taking the idea of Dungeons and Dragons but, instead of playing it on a board game, they themselves become the characters, go out to the fields and stage battles and actually live entirely fabricated lives. What I love about this film is that at first you think, ďThis is gonna be great. Iím going to laugh with and at these people. How silly, how strange for them to take it this far.Ē Towards the end you begin to realize that itís really a mirror for all of us. We all have so many roles. You realize with this film that this is just being much more blatant and obvious about the nature of the roles. And what I think is interesting here also is that a number of the subjects are trying to develop personalities and skills. Maybe be a little more assertive at work for example. Itís almost cognitive therapy. Be able to act out certain behaviors that they would actually like to have and take it back into their life.

Another that seems to have local significance would be American Blackout. Cynthia McKinney will be at Silverdocs after the screening. American Blackout is essentially an investigation into a belief and an argument that in the 2000 and 2004 elections there was significant disenfranchisement of black voters. Director Ian Inaba focuses on the types of things that have happened to sabotage this vote.

One of the highlights of our ďDocs RxĒ program is something called Breast Cancer Diaries, the world premiere. It follows a young mother of two who is diagnosed with breast cancer and you follow every meticulous detail of her road to recovery. Silverdocs, in conjunction with showing the world premiere of the film, will have a community diary. Throughout the week of Silverdocs people who want to can talk on camera about their experiences with breast cancer or someone close to them with breast cancer. It can even be practitioners involved in trying to eradicate breast cancer. Weíre going to produce this and edit it and show it as a short prior to the world premiere of the film.

Thereís a very controversial film that we have called The Bridge. Itís essentially about a site of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is in fact the site where the greatest number of suicides happen anywhere in the world. The filmmaker, Eric Steel, read an article in The New Yorker about the Golden Gate and how this has become such a pervasive site for suicides and why architecturally no one has changed the structure to make it more difficult for suicides to take place. Steel decided to stake a camera every single day for 365 days and just shoot the bridge and caught on camera 24 suicides. He then investigated the choice made by the people whose deaths he captured. He talks to family members and friends and looks into what led these people there. I know this sounds maybe revolting and unethical. I will also say Eric Steel prevented a number of suicides.

I think it brings up a lot of questions--about voyeurism, about audiences participating in it--I think that we should also be asking these questions. This is kind of film that stuck with me. For that reason I thought it was important to show and not run away from it. However, I donít encourage anyone to see it if they think they will be deeply disturbed by it. We put a warning on the film as well. I just want to leave it up to the audience to make the decision for themselves.

I want to bring up one more film, What Remains. This is a film about Sally Mann, a tremendous but also very provocative photographer and her newest body of work. The Corcoran plays a very important role in the story because it directed a project that she worked on for quite some time that did not look like it was going to be fulfilled. Weíre delighted that she will be coming to the festival; sheís from the area. Thatís part of her motivation to come.

AS: Whatís her project about?
SS: Itís essentially about death and decay but shot in a very beautiful way. Thereís some kind of analysis in the film of her husband who, unfortunately, has a degenerative illness. One canít help but make the leap logically that she became occupied with this type of project as a way to articulate the complexities about her husbandís illness.

AS: Anything else that you want people to know about Silverdocs that we havenít covered?
SS: If a film is sold out, many tickets are released for a standby line, so donít necessarily be frightened off by that. Many films seem sold out because we have to hold tickets for pass holders but we release many seats on the day of the show. Silverdocs is just an extraordinary opportunity for people to go see an incredible range of films that they may never have a chance to see again. Many of the documentaries will not necessarily get distribution. This is a rare opportunity. But even more than that, itís an opportunity to see a beautiful theater and have the filmmakers there and really special guests there to talk about these films. I feel very strongly that these films are extraordinary, that theyíre beautiful and diverse. Everyone will find something that will move them, make them laugh, make them think. Thatís my push.

Adam Spector
June 13, 2006


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