Silverdocs: Real Life Speaks for Itself

In just its seventh year, Silverdocs has grown into a Washington institution. It has also become the preeminent documentary film festival in the U.S. Each Silverdocs features new and exciting works, career retrospectives, and some big names. This year is no exception. The 2009 Silverdocs, on June 15-22, will show 122 films from 50 countries. Tickets are available online, by phone at 1-877-DOCS-TIX, or at the door at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD.

Recently I had the privilege of discussing the festival with Sky Sitney, the Silverdocs Artistic Director:

Adam Spector: Silverdocs has grown substantially, but do you believe it’s stayed true to its original mission?
Sky Sitney: We have remained true to our core values... we began knowing that we wanted to commit ourselves specifically to documentary film, as part of the American Film Institute, really celebrate excellence in cinema. We are interested in showing some of the great works that are pushing the boundaries artistically. So that has not changed and that’s something that I think has actually been part of our growth, that we’ve maintained our commitment to those core values and stayed true to them year after year. I think people continue to look to us as a place where they can be guaranteed to see high quality films and a diverse slate. So in many ways we have not changed. The things that do change are every single year we bring a whole new set of filmmakers and audiences together and they create a brand new synergy, a brand new...
AS: Dynamic?
SS: Dynamics that are unpredictable and can’t be planned. I think because of our growth and reputation we’ve been able to command higher and higher profile films and higher and higher profile guests. For example we have Muhammad Ali coming. There are things we might not have been able to do our first or second year out of the gate. Because of this growth we have been able to reach higher planes, to bring top notch films and guests to the festival.

AS: You mentioned Ali so let’s go with that for a moment. You actually have three films, Facing Ali, Soul Power, and When We Were Kings, that either directly or indirectly cover Muhammad Ali, who is scheduled to make an appearance. How did that come about?
SS: It came about accidentally, which is how I love things to come about. As a programmer, I always appreciate natural coincidences...
AS: Happy Accidents, as John Ford used to say.
SS: Exactly. So I had fallen madly in love with the film Soul Power when I saw it at Toronto and knew that I really wanted to bring it here. The film was made by the editor (Jeffrey Levy-Hinte) of the Academy Award winning film When We Were Kings, who, like many editors, recognized that there was this whole gem of a film that unfortunately had to end up on the editing room floor. He hoped that one day he could resurrect that footage, which is what he did with Soul Power. The film essentially looks at the musical concert that was put on a few days before the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, which was covered in When We Were Kings, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. At the same time Facing Ali was brought to my attention from Lion’s Gate and this is also a really extraordinary film; it’s actually based on a Random House best-selling book of the same name. The film interviews all of the great men who went into the ring with Ali... George Foreman, Joe Frazier, and mixes up these contemporary interviews which are very intimate and very revealing, in many cases very emotional, with fabulous rarely-seen archival footage of all these fights. Upon noting that these two films were there, we thought it would be really great to bring back When We Were Kings. We are really happy to be showing a brand new print. Of course Ali will be here with his film Facing Ali but we can see him in celluloid in these other two films.

AS: With Facing Ali, we know that some of Ali’s opponents, such as George Foreman, have formed a very close bond with him. With others, such as Joe Frazier, there’s still a lot of antagonism. Does the film reflect that?
SS: It does. It really does. I think it’s a really honest and intimate portrayal of these men and their relationship to Ali. I think that for all of the fighters literally facing Ali, it was a monumental transformation in their lives and their careers. So even if there is antagonism there is this kind of awe and respect for both the man and also that moment. Even Joe Frazier remarks upon that.

AS: Silverdocs has always been timely. Your opening night film, More Than a Game, features LeBron James in his high school years. And another one of your special programs, Convention, covers Barack Obama’s nomination. Is this good planning, good luck, or a little of both?
SS: I think a little bit of both. When More Than a Game had its world premiere in Toronto in September, so in film life, it's been a very long time since then. We’re so thrilled that its second launching pad after Toronto is right here at Silverdocs in the opening night spot. It’s really great. I do feel like it's good karma from many years past of selecting opening night films and going through the highs and lows of that process. The one thing that’s interesting is that while we know all of the subjects of the film who are very close to LeBron it will be very interesting sitting in a theater watching a film about his high school career. The film is remarkable, it really is. It delivers on such a huge level. It’s such an emotional journey and the teammates that you see in the film and particularly the coach Dru Joyce III, are such remarkable people and we are honored just to have them here.

AS: There’s certainly been no shortage of coverage of Barack Obama. What does Convention offer that maybe people haven’t seen before?
SS: Convention is less specifically about Barack Obama, or even Hillary Clinton, and even in some way less about politics themselves, then what goes on behind the scenes to create a media spectacle, this illusion of politics. Convention does not simply shed further light on the images that we all saw from the comforts of our living rooms during the convention. It actually takes us behind the scenes on what it takes for an entire city to come together to mount something of this magnitude. So its really about the civil servants, the community who are involved in different administrative aspects of the convention, to create this sense of seamlessness.

AS: Speaking of politics, your closing film, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, promises a complete look at a person who in my lifetime has pretty much been a national punchline. But the film promises more of a complete look, from his work in the 60s on through some of his more recent troubles and resurrections. Will people be surprised when they see this?
SS: It would have actually been very easy and humorous to make the film where he becomes a punchline. He’s the perfect “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But the filmmakers have brought so much more integrity to the process. By that I don’t mean that they’ve tried to sugarcoat his life and make it something that we can easily swallow. They also don’t allow us to forget the complexities of his whole life story and the great promise of his early career. Not being a DC native, I largely knew of him from his scandal forward. For me the film really allowed me a chance to see the extraordinary contributions he was making early in his career as someone who was deeply invested in the civil rights fight, who was really a hero to many and how a variety of different factors led him to this terrible fall. So I think this film really creates a full picture.

AS: He’s supposed to be there?
SS: Exactly, he will be there, health permitting.

AS: Speaking of names, previous Guggenheim Symposium honorees included Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Jonathan Demme. Your current honoree, Albert Maysles, doesn’t have the same marquee value, but he’s a legend in the documentary world. How was he chosen?
SS: We felt it was important to honor somebody who really dedicated their life to documentary film. Clearly Albert Maysles, who’s in his 80s and still going strong. He spent more than five decades making films. He’s got dozens and dozens of films that he’s either directed or done the cinematography on. For anyone who knows anything about documentary, whether they realize they know Al Maysles or not, he is absolutely significant. From Gimme Shelter to Grey Gardens...
AS: Another instance of being timely, with the recent HBO movie...
SS: (To) his iconic Salesman. When you look at his body of work, and we are going to be showing quite a bit of it, you realize that he’s made films about some of the most important people of our time, particularly in the arts and in sports and in the intellectual universe. Truman Capote and Orson Welles, Marlon Brando and Yoko Ono and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the environmental artists who will be there to honor him.

AS: Along with Barbara Kopple.
SS: Exactly, the Academy Award winning filmmaker. So yes, he might not have the marquee value, but in many ways he’s one of our most deserving, when it comes to specific contributions to documentaries.

AS: I went through the catalog and was looking for some overarching themes and didn’t have much luck. Do you specifically go for a very eclectic mix.
SS: It’s interesting because I heard a number of people use that very word. “What an eclectic mix.” Actually there are themes, but maybe they are not overarching. There are easily eight films that deal with health, there’s another eight or so that deal with the environment in different ways. There are quite a number of films on Africa. There are a lot of films that deal with media, things like Winnebago Man, Best Worst Movie, Carmen Meets Borat and Supermen of Malegaon. These are all films that you could identify as a particular strand if you wanted to. Themes do actually exist, but perhaps we don’t point them out as much as we have in the past. I think we freed ourselves from pigeonholing ourselves into any thematic strands, so we could allow for the best works that are out there.

AS: Would “balance” be the best way to describe your selections?
SS: We definitely are very conscious as we’re programming. “Balance” is the word that comes up the most. There’s a balance on everything, between launching new works and also including some of the great films that are circulating already on the high profile festival circuit. Balance between making sure that it’s an international slate and that we're offering diversity not just thematically and not just in terms of what’s on screen but also in terms of who’s behind the camera and trying to be conscious about having our eyes wide open.
AS: Both foreign and American.
SS: Exactly . . . so I think that was probably the ramifications of our consciousness in general about balance and wanting to make sure that we did have small portraits that were quirky and really hand crafted and niche and the big stories that are very broadly realized. I think that you’re probably picking up on that.

AS: One them that I did pick up, there were several films that have a unique view of aging. Ma Bar, Junior, The Time of Their Lives, and perhaps most of all, Bye Bye C’est Fini. Are you looking to challenge stereotypes?
SS: I don’t know that I am, but filmmakers are and I’m happy to give them a platform to do it. It just so happens that these films are spectacular in very unique ways. Taken together, they do offer a really interesting commentary on aging. There’s another film that’s interesting called Youth Knows No Pain, which looks at the way in which women in particular but in general the society deals with aging and plastic surgery as the way to remedy it so to speak. It’s interesting that there are a lot of filmmakers out there who are grappling with this issue and have made these great films. And we are receptive to their great work and happy to put it out there.

AS: Bye Bye C’est Fini is what seems like a familiar story. A Brazilian lothario has a collection of younger lovers. The twist here is that this is a 73-year-old woman with a collection of young men.
SS: It is really amazing. It’s really unexpected in a certain way because we don’t get to see this very often. A woman who’s entirely unapologetic about her interest in lovers and who’s very sexually in tune with herself, independent. It’s not something that one gets to see too often.

AS: Other films tackle strained family bonds. Either strained within the family or strained by external forces: Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, 21 Below and Prodigal Sons.
SS: October Country, Up and Running.

AS: What’s so gripping about these stories?
SS: In some cases what’s so interesting is that these stories are made by the family members themselves. As in the case of Prodigal Sons and October Country and actually 21 Below. I think that one has noticed in documentaries for quite a while now is that it is a way for not just a filmmaker but a family member using the tool of a documentary to navigate and maybe understand the complicated terrain in these family dynamics. I’ve often been interested in whether someone becomes a filmmaker to deal with these particular issues or whether they were a filmmaker first and saw this as prime story content. It is interesting that we get such intimate access to not only the filmmaker but the family member in this particular situation who takes us on this personal journey.

AS: Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter covers ritualized forced female circumcision, which has been in the news and is abhorrent to anyone in Western culture. This gives you a better understanding of the people that face it and how they struggle with it?
SS: Exactly. What’s interesting with the film is that it takes you between two worlds 4500 miles apart between Philadelphia, where this is kind of Diaspora and back into a particular community in West Africa on the brink and during one of their annual rituals. They bring young girls together from as young as six months to as old as twelve years to have this ritual and its clearly impossible for a young woman to go without having it. The film doesn’t sit in obvious judgement. It tries instead to understand what’s behind this ritual, this way of thinking. Clearly it does align itself with the character, Mrs. Goundo, who herself had endured this and doesn’t want her young daughter to have to go through it.

AS: Other films such as My Neighbor, My Killer, Mugabe and the White African and Sea Point Days tackle the aftermath of racism and violence. So the atrocities are over in some sense but it’s clear there is still lingering discord, lingering resentment. Is there a common thread here?
SS: They all tackle it in very different ways. What’s critical is that they are all dealing with the aftermath, so to speak, at very critical points. With Mugabe the aftermath is actually much more condensed because there’s still a lot of actions going on. The film is really capturing what is going on right now, in this moment, with the repercussions of that. We’re not at a point of recovery. We’re at a point of responding to that. Whereas with My Neighbor, My Killer this is the aftermath quite a number of years later after Rwanda and an organized attempt at reconciliation through a court, a tribunal where people are facing their own neighbors, those responsible for killing their families. It’s at a very particular point in their recovery, where Sea Point Days is looking back with quite a longer lens at apartheid and looking particularly at a community, and the space as a way in South Africa, and Cape Town and the transformation of that space, a communal space and how its changed over the years from apartheid to today. Mugabe focuses on a white farmer who’s actually trying to hold onto his land, so it’s still very vital. The story throws you in deeply into the personal story of this farmer and his family and the workers on that farm. It doesn’t give you a huge amount of backstory. It doesn’t go out of its way to contextualize against the whole issues of Zimbabwe. The film does not insist on setting that all up for you. It just throws you right into the drama, and it’s profound. And I appreciate the film for doing that. I don’t think that every film necessarily has to give you every part of the history. That can hopefully encourage an interested viewer to pursue that on their own.

AS: There’s one that I’ve just got to ask you about, Bitch Academy. There’s a Spinal Tap song “Bitch School” but the Bitch Academy is a real place. How in the world did you find this film?
SS: We’re not the ones who found it. This was found already by International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), “Hot Docs” up in Toronto. But it’s a great short film. A better adjective would be “polarizing.” This film definitely polarized our screening committee. There were some who felt it was essential and others who really disliked it. Quite frankly, I think those are interesting films to show. Even if one disagrees with the film or has problems with it, that can still provoke an interesting conversation and be a worthwhile experience. But this is a film where, as it says, young women in Russia take a course on how to be more seductive to men. I think there’s a number of things that are problematic--the impetus to take this class in the first place and openness to manipulation and then having a teacher who is happy to exploit that.

AS: So you anticipate that being polarizing for the audience.
SS: With my own screening committee as a test case, I think some people will walk away saying “That was pretty fascinating” Others might say “I didn’t appreciate the way the women were depicted.” Like any documentary filmmaker, they are not writing this. This exists.

AS: Any other films that you think will stir things up?
SS: One that I think stirs things up is called Enjoy Poverty. This is a very provocative film, made by a Dutch filmmaker who’s also an artist named Renzo Martens, who goes into the Congo, I believe and basically tries to convince the people there that their greatest commodity is poverty, that they really should capitalize on it instead of allowing the West to capitalize on it. And what he means by that is he criticizes the journalists who go into this area and take photographs and then sell them for $300. If there is an opportunity to exploit this you might as well exploit this for yourself. It’s a harsh film because it’s very bold and brazen and the filmmaker is really provocative. I know that this was the opening night film at the aforementioned IDFA festival and half the audience walked out. The other half thought it was the most extraordinary thing they had ever seen. As you can see, while we have many films that will be very popular, “people pleasers,” really accessible, we also don’t steer away from showing very provocative works, that would create divisive responses.

AS: Another film that stuck with me as maybe being controversial is Defamation.
SS: Very much so, yes. And that’s why we will hopefully be able to moderate a very intelligent conversation about it afterwards. That’s the greatest thing about a festival, that you can show these provocative works and then create a platform to try to have an intelligent conversation about it with the filmmaker. This film is by a very well-known and provocative Israeli filmmaker named Yoav Shamir. He made Checkpoint and Five Days in the past few years. He’s quite celebrated but he often creates intense responses in audiences. The film is looking at the current state of anti-Semitism. And I think Yoav Shamir is questioning whether there’s become a collision between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and he’s asking the question “Can we criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic?” And he is addressing that in a way that will stir things up and I’m sure will cause people to be very upset, others to maybe find it interesting.

AS: What are some of the films that are, to use your term, “people pleasers?”
SS: There’s quite a few. No Impact Man I think is really great. This is a film that follows a man named Colin Beavan, who is a self-described “no impact man” and is writing a book of the same name, who tries to go for a year of his life without making any impact on the environment, zero. He at first has to get his wife to go along with it and, by extension, their three-year-old toddler. So the film looks at the effort, but he’s doing it from the 11th story of his Greenwich Village apartment in New York City so this is not so easy. The easy parts are to bike instead of subways and walk up eleven flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator and go to a farmer’s market instead of a grocery store. They also take it to a much more radical degree, which is to get rid of all electricity in the house. This means the refrigerator, stove, lights . . . stop using anything disposable. Pampers are now replaced by cloth diapers. There’s no toilet paper. I’ll let the film reveal how they get around that one (laughs). It’s really great. It’s kind of a love story in an interesting way. Another one that I think is quite remarkable is called The Horse Boy also known as Over the Hills and Far Away. It follows a family who has a very severely autistic son. When the son is a few years old they discover that when he is near horses, particularly on horses, that his whole demeanor changes, that he calms down quite a bit. He seems to have a connection with the horses. So they do some research and the father in particular discovers that there’s one place in the world where, or so he believes, in Mongolia where there’s Shamanistic rituals about horses. So he and his wife and his son venture on this journey across Mongolia visiting all the different shamans in an effort to heal their son. One other film that I’ll mention is The September Issue, which follows the behind the scenes making of the Vogue magazine’s biggest issue of the year, the aforementioned September issue with Anna Wintour.

AS: Was she the inspiration for “The Devil Wears Prada?”
SS: Exactly, and you can see that very clearly. Behind the scenes, in meetings, you get to understand what goes on through the photo selections, all the effort to create this meticulous sense of seamless beauty. So that’s quite fun.

AS: You’ve recently moved from Programming Director to Artistic Director. What have you learned? You have been doing this for quite a while.
SS: What’s interesting, and maybe the program is a reflection of this, I have tried to respond programming-wise, less with ulterior motives. I’ve become less inclined to create intellectual categories for things and really let the great work percolate and to control it less. I like creating a diverse slate of films, some that we’ve talked about. Some that will be provocative, some that will be enlightening, some that will be entertaining. But I’ve tried less and less to assert control over shaping it, and let the works really speak for themselves.

Adam Spector
June 1, 2009

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