Six Years of Silverdocs

Two years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Sky Sitney, the Silverdocs Programming Director. We talked about how Silverdocs, a documentary film festival, had grown so quickly since it began in 2003. Silverdocs had become a major player in the film industry. Two years later and Silverdocs is still growing in stature and importance. Along with FilmFest DC, it is the biggest attraction on the DC film calendar. This yearís festival, on June 16-23, features 108 films from 63 countries.

As you might expect, many Silverdocs screenings sell out. Sky recommends buying tickets in advance if possible, either online, by phone at 1-877-DOCS-TIX, or at the door at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD. She suggested purchasing one of the different types of passes, which get you in to the screenings without tickets. Even if screenings do sell out seats often become available right before the start time (so donít give up).

Recently, I sat down with Sky to discuss this yearís festival:

Adam Spector: This is the sixth year of Silverdocs. How has it changed over the years?
Sky Sitney: I think every year of the festival it grows. Not necessarily more films and more premieres, although thatís true. But I think that we have consistently succeeded each year in having an exciting and compelling festival. Weíre noticing that in our first year or two our goal was to have recognition, to get people to come out here. Now our biggest concerns are how to manage all of the sold out screenings to make sure that we are able to deliver to the local audiences opportunities to see the films. We have such a huge amount of people that come in from all over the world. One thing we tried to do this year to reconcile that was not to increase the number of films but increase the days of the festival.

AS: I noticed that you have more repeat showings than in the last couple of years.
SS: Exactly. One of the charms of Silverdocs, especially from the filmmaker perspective, is intimacy. We did not want to necessarily take on too many new venues to accommodate more screenings, therefore kind of dilute the experience. There are very few circumstances in the program where it screens only once. It gives the filmmakers an opportunity to have more visibility and for audiences to have a greater chance to see the popular films.

AS: You go to a lot of other film festivals. Are the Silverdocs films a combination of films you go out and find somewhere vs. ones that are sent to you?
SS: Exactly. We had about 2,000 submissions this year, which is comparable to other major festivals. We also navigate the festival circuit, looking for work and also continue to cultivate relationships with the industry professionals. Largely you will see a lot of films that have been on the festival circuit, award winners from Sundance, Toronto and Berlin. We absolutely want to present those to this audience. We want to show the very best works that are out there. But we are also here to launch new works. We try to create a balance.

AS: There has been no shortage of big names the past couple of years. You had Jonathan Demme last year, Martin Scorsese the year before. You have Spike Lee here this year.
SS: We did not deliberately set out to choose a series of filmmakers to be honored who also happen to be largely recognized in the narrative arena, as is the case with Scorsese and Demme and now Spike Lee. But when one thinks about important documentaries in the past five years or so itís hard not to consider When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts as a critical work that was recognized internationally ... also his Academy Award nominated film Four Little Girls and a number of other works. We felt strongly that heís made a major mark in documentaries and thought that he would also make for a very compelling discussion given his particular experiences.

AS: Any other noteworthy luminaries that people should know about?
SS: Absolutely. There certainly are quite a number of master filmmakersí work here. They donít necessarily come with the filmmaker for a variety of reasons. We have an interesting retrospective program this year called ď1968 and BeyondĒ where weíre showing some key works, one by Albert Maysles, Gimme Shelter, as well as an outdoor screening by Albert Maysles called Whatís Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.

AS: I notice that your opening film is also about the Beatles (All Together Now).
SS: Exactly, which inspired the choice of the outdoor screening ... so there are a number of critical stories, thereís another movie by Emile de Antonio, In the Year of the Pig and Robert Kennedy Remembered. These are all made by master filmmakers. We are also showing some new works by very recognized names. We are happy to have Alex Gibney back again. He was here last year with Taxi to the Dark Side.

AS: Which won the documentary Oscar in 2008.
SS: (This year) Heís presenting Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, an exciting, compelling film about Hunter S. Thompson and that in some ways does fit into that 1968 retrospective although itís a contemporary work. Weíre showing Werner Herzogís latest work, Encounters at the End of the World. We have a number of interesting film subjects attending the screenings. In the case of Triage, Dr. James Orbinski, whoís the former president of Doctors Without Borders and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be accompanying the screenings. Thereís quite a lot of subjects who are remarkable, that our general audiences probably wonít recognize until after they see the film, but it will be very meaningful that theyíre here. Some people in this community might know Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who will be here with the world premiere of the film Herb and Dorothy. They took a great interest in modern art and decided that they wanted to collect some and by very modest means--heís a postal clerk, sheís a librarian--began to amass a collection that ultimately ended up being about 4,000 works.

AS: Did they save their money? How could they afford to buy all of those?
SS: The film explores this. They never bought a work that exceeded their means. They were also the first investors in unknown artists who went on to become world-recognized like Christo, Jean Claude and Sol Le Witt. They were often the first patrons. They continued to live in this one bedroom apartment in New York City. Eventually it became almost like a hoarding. They almost couldnít fit themselves into their apartment. They did something quite remarkable, which was to donate the entire collection to the National Gallery here in Washington, DC, never expecting a penny in return. They just wanted their work to be available. They were pleased because it was free to the public.

AS: They probably could have made a lot of money.
SS: They could have made in the multi-millions. I think of them as heroes and extraordinary people. Thatís, in some ways, the pleasure of documentary film. In the narrative world someone may be very excited to see someone like Angelina Jolie play Marianne Pearl. Here you celebrate the people themselves.

AS: You mentioned that you have several films set in 1968, made in 1968 or focusing on that era.
SS: We felt that this was an important year marking the 40th anniversary. We thought that it was important to reflect upon that and acknowledge it, and to whatever extent we could, bring to light some key films that together create a certain kind of dialogue about that era but also resonate with some of the new films that we have here. As I mentioned, the Gonzo film. We are also showing a new film called Generation 68, which is a wonderful, international look at the year 1968 in Prague, in Paris, in New York, Milan, Cuba and brings together largely unseen archival footage, to suggest this movement that was happening all around the world. Itís nice to be able to look at these new works and put them in context with these films from the 60s.

AS: Some particular films jumped out at me. One was Going on 13, which chronicles four girls growing up in Oakland.
SS: There are quite a number of films in Silverdocs that deal with young people and what it is to be growing up in this day and age. This is a film that is not only following those four girls, over the course of four critical years in their development, but itís girls of color that you donít tend to see represented as much.

AS: This Way Up, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and other documentaries focus on people who are thrown into these difficult circumstances and how they dealt with it.
SS: This Way Up looks at the Palestinian-Israeli situation, the borders, the wall, and the filmmaker who tells this huge story thatís incredibly complex through a very intimate situation, which is a nursing home, ironically a Catholic nursing home. Older people who are there, who are living out their last days ... the only pleasures they have are the visitations of their family members. Suddenly, kind of randomly it seems, a wall is erected and they are on the wrong side. Their family members have to go to great measures to visit them. We see the personal impact of something we read about in the papers. Pray the Devil Back to Hell is this enormous story of another civil war in Liberia and these everyday women who were sick of it. They decided to band together, with peaceful measures, to put an end to the violence. Through the story of these women, these unlikely heroes, the filmmakers give us access to something extraordinarily complex.

AS: There are a couple of other films that explore different sides of Israel. As a Jew and a baseball fan, one that jumps out to me is Holy Land Hardball, about starting a baseball league in Israel. Thereís also Yidishe Mama, which focuses on the issue of intermarriage in Israel.
SS: Anyone who has been coming to the festival for a number of years will recognize that Holy Land Hardball is coming from an alum of the festival--Bret Rapkin who did Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey. Thatís one of the pleasures of being at a festival as an agent--I get to welcome back some of our treasured filmmakers. Itís fun to watch their trajectory and support that. So his experience with Spaceman was strong enough that he entrusted us with his newest film. Itís a world premiere and this too is an engaging look at what in some ways is a universal story, at the same time specific to Israel, bringing Americaís favorite pastime to the Middle East. Itís about a manís dream, his daring to go after what everyone else deems impossible or at least too difficult. In the case of Yidishe Mama, itís made by two filmmakers one of which is also the subject of the film--his Yiddish mother does not approve of his fiancee. On the one hand itís comical. It ties into the comedic cliche of the overbearing Jewish mother. Thereís also great poignancy and something quite tragic about the motherís inability or unwillingness to recognize the love of her sonís life and this extraordinary woman with whom she could potentially have a beautiful relationship.

AS: Like Holy Land Hardball, thereís another film that takes sports and puts it in a situation where you wouldnít expect it, and thatís called Kicking It. Homeless people start a soccer league.
SS: Thatís right. This was made by a local filmmaker, Susan Koch, and executive produced by Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals. I know that, having spoken with Susan, she was first interested in the issue of homelessness and kind of discovered this in researching that. In exploring it, she discovered this extraordinary enterprise, to create this homeless world cup. For some of these homeless people participating, it has an opportunity to affect their lives. It gives them a purpose, a sense of unity and, in many cases, helped launch a lot of these people out of that situation. So, like any good storyteller, Susan recognized that this was a great angle and a compelling way into the issue of homelessness, something that could draw attention to it, but which had an enticing structure. The film does everything you would hope a documentary film would do--it has depth and integrity, but itís very entertaining and unusual.

AS: Life. Support. Music. also seems to be a gripping story.
SS: Absolutely. One of the things thatís so exciting is that the subject of the film, Jason Crigler, will be performing after the Saturday screening as will quite a number of guests in our musical competition. Upon watching that film you realize that the true message of it is the extraordinary impact Jason Criglerís family had on his recovery. He was a healthy, vibrant young man with the world ahead of him. He was a very talented musician. His wife was pregnant with their first baby. In the middle of a performance he has a brain hemorrhage. Itís so severe that heís left in an absolutely catatonic vegetative state. No sense or hope that heíll come out of it. Doctors prepared his family to expect nothing more for the rest of his life. The family refuses to accept this. They take him home, they provide round the clock care. Different people in the family have to take shifts. They go to great measures to stimulate him and he makes what can only be called a miraculous recovery. The film is about their message, their refusal to give up on him and questions about what does happen. What were the possibilities for some of the other people who werenít privileged enough to have a family that was willing and capable enough to do this?

AS: Silverdocs touches many issues of the day. You have a couple of films, Infinite Border and My Life Inside, that both look at different aspects of illegal immigration.
SS: Thatís right. Infinite Border addresses something that is often unrecognized in the US because weíre largely consumed with the American border. But for so many people living in Central America, America is far removed from an earlier border and that is into Mexico. The film is extremely poignant. It introduces you to a variety of characters, where you see this treacherous journey through the eyes of many different people. You canít help but ask the question: If theyíre willing to endure this journey thatís so treacherous and dangerous what on earth must have been the circumstances that theyíre leaving behind, that makes the journey worth it? I think the film very poetically addresses this issue. My Life Inside is an interesting character study where immigration is a key issue. A charming young woman, a Mexican living in Texas, who is making a living caring for some young children is caring for another Mexican child that dies in her care. Thereís a question as to whether or not she was responsible--which this film doesnít entirely answer. On the one hand itís a gripping courtroom drama, on the other hand itís a question of race and how that is impacting the judicial system, and whether a fair trial was possible in her particular case.

AS: Speaking of hot subjects, you have a film about the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.
SS: The filmmaker had incredible access in the manic four-year trial. He had 250 hours of interviews. Milosevic is a very fascinating man, for better or for worse. It shows the high points of this trial, whatís at stake in these kinds of cases, which are so significant. Weíre going to have a panel discussion afterwards and we have confirmed already not just the filmmaker but former general Wesley Clark who was a character witness at that trial. Thatís one of those things I appreciate about Silverdocs, one of the signatures of what we do. We often accompany films with extended panels with interesting guests that delve deeper into other matters.

AS: Like with the Bobby Kennedy film.
SS: Exactly, as there will be with a film called In the Family about Joanna Rudnick who learns that she is more than likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer. She is in her 20s, a single woman who must decide whether or not to have a mastectomy. Weíre going to have a panel after that discussion as we will have after Letter to Anna about the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was a very outspoken critic of Vladmir Putin. She was murdered and thereís a serious question as to whether or not the Russian government was behind it as a form of censorship. Those are just some examples.

AS: Sync or Swim is about synchronized swimming, which has been an incredibly ridiculed sport. I always think back to that ďSaturday Night LiveĒ sketch in the mid-80s about menís synchronized swimming, with Martin Short and Harry Shearer dancing around in the pool. This film appears to make a passionate defense of the sport.
SS: It does. The filmmaker recognizes and is amused by the bad rap it has gotten and she brings a sense of humor to it. She clearly has a great deal of respect for the sport. Anyone who watches the film could not walk away without having respect because the degree of athleticism to do what theyíre doing is extraordinary. So we get to watch this Olympic team go through a series of tournaments, practices and ultimately going to the Summer Olympics. It will be exciting to see this team in Beijing. Itís a delightful film and the timing is good.

AS: You have Red Race, another film thatís Olympic centered.
SS: Itís very fun from a programming perspective to pick films that are timely with the kind of things that are on peopleís minds. Red Race is a world premiere, from filmmaker Chao Gan. In some ways the Olympics are an important but not overstated aspect of the film. Itís focusing on this particular school and a class of kids. These are very young kids, ages three and four. Theyíve practically just learned to walk and are put into extremely competitive, ambitious gymnastics training with the hope that a decade or later, they will be the future Olympians. Theyíre struggling between being innocent kids and bearing the burden of being the future.

AS: You mentioned earlier your music series. That has always been a highlight. This year there is a film about this 80 year old who is famous for his karaoke skills.
SS: Thatís right, The Art of Karaoke. We love our music program because itís always an area where there has been a great deal of fun. This is a short accompanying Song Sung Blue. It follows this wonderful older man who has discovered the pleasures of karaoke and enters this arena thatís largely filled with young people. He sings songs that are more appropriate to his generation and gets a particular respect from that. He finds a purpose in that. Song Sung Blue is about a Neil Diamond tribute act, a husband-and-wife team. The film follows their dreams of Vegas and the reality of these unforseen tragedies. The tribute act is called Thunder and Lightening. And Thunder, Claire Sardina, will be performing afterwards. One thing thatís so exciting is the musical talent associated with the films. On Tuesday night (June 17) is a screening of Throw Down Your Heart, about Bťla Fleck from the Flecktones. After the screening, Bťla Fleck will be performing with a wonderful musician from Maui. The film follows Bťla as he journeys across four countries in Africa searching the relatively unrecognized roots of banjo in Africa. People often think of the banjo as an American instrument, particularly of the American South and the Appalachians. It is truly fabulous to see him performing with a troupe of wonderful African musicians, some very accomplished, some renowned, others unknown and brilliant in small towns. So in the music program, of six films, we have three performances after the screenings, Life. Support. Music. with Jason Crigler, Claire Sardina after Song Sung Blue, and Bťla Fleck after Throw Down Your Heart.

AS: Another series that Iíve always liked is your short films. And thatís one that often people donít get to see anywhere. Youíve grouped them together with five common themes. Some about growing up, some about peopleís work.
SS: I certainly donít select them with themes in mind. I think that would intrude upon being very open to allowing the best works to screen. I donít want to impose some idea of a program. But once we have committed to the films they do get programmed into short programs, that together are feature length. You want the programs to enhance each other, to feel like they belong together in some way, so you do look for common themes and a sense of flow. Thatís what we identify with these shorts. They all had certain things in common in the groupings that we created, thematically and also tonally. So our hope is that an audience will be able to experience a program that isnít jarring and doesnít require too much work adjusting with each film to a whole new sensibility.

AS: What are some of the other highlights that we havenít covered?
SS: As the Director of Programming it might sound trite, but I truly have the privilege of loving every single one of these films--some that I am excited about, the people Iím excited to meet. The English Surgeon is a film about a wonderful British Neurosurgeon who has become very committed to neurosurgery in the Ukraine and the doctor, Henry Marsh, will be here. The other film that moved me deeply is Dear Zachary, which is a film about a terrible tragedy, a brutal crime that robbed these two people of their son and the parents became major advocates. Iím very excited to have them here. I have tremendous respect for them. Thereís a film that is just fabulous called Forbidden Lies. On every level it is a cinematic masterpiece. The filmmaker, Anna Broinowski, follows this woman Norma Khouri, who had written a book called Forbidden Love about honor killings that a friend of hers suffered in Jordan. The book went on to be a best-seller. What becomes revealed is that itís very possible that this book is an absolute fraud, that Norma never lived in Jordan, that she didnít have this friend, that these killings never happened. So Anna follows Norma back to Jordan as Norma tries to prove her innocence. It becomes evident that Norma is very deceitful.

AS: What are some of the challenges in putting a festival like this together?
SS: Oh my goodness. Itís almost all challenge. All the work we do, all year long, for something that is literally one week long. Itís like having 75 weddings to plan. Itís incredible on every single level. Iím on the front lines of the programming and what that means and how to make the selections there and how to present the films in the best possible light given a lot of parameters, such as limitations on filmmakers schedules, other conflicting festivals and making sure that our slate is not redundant and doesnít replicate too many previous slates, knowing who our audiences are in DC and also internationally who come specifically for this. We have multiple kinds of audiences. We have our local audiences, which are incredibly engaged and intelligent audiences. We also have an industry audience, so trying we need to find that balance and at the same time keep a technical perspective. We pride ourselves on exhibition and we have very high standards, so we have to make sure that weíre meeting our standards and maintaining a certain degree of excellence in a concentrated period of time.

Adam Spector
June 15, 2008

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