Silverdocs: Many Paths, New Journeys

In just its eighth year, Silverdocs has become an institution. It is now one of the premier film festivals in the world and it has helped establish the DC area as a true film community. But like any institution, it is easy to take Silverdocs for granted, to forget what a rare opportunity the festival presents Simply put, it is the chance, over seven days, to see the best the documentary film world has to offer. The 2010 edition runs from June 21 to June 27. Tickets are available at the website or at the AFI Silver Theater (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD).

This year, I was again fortunate to spend some time with Sky Sitney, the Silverdocs Artistic Director. Her commitment and passion for documentaries is contagious. It does not take long to understand how much she cares about all of the Silverdocs films and how hard she and her staff work to put the festival together. Her dedication was evident when she talked with me a couple of weeks ago:

Adam Spector: Now that Silverdocs is more established, is selecting the films more a matter of letting the films come to you, or do you still need to go out and find them? Or is it a balance?
Sky Sitney: This year we received more films than ever before. We received 2,162, that number is etched in my brain. Last year we received a little over 1900.

AS: And out of those, how many did you select?
SS: 102. That is a combination of features and shorts. We have gotten to the point where we really cannot handle a greater number than that. It is our absolute peak, and it is interestingly comparable to other major film festivals... We still go to a lot of other festivals to recruit work and to see work... We still maintain very critical relationships with cultural partners in areas of the world where we still have to do some work to get films. But in many ways we have shifted over to a self-sufficient machine. If anything, I have been asking the question, “Is more always best? Is the simple goal just to keep getting more submissions?” It is a tremendous amount of labor, going through the submissions, and it is not fun rejecting 1,950 of them. In fact it is quite painful because many of them are really worthy. It is just a question of making very tough decisions based on limited slots. So while we still make some efforts, the efforts have shifted. I think it is more a matter of reaching out to under-represented areas, expanding our scope globally, and less about adding to the already present documentary community.

AS: There is an emphasis this year on Nordic films. What drew you to those?
SS: It was an accident. My programming philosophy is to be reactive, to not take my own personal ideas and project them and try to find work that supports it but rather to be open and responsive to the work that is there. For whatever reason this year, at the end of the day, when we looked back on the program, we saw that there had been a significant number of Nordic films. Some of them we joked about having the traditional Nordic angst. We did wonder what it was that we were perhaps tapping into about that angst that was resonating ever more for us. I think that the answers are obvious to any citizen of the world today. These are tough times and every day the news gets bleaker, quite frankly. Even with the Nordic angst, these films are very funny. The films look at that angst through a variety of clever, kitschy lenses.

AS: The opening night film is Freakonomics. It has what you call a “dream team” of documentary filmmakers. There is Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, Morgan Spurlock from Super Size Me, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who had Jesus Camp a couple of years ago. Those films do not come along every day. How did all these stalwarts join together?
SS: The team that produced Freakonomics had also done a lot of what we call “omnibus” productions – New York, I Love You and Paris, je t'aime. So this was an approach to filmmaking that they found very appealing and they wanted to turn it over into the documentary universe, taking on, of course, the best-selling book "Freakonomics". The producers identified who they thought would bring some interesting name recognition and a kind of eclectic point of view. Each chapter that these different filmmakers take on, they are a real interesting trademark of their style, whether it is aesthetic or whether it is their approach to the subject. You can really see the distinction between the Morgan Spurlock section and the Alex Gibney section and the Rachel Grady/Heidi Ewing section. They are very true to their own interests.

AS: Davis Guggenheim, who is best known for An Inconvenient Truth, takes on the ramifications of No Child Left Behind in Waiting for Superman. People are literally waiting in a lottery to see if their kids can get into a good school or not. It is a lottery for kids to decide their future. Guggenheim will be there for his own film and also for the Guggenheim Symposium.
SS: Waiting for Superman--I think, right now, is the definitive film on the state of public education in particular here in the United States, which we all know is in deep crisis. We’re really excited that after the screening Michelle Rhee, the D.C. Public Schools Chancellor, will have a conversation with Davis. But yes, this is a really critical film that looks at the state of education but also this lottery system, these charter schools that are trying to pick up where public schools leave off and the challenges for families and the near-impossibility, potentially, for families to get their kids in these programs. It is an extraordinarily complex system that has decades of webs to make it even more complex. The film really unravels it in a very straightforward way.

AS: One of your key series is “Peacebuilding on Screen.” A lot of those films seem to be calls for action. How did that come about?
SS: Well, as you probably know from our past, Silverdocs does enjoy special partnerships here and there. We really feel that one of the distinct characteristics of the festival is our proximity to the Hill and to decision makers. While we do not only show films that have a sense of political urgency at this festival, it clearly is something we do exceptionally well and that we do a lot of. We are partnering this year with the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), who are really on the ground, real leaders and experts in conflict management. So we thought it would be great to showcase the great work that they are doing and to connect it with the great work we are doing. And what is going to be unique about this program is not only the specific films that are selected--but each of these film screenings that are part of the USIP program will be followed by fabulous panels with some of the most important leading thinkers on those particular subjects, talking about the issues and the hopes for peace.

AS: When Martin Scorsese was honored a few years ago at the Silverdocs Guggenheim Symposium, he discussed some of the documentaries that influenced him. He mentioned Titticut Follies, and this year you’re honoring the director of that film, and many other acclaimed documentaries, Frederick Wiseman. He is lesser known to the general public, but is respected and admired in the documentary film community. You are showing many of Wiseman’s films. What would you like people to learn about his work?
SS: First of all, how important he has been to the documentary medium. This is someone who has been making films for nearly half a century and has contributed to the landscape of documentary films in one of the most profound ways. He is a filmmaker who has stayed true to his form more than any other. He has an incredible patience and a curiosity about human behavior, particularly within institutions and is so patient and able to observe these behaviors and allow incredible things to unfold that many other filmmakers would not be able to see. I think it is refreshing to see someone who focuses on a different kind of way of looking at the world. It is always there in our daily lives, but we seldom see it on screen anymore. There is no question in my mind that he is one of the most important documentary filmmakers ever, and certainly the over 35 films that he has contributed to the landscape are all masterful. When you walk away from a Frederick Wiseman film, you really feel like you have truly, deeply gotten into the subject matter that he has presented. Again, it is always about institutions. It will be about the welfare state or basic training or domestic violence... The general public who appreciates documentaries doesn’t think they know Wiseman directly. What is ironic is that they do know him indirectly because he’s influenced nearly all of the filmmakers that we know and love today. And he is not just a relic of the past, he is still making films. In fact, he just got back from Cannes to promote his most recent film called Boxing Gym about a boxing gym in Philadelphia. This is someone who has not stopped. He is still contributing and he is still true to his form. He is still curious. He is still patient.

AS: Oliver Stone, who is no stranger to controversy, is going to be appearing, along with South of the Border, where he interviews various South American leaders. He has certainly waded into that area before with Fidel Castro. That is a pretty big “get.”
SS: Not only is he going to answer questions, but we are going to have a panel. People who have not seen the film use words like “controversial” and “provocative.” What is provocative about it is that he is making a particular statement. He feels that the media has not represented these leaders in the fullest light and he wants to excavate their reputations. That is his choice and we can watch for an hour and a half his doing that on film. We felt that it would be interesting to, after the film, allow the other voices to challenge some of that. So it is going to be an exciting post-screening discussion.

AS: Another provocative subject that you are going to be tackling with another big name is The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan. Danny Glover, the film’s executive producer, will be in attendance. McKinley Nolan, this MIA from Vietnam, may very well be alive. There are not many MIA stories that have a happy ending. Even the prospect that this might have one has got to be thrilling. This is 40 years after Private Nolan disappeared in Vietnam. I believe that, along with Danny Glover, Nolan’s family is supposed to be there.
SS: We are really excited about this film, The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan. This is one of those films that combines absolutely riveting production values and a beautiful cinematic eye, with just the most compelling story. Essentially, the most incredible, beautiful family living in deep Texas learns that there has been a sighting of the husband, the father, the brother that had been gone for nearly 40 years, had gone missing in a way that left a great deal of mystery. Was he a traitor? Did he become kidnapped? No one knows what wound up happening to him and this film takes you on this search, retracing steps to uncover the mystery and to see if indeed the sighting was true.

AS: The closing night film is The Tillman Story, about Pat Tillman. When the story came out originally about what Tillman did, giving up his football career to go serve as an Army Ranger, it was very heroic and it was very clear-cut. Then, when more details came out, it was certainly just as heroic, but the story was not quite as straightforward as it was initially. Members of his family came out and started challenging how his case was handled by the military. As with McKinley Nolan’s family, some of Pat Tillman’s family will be there after the screening.
SS: The film is the family’s side of things. The Army created a story that the son was killed as a hero trying to step in the way of Taliban fire to protect his fellow soldiers. The truth is far more devastating. He was killed in “friendly fire” by his fellow soldiers in an event that went terribly wrong. This was known internally and the family got very frustrated with the way the government was changing the story and beginning to use Pat Tillman as a symbol of a particular kind of patriotism that was far more simplistic than the truth of Pat Tillman. Pat Tillman was not unquestioning and unwavering in his support for the war. In fact, he grew to become very critical of it but felt the commitment to seeing this through. But what this film does, and what the Tillman family wanted to do, was to resurrect the reputation of the son, husband and brother that the Army had created, to take back the truth of who he was.

AS: A couple of years ago Stanley Nelson was here with an astounding film about Jim Jones and the Jones cult. Now Nelson is back with Freedom Riders.
SS: This film is so exhaustive, but not exhausting. It is unbelievable, the extent of archive footage that he pulls together. This film almost entirely takes place in the moment because of that... You see, in this “post-racial” era, the significance of this milestone. Stanley Nelson is an extraordinary storyteller and an extraordinary archivist. I think that the gift of this film is bringing back to life through this old footage this pivotal moment, allowing us to view it from today’s lens.

AS: One film that caught my eye was Marwencol. The film’s subject, Mark Hogencamp, has gone through this savage, awful beating, but he builds something really artistic, something poignant out of it. Tragedy leads to art.
SS: That is what is so fascinating about this film, because it is art to us, but not art to the man in the film. To the man in the film it is therapy. It is not even conscious therapy. It is his way of coping with this brain damage essentially, or to forget his trauma. His way of coping is to escape into this fantasy world that is really not fantasy as far as he is concerned. What is amazing for an outside viewer, the earnestness, the sincerity of the play he has with these dolls.
AS: Does he really thinks he is in the fantasy?
SS: He does not believe that he is in it, but he comfortably and happily lives in the fantasy world. For example, each of the dolls in the film in his world are named after people in his real life. A neighbor that he has this crush on becomes a love interest in this fantasy world. In fact, more than a love interest, she becomes almost a wife, which adds to some problems in the real world. It is indeed the outside that looks at this and sees the art in it, particularly the art in the photographs. Hogencamp not only creates this world but then photographs it and creates unbelievable details. But he himself is reluctant and uncomfortable to be called an artist. That is not his intention, and in fact when he begins to get some attention from others as art it really, it is just very awkward for him. He is not trying to get this out to the world.

AS: Doing a 180 degree turn, you have a documentary on the Rolling Stones, Stones in Exile. I do not think there is any band that has had more documentaries about them than the Stones. You think of the classic Gimme Shelter and then recently Scorsese’s Shine a Light. What is new with Stones in Exile? What is left to discover?
SS: This is a very particular moment. This film is pure archival footage with the Stones themselves giving the voiceover narration, talking through what’s going on. Not just a particular moment but a very pivotal moment in their career. The months in which they recorded the double album “Exile on Main Street,” which came to define their careers, for better and for worse. They had all left the UK, largely to escape some taxes, moved to the south of France, in a villa that was rented by Keith Richards. Apparently the villa used to be an old Nazi headquarters--you kind of see the footage that was taken at that time, kind of spontaneous recording and their lifestyle. It is just a real time capsule. The footage was not shot with the intention of it being for a documentary, so it has a home movie quality.

AS: I don’t watch “Big Love,” but I know a lot of people who do and really, really like that show. It seems that Sons of Perdition touches on that particular sect of Mormons. It is obviously not mainstream Mormonism. Polygamy is allowed. The film tells the story of people who are exiled from that sect.
SS: I think it would be extremely difficult for an outsider to make a film about that sect. Sons of Perdition is largely focused on some young men who try to leave the sect and the incredible separation that they are forced to deal with. In order to leave you are excommunicated from your whole community. Parents are not allowed to see their children. You cannot connect back to your brothers and sisters. What is terribly cruel is that when you are in this fundamentalist sect you are not really given access to the outside world. In order to leave it is a profound divide. You see some people trying to escape and that moment of finally being out of that sect and trying to acclimate to what we would consider normal society.

AS: Another film that deals with religious intolerance is As Lilith. Here you have a Jewish Israeli woman who’s already dealing with a heartbreaking tragedy. Her 14-year-old daughter commits suicide. Then, on top of that, she wants to cremate her daughter and this Orthodox Jewish organization is trying to prevent her from doing so. How did you find this film?
SS: The great pleasure and joy of being a programmer is you get to travel to other film festivals and find gems. I found this at True/False, a wonderful film festival in Missouri that I adore. This was a great find that they had. Interestingly, it hasn’t played since then. I have talked to the programmers at Toronto, at Sundance. Everyone loves this film but somehow it has not quite made their slate. This is an incredibly complex film for all the reasons you described. There is one other added element and that is that the character of Lilith is very profound and complicated. She really is both a mother in deep torment and grieving, but she is also... I do not want to say provocateur, but she is a controversial character.

AS: Speaking of provocative, there is A Film Unfinished, which includes clips from Nazi propaganda films, when they were trying to convince the world that the Jews and their other prisoners were being treated wonderfully. It is hard for me to see how you could fold that into a truthful film about the Holocaust.
SS: It is an incredible film, highly recommended, a masterpiece really. Essentially the premise of the film is this material, this footage that had been claimed as documentary footage. A hidden reel of outtakes was discovered, which showed multiple takes of various scenes that were again just considered to be pure observation. These outtakes show clear direction, clear manipulation of the subjects to kind of enact various things. In some cases the subjects are enacting, as you say, happy, peaceful lives, ghetto life that is benign. But there are other scenes where it tries to depict the Jews in a very distasteful light, and this is also clearly presented. So the filmmaker is really looking at this particular piece of footage vis-a-vis the question of history, the question of how that is created, and also looking at the Nazi propaganda eye, what their intentions were.

AS: There have been loads of documentaries that have examined the gap between the rich and the poor, in many different ways. But this film Space Tourist seems to take a very unique angle by taking these uber-wealthy people who spend obscene amounts of money to take a joyride into space and then contrasts that with the people who collect the debris to sell. The film struck me as depicting a traditional struggle in a very non-traditional way. Is that accurate?
SS: I think you said it beautifully. This is a wonderful well-known Swiss filmmaker, Christian Frye. This is a very poignant and poetic film in many ways; he really looks at this global economy, this contrast between the classes in the most unique way. What is so lovely about the film is that you get to experience both sides of this. You get to go up into space... It is always wonderful to see that kind of footage. But you also see a side of it that is almost never presented. When we think about space, it is so romantic, to see that journey. We never think of what’s left behind. This film shows the discarded materials, which are very expensive, and the scavengers, the pickers who seek out and collect it, resell it, refurbish it. It is very high quality material. Space Tourist is a very comprehensive look at it but it is presented in a very lyrical way, very poetic.

AS: In addition to some of the films that I mentioned, are there any other highlights, films in particular that you want people to know about?
SS: There is one film that has won an audience award every place it has played, from Sundance to Berlin on and that is Waste Land from Lucy Walker. She began her filmmaking career with The Devil’s Playground, about Amish youth and then more recently something called Blind Sight, about a group of blind kids who are taking on a wonderful mountain journey. This new film follows a successful Brazilian artist (Vik Muniz), who has been living in Brooklyn for quite some time, extraordinarily successful with his photography work, who goes down to Brazil to one of the world’s largest garbage dumps and befriends a number of the pickers who are picking recyclable material. It is how they make a living, scavenging through the material. He essentially brings them into his next creative artwork, which is to create portrait is of them that get blown up into these enormous sizes and then each detail is filled with the actual garbage that they pick and then it is re-photographed and sold. Words cannot quite do it justice. It is a deeply moving film about the transformative power of art. It is profound on so many levels. I think audiences will love it.

AS: Sundance, which started off as a venue for independent films, in the end changed how independent films are made, distributed and perceived. Do you think Silverdocs, now that it has been around for a while, and it is on everyone’s radar, is having that type of effect?
SS: We are definitely a part of the growing popularity and mainstreaming of documentaries. I think the rise and success of Silverdocs reflects that moment where documentaries were not just this thing that you see on Channel 13 late at night, but something that could be very engaging. I do think that we have contributed significantly to the culture of documentary viewing, that we have been helping to educate people, that documentaries are not necessarily all about eating spinach and things that are good for you but can also be very entertaining, can change your way of thinking, can fill in the blanks on important social stories, news stories that perhaps you only get to see a very small part of. We have seen that documentaries can actually enact change thinking, and in those ways I think that Silverdocs has been a very significant part of the influence. We are indeed the largest documentary festival in the United States. We were recently just cited by IndieWire along with Cannes and Toronto and Berlin, as one of the 50 best film festivals period. So clearly we have contributed a lot.

AS: You have been doing this for a while. What have you learned and what would you like audiences to learn?
SS: That is a tough one. I have learned so many things. Some of them are behind the scenes administrative things like how to be more efficient, how to prioritize things. From a broader perspective: programming. As I said in the beginning, I think my job is to be an antenna in many ways and to be as open as possible to the work that is out there, to start each season with a clean slate, and to be receptive to the work. That work tells you what the themes are that are of interest. For example, this Nordic angst theme--it revealed itself to us and we were open enough to see it and to recognize it. So I think it is about remaining open and to bring as little preconceived ideas as possible to the table.

AS: Would that also answer the question of what you want the audience to learn? To bring as little preconceived notions to the table?
SS: Yes. I suppose so. The reason I am cut out for what I do is partly because I love it so much. Every single time, to this day, and I have seen hundreds and hundreds of films a year, let alone what I have seen in a decade. Every time the lights go down in a theater and a film begins I am so excited. I am so excited for this new journey, this new incredible experience I’m about to take. Now often within a few minutes, maybe a little longer, I realize, “Uh-Oh this is not going to happen” but I do approach each film with the potential of being a life-changing film. I would encourage audiences to be open. There are a lot of ways people tell stories. Some of them might be more challenging, with less direction from the filmmaker. They may be like the Wiseman films, where it is more observational. They might be much more straightforward, like Stanley Nelson, who uses a vast array of archival material to bring something back to life. What is exciting about a documentary festival is that people may think, “Oh, that’s documentary, that’s one specific thing.” But what we get to show is, within that genre, that there are thousands upon thousands of unique approaches to it. Some of them are very experimental, some are straightforward. Some can be about huge, important subjects, some can be about the littlest subjects. But we bring all these true life stories together and present them in a variety of ways. I think it is a real exciting week.

Adam Spector
June 15, 2010

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