Silverdocs: Here to Stay

As the Washington area moves toward late June, there are certain things we can count on. The summer movie season hits full swing, with a fine balance between prequels and sequels. The weather moves from very humid to ďI think Iím going to dieĒ humid. And, best of all, Silverdocs returns. This is Silverdocs' ninth year, but the festival seems as fresh and timely as ever. Not only is it a tentpole in the DC film community, but itís long since become the wordís leading documentary film festival. The 2011 edition runs from June 20 to June 26. Tickets are available at the Silverdocs website or at the AFI Silver Theater (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD).

Once again Sky Sitney, the Silverdocs Festival Director, took time out of her busy schedule to sit down with me. Sky was still nailing down speakers and attending to many other details. While these demands may have tired out many others, Sky seemed focused, strong and enthusiastic as we discussed this yearís festival slate:

Adam Spector: Out of 2011 submissions you picked 110 films. So to say that it was competitive would be an understatement.
Sky Sitney: Absolutely, and actually that doesnít account for all the travel that we do to film festivals, both here in the US and internationally ... those films are also in consideration. So at the end of the day it probably is about 2200 films that weíre considering.

AS: In years past you and your staff have taken great pride in not just the films but also the speakers you line up to go with the films. One that jumped out at me this time was Senator Al Franken for the Guggenheim Symposium.
SS: The connection there is that Senator Franken was featured in a film by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who are our honorees, in Al Franken: God Spoke. Heís going to give some tributary remarks. There are two categories that will definitely feature a lot of high-profile guests. One is our partnership with the United States Institute of Peace. This is our second year in a row working with them. Each of the screenings in that series are followed by post-screening discussions with leading policymakers in the arena that the particular film covers. Also weíre doing a thing with the Fledgling Fund, a phenomenal granting organization, that particularly gives grants to social issues documentaries. We have three films dealing with education and they are going to be creating these special conversations afterwards: The Bully Project, Cafeteria Man, and To Be Heard. Every day of the conference we have panels that are called ďDoc Talks,Ē conversations that emanate from some of the film programming.

AS: Your festival opens up with The Swell Season. In 2007, Once came from out of the blue. I saw it and was blown away by the characters and the music. There seemed to be a blurring between the characters and the real-life people. Everyone loved it when they won at the Oscars. It seems that The Swell Season picks up after their Oscar win and depicts what happened next.
SS: Exactly. Itís a beautiful black-and-white portrait of the two leads, Glen Hansard and Markťta IrglovŠ, who were real life partners, both in terms of their musical partnership but also their personal partnership. The film follows them immediately on the aftermath of winning the Academy Award and embarking on a two year tour with the band, The Swell Season. It looks at both the very poignant connection that they have through music and also their personal connection and how life on the road, in many ways, threatens the fragility of their personal relationship but strengthens their artistic relationship. The film is filled with incredible music and is almost an artwork unto itself, in how it's presented.

AS: Steve James is another familiar name. He did Hoop Dreams, which is considered by many to be one of the top documentaries ever made. With his new film, The Interrupters, James examines people who try to stop gang activity in Chicago. Both Mr. James and some of ďThe InterruptersĒ themselves are going to be at the screening.
SS: Itís our Centerpiece screening. Steve James has been a really great friend to the festival. He comes many years with many of his works; weíre really honored to have this as our Centerpiece. Itís a deeply engaging film. Thereís not a single egregious shot and I think people will be riveted by it. We are very excited to have some of the subjects here.

AS: You mentioned the Guggenheim Symposium honorees, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegdus. When people hear D.A. Pennebaker, the first thing they think of is rock documentaries, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Donít Look Back, Monterey Pop, etc. But, as your festival spotlights, Pennebaker and Hegdus did many different types of documentaries, such as the Al Franken one and The War Room.
SS: Pennebaker has been making films for over five decades now. In both his personal and professional relationship with his wife Chris Hegdus, theyíve been working together for the past 20 or so years, starting off with The War Room. Theyíve made so many dynamic films, as you suggest. Obviously Pennebaker did begin with more of a musical influence, but their stretch has gone far and wide. Theyíve done incredible documentaries featuring renowned artists, everyone from Carol Burnett in her Broadway run, to Elaine Stritch, and yes, political documentaries, timely documentaries. Chris Hegdus herself did Startup.com. Since they have been together a lot of their work has been done in partnership, but there are certainly some works that we will be acknowledging that they have done separately. We are honoring their collective body of work.

AS: With the exception of Michael Aptedís Up series, there arenít that many documentary sequels. Revenge of the Electric Car, the closing night film, is from Chris Paine, who earlier made Who Killed the Electric Car? The new film is a follow-up, right?
SS: Iím sure for the filmmaker it was a surprise to be able to do the update, given how much the climate has changed since he made Who Killed the Electric Car?. That film really looks at how there was this great promise for these electric car vehicles and how that was squashed, somewhat dubiously, by a whole range of organizations, companies, individuals, etc. Given the new climate that we are in, with the skyrocketing gas prices, and challenges to the traditional car companies, there has been an incredible resurgence that I think even the filmmaker did not anticipate. This new film looks at that resurgence and certain mavericks and interesting entrepreneurs making it their business to make sure that, this time around, the cars become very viable and have an opportunity to really get into the marketplace. Itís character driven even though it has an important kind of environmental issue in its undercurrent.

AS: Thereís another film with strong characters that addresses environmental issues called Weiboís War. A person has this plot of land, and then these Canadian gas companies try to get in on it because thereís this reserve on his property. It couldnít be more relevant to whatís going on today. But it sounds like itís also very much about this man Weibo Ludwig.
SS: This is a very fascinating film. We actually have a number of films in our lineup with environmental activists or terrorists, depending on what side of the coin you are. Some films focus on the embroilment that some of these people have gotten into with the law because of their actions. Weiboís War is really unique in that this is the most unexpected kind of activist, a holy man who moved out into the hinterlands in Canada to have his very large extended family live off the land and in some ways be a little bit removed from society.
AS: It sounds like he really just wanted to be left alone to do his own thing.
SS: The film touches upon that ... itís unknown what actions he does or does not take. Certain action is taken against these companies that would be considered aggressive. What happens to the families is also highly aggressive. The infiltration of this company and the way itís releasing toxins into the environment--itís actually having a major affect on the family as well as that of their livestock. So whatís great about the film is that it presents this really dynamic complex story and it doesnít try to give answers. It leaves that for each audience member to decide for themselves what was appropriate and what was not.

AS: There seem to be a number of films that touch upon criminal justice. Earlier you mentioned the film The Bully Project. Bullying, especially cyberbullying, has received more and more attention. Another one that jumped out at me is Incendiary: The Willingham Case. The crime happened iní91 and Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, but people are still to this day working on the case, trying to prove his innocence.
SS: Exactly. I think this film has been transformative in questions of arson and this case has helped rejuvenate or revise the methods that are used in investigating arson cases.

AS: Thereís also Give Up Tomorrow, about this Philippine case where there very well may have been a miscarriage of justice. Were you looking for criminal justice related films, or did they just sort of present themselves?
SS: Just like everything else, in the way we approach our selection process, we are highly responsive. We donít decide as a team what themes we want to showcase. We really allow the great work to percolate, to rise up and analyze the landscape once its there. But we definitely recognize that there was this interesting thematic strand arising and actually calling attention to it. Weíre going to have a ďDoc TalksĒ where weíre bringing these filmmakers together to talk about how their films, in various ways, are interfacing with the judicial system and how the filmmakerís role fits in with the role of a defendant or a prosecutor or a kind of witness and whether these films can be used in some ways as testimony or evidence, what the ethical role is for the filmmaker.

AS: Last year you had a documentary on the freedom riders, one of the more celebrated aspects of the civil right movement. This year you have The Loving Story, which examines one of the lesser known aspects of the movement, partly because the subjects didnít want to be at the forefront of anything. This interracial couple was exiled from Virginia in 1967.
SS: They wound up, without intention, being behind a significant Supreme Court case that was responsible for the removal of this law that interracial couples couldnít marry. The film is almost exclusively shaped out of archival footage thatís never before been seen.
AS: Is the couple still alive?
SS: The couple isnít but their children are. Their daughter, Peggy Loving, will be coming to the festival as well as one of their lawyers, who took the case and brought it all the way to the Supreme Court. Actually Richard Loving died very shortly after the case at a very young age about five years after this happened. I was very shocked to see that in the ending titles. Itís an extraordinary story of a quiet, shy unassuming couple, who were from many generations in Virginia, who lived very harmoniously, and how there were these outside forces who were trying to make it impossible for them to be together.

AS: Itís easy to take for granted the fact that films are there and are readily accessible. But this one film, The First Movie, is about these children in southern Iraq who have never seen a movie before and their exposure to what, for them, is a completely new art form.
SS: Not only does the filmmaker, Mark Cousins, bring a screen and show these wonderful films to the whole community and particularly the children, but he also equips many of the kids with cameras to document their lives and he weaves together both the young filmmakerís own vision of their day and his presentation of films. Itís a very poetic, miracle piece.
AS: So you actually see clips from the films that the children shot themselves?
SS: Exactly. Itís a different side of Iraq that we donít often see, or havenít seen lately. Typically, if itís represented in a documentary film these days, itís always conflict and the war. It is indeed the backdrop, the kind of elephant in the room in a certain way. But this film is really about his (Cousins) time in this isolated village where thereís scarcely ever a visitor from outside the community and the scenes where heís showing the films, including films like E.T., are just exquisite. Itís so delightful, the joy that these kids have.

AS: I noticed some films that involve restaurants: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about a $300 plate sushi restaurant in Tokyo and then Bakhmaro and El Bulli. That leads to the obvious question, are there going to samples?
SS: Oh, I know. First of all with Bakhmaro there would be no samples to be had because this film is kind of the anti-foodie foodie film, unlike El Bulli and Jiro Dreams of Sushi where people wait for over a year to get on a wait list to have an opportunity to eat at these wonderful restaurants. Bakhmaro is all about there being no customers. The wait staff clearly outnumbers any volume of customers. They still get ready every morning, clean the tables off, wipe them of dust, put on their uniforms and just wait for that customer that never comes in this sleepy somewhat on the brink of ghost town in the Georgian countryside. Clearly the restaurant is up front and center in the story, but the story is more broadly about the whole community. They are the last remnants, the last people holding down the fort. Thereís something somewhat comical in it, thereís a degree of absurdity. Itís also very poignant and sad in a certain way.

The other two are about very highly refined specialized cuisine. Their meticulous construction of the sushi and the meticulous creation of these molecular gastronomy pieces that Ferran Adria creates. Heís the chef of Bulli and, in many ways, he is considered the master of this molecular cuisine. We have our own molecular gastronomy restaurant in DC, called Minibar, by one of his prodigies, Jose Andres, which I had the pleasure of going to once. Itís only six seats and itís a very intense experience. But the molecular gastronomy stuff is a very particular kind of process where in many ways, theyíre looking at food as a science, where youíre breaking things down and reassembling them through these interesting scientific methods, reconstructing food. Jiro is a little bit more of a human interest story. Jiro, whoís probably well into his eighties by now, has a son who is in his sixties who has been working with his father his entire life. While he can never exceed his father, heís probably one of the greatest Japanese sushi chefs in Tokyo. But his father just wonít retire. He loves what he does. It keeps him going. Heís extraordinary at it. So the expectations the son might have had about taking over the business have continued to be put on hold. So thereís a little bit of that family dynamic.

AS: What are some of the noteworthy films that we havenít talked about?
SS: One is called Project Nim, this is by the filmmaker James Marsh, who did Man on Wire. It follows the chimpanzee Nim who was raised from infancy by a New York City family. Itís a scientific experiment to see what would happen if a chimpanzee was raised as a human and taught sign language. Would this chimpanzee be able to begin to communicate? It follows his life story from these early years growing up with this New York City family to then being taken to work on a more formal setting with scientists outside of New York. And all the way through to various zoos and even experimentation and unfortunate crazy kind of human failures that have been done unto this chimpanzee. Itís actually quite a heartbreaking story.

Another film worth mentioning is called Page One: Inside the New York Times. This is a really fascinating film that spends about a year deep in the heart of the newsroom, at the news desk, looking at how articles are assigned and written and processed, also looking more broadly at the challenge of the newspaper industry right now. At the New York Times in particular, there is a commitment to maintaining integrity in the process but also having to hit a bottom line financially to stay relevant and the challenges of having to migrate more and more to an online universe and having a dwindling traditional readership.

Buck is a film that has won audience awards just about everywhere itís played. The producer and the director met at Silverdocs last year. Itís such a touching and beautifully done film about the real story of the horse whisperer Buck Brannaman. Heís so deeply kind and empathetic, soft and gentle and had just a natural kind of unspoken connection with horses, where they just could relate to each other. He was able to be real transformative in creating a new system where one could train horses, both those that were wild and those that had significant disciplinary problems, to be tame I suppose, but through extraordinary healing measures.

Being Elmo: Kevin Clash, the African-American puppeteer of Elmo, grew up in Baltimore, not in a family of privilege by any means, and from a very young age, had this great passion for puppeteering and took it upon himself to use his motherís socks and hosiery to create puppets. He was just deeply fascinated by this even though it was uncool, definitely not something that kids in his community were doing, and through his own perseverance and the support of his family he eventually gets under the wings of Jim Henson, and that community, and through there is able to rise quickly because of his extreme talent. Later he helped create, and has certainly been embodying Elmo, which is, by far, the most successful puppet that theyíve ever had, both in terms of visibility and marketing and all of that really a beautiful story about his own passion and what heís done with children and the impact Elmo has had internationally for kids, all the good things that theyíre doing.

Thereís another local thing Iíll call out--Cafeteria Man. This is about a Baltimore based gentleman, Tony Geraci, whose goal is to help reform the public school lunch system. He makes some arguments that are very compelling. For example, what the school system is now doing, offering a can of peaches for a number of students. It would be cheaper if, instead of a can, they bought locally raised peaches, fresh from the farm. Itís more economical and certainly much more healthy so this is a very simple way to try to get to a much larger issue that the film is exploring, which is this guyís single crusade to transform the public school lunch system. But one thing after another, all the bureaucracy, all the impossible ways to make any change coming at him. So itís really about herculean effort to change the lunch system, and the families and the students who want that system to be changed as well.

AS: You have a number of sports films, including Fire in Babylon, about the cricket team in the West Indies.
SS: They were the underdogs but eventually they got so good. Unbeatable for a very long time. So there is this really exciting story you can follow, these characters. You see some incredible games with tension. Another fascinating sports film, where sports is a backdrop, is called Renee. It looks at Dr. Richard Raskind, who decides, well into his 40s, that his true identity is as a woman, and goes through this whole gender reassignment surgery. And at that point he decides, heís gotten so good at tennis, and has the capacity and ability, to play in the U.S. Womenís Open.

AS: It was very controversial. I see you also have Catching Hell from Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) about the infamous Steve Bartman incident.
SS: What I like about that film is that, in some ways, it deconstructs, very methodically and meticulously, that incident, and really calls into question whether Bartman deserved to be scapegoated the way he did. He got death threats. This really had a huge impact on his life. So the film is fascinating looking at the incident, but also the mediaís role in this. It just takes it to a deeper level. The final film Iíll mention in the sports arena, that has a local connection, is called Age of Champions. Itís a world premiere. It follows some really fabulous characters who are seniors, and are performing in the senior Olympics. Some of these people are well into their 90s, in some cases 100, who probably could beat a number of 20-year-olds. But itís the Tatum brothers these lovely African-Americans in their late 80s or early 90s, have been world champs in swimming for years. Theyíll definitely be at the festival.

AS: Given how well established Silverdocs is, it would seem to be very easy to say ďAll right, just send the films to us.Ē Nevertheless you and your staff make a very concerted effort to go out and unearth some hidden gems. Is that a challenge?
SS: Even if one were to sit back and let all of the submissions arrive, the process of watching them, of evaluating them is very, very painstaking because there is such a high volume. Usually we get a number of reviews on a single film just to make sure, that if itís a challenging film, that might be very divisive that weíre not missing that opportunity. It is the divisive films that can be the most interesting. But we do find that it is indeed very important to us to have a wide variety of films submitted from all around the world. We, for many years, have cultivated these wonderful international partnerships with various cultural organizations, even other festivals internationally. Theyíre identifying great work and submitting it. It is a priority for us to try to have a very diverse slate of films representing under-represented regions and to have some films that have not necessarily already been discovered elsewhere. The vast majority are films that have already played on the festival circuit to an extent. But at the same time we do take pride in launching some films. So itís all about balance--balancing the slate with great works that have already been circulated with some new titles. Balancing themes, balancing countries of origin and interest. All those factors go into how we select the lineup.

AS: And also balancing an appeal to the local filmgoers with your role as a national festival?
SS: Thatís right. Within that thereís even many different categories like balancing feel-good, really popular accessible documentaries with some really challenging work that might not have as broad a range appeal but are pushing boundaries and buttons, speaking toward a smaller group more profoundly. In terms of audiences, our general DC audience vs. the film industry thatís coming in. Sometimes the industry thatís here has a different agenda. They might be looking to make the next big sale and theyíre looking for works that have not necessarily been out there that much so they could potentially buy them for theatrical distribution or broadcast. That is not an issue or criteria for our general audiences and we donít want to only privilege the industry and not have the Project Nims or Page Ones or Bucks because theyíve played elsewhere. We donít want to deprive our audiences of those great films. But we also donít want have our industry guests come and feel like thereís nothing in it for them here either.

AS: A few years ago in the middle part of the last decade, there just seemed to be this explosion of interest in documentaries with Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me and others. Do you think interest is still growing, or do you think itís leveled out a bit?
SS: I think that the novelty of documentaries has worn off because itís become so much more a part of mainstream culture. I think itís stabilized. The interest is as strong as ever; itís just that the novelty of that interest is not so remarkable anymore. Silverdocs was created and a few years later a lot of other film festivals popped up that were also dedicated exclusively to documentary film. We have continued to see, year after year, documentary films hit the marketplace. If you look at the lineup for E Street Cinema, you wouldnít be surprised to see one or two documentaries there at any given time. I donít think that thereís been a downswell, but I think that itís just become a little bit more integrated into our normal expectations. Documentaries have a robust audience. Theyíre here. Theyíre here to stay.

Adam Spector
June 13, 2011


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