Silverdocs: Resonating in a Larger World

Imagine leading a team thatís planning and coordinating one of the worldís leading film festivals. Then imagine supervising not only the film programming, but also the securing of scores of guest speakers. Finally, imagine doing all of the above with a seven-month-old son at home. Thatís daily life right now for Sky Sitney, the Silverdocs Festival Director. Still, as I sat down with Sky the other day to discuss this yearís festival, she seemed more exhilarated than exhausted.

Why shouldnít Sky be psyched? Silverdocs has grown into arguably the worldís preeminent documentary film festival, and is now celebrating its 10th edition. The 2012 Silverdocs features 114 films from 44 countries. It begins this Monday, June 18 and continues through the 24th. Tickets are available at the Silverdocs website or at the AFI Silver Theater (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD).

So it was a sleep-deprived but joyous Sky that met me at the Silver. I have interviewed her before the festival for several years, and have always been struck by her passion. Her commitment to Silverdocs appears to have only grown stronger, as was clear from the start of our talk:

Adam Spector: In the past you have said that you have not looked for a theme for Silverdocs, that you would let the films come to you. This yearís Silverdocs press release noted many films about ďthe creative process.Ē Was that something you looked for, or something you just found?
Sky Sitney: It was, indeed, what we found... Clearly, in the case of the lineup this year, you couldnít deny a heavy presence of films on artists and the creative process. As we started noticing that our programming was leaning towards a lot of these films we felt that we wanted to embrace it and that it was quite poignant in such a celebratory year, a ten year anniversary--that there was something meaningful about the fact that this festival, throughout the ten years, has always been supporting artists. Itís always interesting for me, for one of my responsibilities as a programmer, just to see what happens when you allow the strong work to speak to you, to resonate with you.

AS: It seems that many of your films mirror whatís going on in the headlines. Recently there has been much coverage about Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a documentary about someone else who has challenged the system in China and the consequences that followed. Do you feel thatís especially timely now?
SS: Itís not so much the festivalís timing as the filmmakersí timing. In other words, there are filmmakers out there who are listening carefully to what are the most important topical issues ... who are out there with their cameras and are making the work that ultimately, we are honored to be able to present. So I think that documentary filmmakers, who function both as artists, in some cases as journalists, and an interesting melding of the two, are particularly savvy about recognizing whatís current, whatís important, and ideally getting there in advance, getting there long enough so that theyíre following this story and itís suddenly becoming headline news. For years we have been very lucky to be in a position to showcase work by artists/journalists who have that sensibility of being able to be aware of what matters and whatís current and relevant.

AS: Another film that seems to do that is Ĺ Revolution, which, according to the description, was almost an accident. The filmmakers werenít intending to chronicle the Egyptian uprising, but were there and took advantage of the moment.
SS: Right. Absolutely. And what is interesting about that film is clearly the sense of not being aware in the moment of what is going to be unfolding, of how historic and how critical and how largely inaccessible to the global community the kind of images that they wound up getting are, is the power of this film. One gets the sense that something important is happening. The energy of the film is so in the moment, unfolding with such vibrancy and electricity and anxiety. It happened to be skilled filmmakers, that had the savvy to know where to turn their camera and when something compelling was happening, but I donít think they realized how profound the extent of what they were capturing was.

AS: Another film thatís definitely timely is Call Me Kuchu. Thereís been much debate in this country about gay marriage, and gay rights. This film takes the subject a little differently because itís about people in Uganda literally risking their lives to be who they are.
SS: Thatís right, in an environment where the government essentially endorses ... making it illegal to be gay and making that something for which one is punishable. The law supports people taking it upon themselves to beat up or even kill someone who is gay, or to out them publicly or humiliate them. Itís really astonishing to look at whatís going on in Uganda right now around this issue because it does seem so shocking--that thereís any society existing today thatís violently abusing human rights.

AS: Your centerpiece screening is How to Survive a Plague, which appears to take us back to the ďAnd the Band Played OnĒ era of the AIDS outbreak. Many people today are saying that we have become too complacent about AIDS. Do you think this film is trying to help push AIDS back into the spotlight?
SS: Itís so interesting to talk about this film a few moments after talking about Ĺ Revolution because I think these two films, in unexpected ways, stand as the polar opposite of each other in their approach. How to Survive a Plague essentially thrusts us back into a particular very important period of the 1980s where HIV and AIDS were just becoming known to people. There was a great deal of mystery and anxiety around the sources of the disease, a tremendous amount of villainizing of the victims. And the film largely serves as a time capsule, in that itís for the most part, crafted out of great archival footage. And it very particularly looks at the role of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) in bringing the subject of AIDS and HIV into the mainstream and personally taking it upon themselves to try to come up with a cure, creating an urgency over the need to develop a cure. They did not find that was there in the general medical community, particularly when people believed that it was limited to be a gay disease. Of course, you know today the society looks upon AIDS very differently. The truth of the matter is that AIDS is still very prevalent. Quite frankly, here in DC, my understanding is that it has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country, so itís a very timely issue although some people donít recognize its timeliness.

AS: This yearís Guggenheim Symposium honors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who arenít exactly household names, but many are familiar with their Paradise Lost documentaries and the ďWest Memphis 3.Ē Jason Baldwin, one of the ďWest Memphis 3Ē will be appearing at the Symposium. Do you think it will focus on the filmmakers work, the West Memphis case, or a mixture of both?
SS: I do think that it going to be a mixture of both--a very compelling discussion that talks both about their illustrious careers and the specific impact that the Paradise trilogy has had on this case, of the West Memphis 3. Clearly Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were deeply committed to this story. They continued to return to it. They were relentless.

AS: Thereís a blending of journalism and activism. Do you think thatís a fair assessment?
SS: Absolutely, and thereís some artistry in there too.
AS: So you see documentaries as a blending of journalism, activism, and artistry?
SS: Just to be clear, not all documentaries are the blending of those three. Some are more on one side or the other. Itís a very rich discussion, and I think a lot of documentary filmmakers donít want to be considered journalists. They want to be considered creative interpreters of reality. Whereas with journalism, thereís a different kind of rule, expectation, or code with journalism of how one interprets reality. But then there are other documentary filmmakers who are very committed to social issues, and see documentaries as a very profound form to try to enact change and action. And then thereís a lot of documentary filmmakers who have no interest in social issues--their interest is just in making artistic personal stories that utilize interesting techniques like you might find in narrative films. So itís a very complex form and thereís no singular set of ingredients that define any particular film or documentary.

AS: Another post-film discussion that I canít wait for is the one after The Revisionaires. One of the subjects of the film, Don McLeroy, who was the Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, was very active about promoting his view of creationism vs. evolution, and trying to have that be reflected in the curriculum and in the textbooks they chose. Do you think the film treats him fairly?
SS: I remember years ago when we showed Jesus Camp. I recall audiences saying that, depending on where one stood on the issue, different people saw in that film what they wanted to see. I bring that up only to say that I wonder that if the perception of this film, and where this film stands, will depend on where you stand on the issue. But one thing is clear--that thereís a tremendous amount of influence that these individuals are having, also the Texas State Board of Education. Wherever you stand on the issues, the bottom line is that thereís a profound influence that this particular microcosm of society is having nationally. A textbook that a child might get in Oregon or Maine might be dictated by whatís happening in Texas on this issue. The film kind of lays that out. For some who believe that this is an important direction to go in--they may find that welcoming news. For others who find that dangerous or who are not in support of that in the curriculum, itís frightening. More than anything you see the behind-the scenes meetings that go on determining, line-by-line, what goes into these textbooks. And they explain why Texas has such a significant influence into whatís going on in the rest of the country.

AS: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who earlier did Jesus Camp, are back this year with Detropia, what promises to be a layered portrait of Detroit. Do you think people will be surprised about what they learn about the city?
SS: I certainly hope so. The filmmakers think that Detroit is a fascinating city right now. In many ways, it may be just a few steps ahead of where many cities are headed. There are a lot of major industrial cities in the U.S. that are not so far behind where Detroit is right now. What makes this fascinating is that here you have a city that was once one of the more dense and highly urban cities in the country. And now it is so depopulated that you have vast expanses where nature is overwhelming the city. Abandoned buildings are being taken back by the greenery. What I like about the film is that it doesnít necessarily follow a strict narrative trajectory that you might see in other films. Itís really more of a portrait, a kaleidoscopic portrait of different people and entities that make up Detroit, that together culminate in this complex portrait. Weíll meet a lot of different characters who are doing different things--politicians who are trying very hard to keep the city vibrant and put jobs in place, young hipsters taking advantage of the cheap rents, who are able to support their lives as artists living in fabulous lofts. You see this huge range.
AS: I expect there would be some auto workers.
SS: Yes, holding on to the last remaining jobs that there are. Thereís just a huge cross-section of people. Itís a real lyrical portrait.

AS: There are some other films that take a snapshot of the impact of the current economic state. When Bubbles Burst, Betting the Farm, Downeast ...
SS: It is fascinating because thereís all different sides to the economic downturn and who itís affecting and impacting. From Downeast, which looks at a largely elderly community in a small sardine factory that closes--people who would have ideally retired ten or fifteen years earlier. They donít necessarily have the skills to translate to new technologies, they are unlikely to be hired. That film follows the interesting opportunity that arises in the town with the potential rise of a new factory, that some people are suspicious of, because itís an outsider coming in, and others who are very grateful for the possibility of some continuity with jobs. What you see with Betting the Farm, which is a world premiere at Silverdocs, is what happens when a community of dairy farmers, who, for the most part, were serviced by a larger industry are let go. They decide to band together in an effort to create their own collective, a company called Moo Maids Home Organic, to do it on their own. They have to invest a lot of their own upstart money and work together.

AS: Another filmmaker whose name jumped out at me was Eugene Jarecki, who did Why We Fight, a stirring film about the Iraq war. With his new film, The House I Live In, he focuses on a very different type of war, the ďwar on drugs.Ē Do you see this as a very controversial film?
SS: This film is definitely polemical in that itís clearly making an argument, it has a point of view. People can disagree with that argument or feel like their eyes have been opened. A lot of people have been conditioned, rightfully or wrong, to associate drug use with criminalization, rather than a disease, rather than something that should be treated with care, treatment and medicine, that kind of universe vs. being imprisoned. Thatís sort of been so deeply ingrained in our own psyche, that I think itís hard to, perhaps, see a different perspective to it, but I think he does a very compelling job walking us through the steps of how that kind of association began, then looking at how the criminalization of drugs also is aligned with kind of a conscious need or desire to disenfranchize certain communities.
AS: And the explosion of the prison population.
SS: The explosion of the population that is hand-in-hand with the explosion of the prison industry that requires the population to be successful. So itís a very complex system that he unveils in very painstaking detail. One can really see how it all comes together, and hopefully make their own judgments about it. Iím really looking forward to the discussion around the film. Heíll (Jarecki) be here in one of the Q&As and will be doing a ďDoc TalkĒ to talk about his broader career.

AS: Letís switch gears and move to the lighter side. A few years ago there was this comedy with Mark Wahlberg called Rock Star, about a singer with a cover band who becomes the lead singer for the back he was covering. Now we have the real life counterpart with the opening night film, Donít Stop Believiní: Everymanís Journey. Of course the latter film has an added twist in that the signer is from the Philippines. Did this actually happen?
SS: It did happen and itís still happening. Essentially the band Journey was looking for a new lead singer--going to all of the usual and unusual suspects, reaching out to already recognized and celebrated vocalists, word of mouth, etc. Ultimately the band members were feeling quite at a loss. They could not find anyone. In a somewhat desperate final measure, one of the bandmates started doing a random Google search, and a few hours into the search came across some shoddy You Tube footage of a young man in the Philippines who was singing. This guy was in an unknown, kind of a cover band. Journey guitarist Neil Schon heard this extraordinary voice coming through and it was so compelling that he just thought, ďI have to meet this person and find out if this is real.Ē So sure enough they arranged for this young guy, Arnel Pineda, to come to the states and try out. In a few days they realize that he is just an extraordinary talent who blew everyone else out of the water. They take a chance on bringing this complete unknown, who the largest crowd he ever played for was Friday night in the karaoke bar. And suddenly heís going to be playing in front of tens of thousands of people, which is a completely different energy required. Arnel Pineda is quite poor and struggling and even had been homeless for quite some time. And the film follows his story from the moment I described it to his profound success, unprecedented success. All along the way you get to know Arnel and you get to understand his history, his story, and the sacrifices heís made. Heís such a beautiful, sweet, kind, talented man, who remarkably stays so humble throughout this whole journey (no pun intended). I think itís a very lovely way to kick off the festival.

AS: Youíve told me in previous years that youíve never shied away from provocative films. Case in point Ė DC is a town that has many museums, but I think there arenít any museums that are quite like the one profiled in The Final Member, which is a museum of the male member. So Iíve got to ask, have you been to this museum?
SS: No (laughs). Itís in Iceland. I have not been, but I certainly feel like I have some intimate knowledge of it. This is a wonderful surprise, this film. Thereís going to be the US premiere here. Itís, as one would expect, extraordinarily funny, really laugh out loud funny. But what you would not expect for this sort of thing is that itís also quite poignant. But itís such a well-made film with such great characters and such an unusual subject. The main character who is creating this museum dedicated to the male penis ... and the only thing that heís missing is literally the human, the homo sapien.

AS: Another unique one is Meet the Fokkens, about these twin sisters that have spent 50 years each in prostitution. I donít think thereís even been a film thatís explored people doing that job for that long.
SS: In a really weird way, the film beckons back to our earlier discussion on our films about the economy. This is a livelihood. Here are these two women, one of whom by the way, in the film is already retired. But the other one doesnít feel she can retire. She doesnít have the resources. She doesnít have alternate skills to apply elsewhere. What happens when one has dedicated their entire life to a profession and now that profession is no longer as lucrative? Whatís interesting in the film is that she certainly still has her clients. You actually go into the brothel, you have access in a couple of scenes to her interludes with various customers, and itís interesting to see that she does have customers. Itís a compelling film that I think has a deeper message about the economy and livelihood but thereís also a lightness to this film as well.

AS: There seem to be many films about teens. One of them is called Virgin Tales. As I understand it, the film is about these girls that make this pledge to remain virgins until they are married. Is it just the girls who are asked to make this pledge, or are the boys also asked?
SS: In this film, itís the girls making the pledge to their fathers--it really focuses on one family in particular. The father, the patriarch, created these ďpurity balls.Ē Iím really not sure if he created them everywhere, but in that particular community he spearheads it. Heís got a family with around seven daughters and a few sons. All of the daughters in succession take this vow and you follow their rituals, which are almost like a little mini-wedding between the father and daughter. I do think that the boys are expected to take the same pledge. But for whatever reason, none of the boys are the center focus.
AS: Did I hear you correctly, that thereís almost a wedding type ceremony between a daughter and her father?
SS: It doesnít follow the exact rituals of a wedding, but thereís kind of iconic imagery taken from it, like the white wedding looking dress, like a vow, a first dance, so there is some symbolism that one would associate with a wedding, that, in this case, is transferred to a father-daughter event. But it is indeed to the fathers that the daughters are taking this vow.
AS: So do you think that people would find that unsettling?
SS: I would think so. Much in the same way as Jesus Camp, I think it would depend on where you stand on the issues. I think this film, more than other films Iíve seen, is extremely neutral in terms of that stance it takes. The filmmaker has been given great access by this family. They clearly trust her a great deal, and she honored that trust. She really doesnít judge. She just presents in a deep, intimate way, the dynamics within this family, these rituals, and lays it out.

AS: What are some of the other notable films?
SS: One film that I really loved tremendously, but itís played quite a bit, is Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. This film is about a performance artist. I was very unexpectedly taken by her work. Itís just fascinating to get a glimpse into her process, particularly with this thing she does at MoMA where for three months she sat every single day, for six days a week through the majority of the day, still and allowed any audience member who waited in line to come sit with her, and they could come sit with her for as long as they wanted. So it could be one minute. It could be three hours. She doesnít talk. What was interesting was to see other peopleís reactions. She almost became saint, almost like a deity. I just found it so fascinating to look at the projection that people made onto her. She will look at you--she does have eye contact. Thereís almost a feeling of being ďseen,Ē a desperate need people have to be seen, to feel visible. Another one that I think is great is Plimpton!, which is about George Plimpton (Paper Lion). That participatory journalism, where he would go in and not just observe but actively participate in the story that he was telling. He was really such a phenomenal person, and thereís a treasure trove of archival footage that brings the character to life.

AS: Of course besides the films thereís also the conference.
SS: Yes, we have a concurrent conference with very special and unique offerings. So over the course of the festival we have five days filled with over 50 workshops, panels, master classes, teaching forums, opportunities for filmmakers to get in front of funders, broadcasters to pitch their project. So itís a tremendous opportunity for filmmakers or other people in the industry who learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. A lot of the discussion is looking at the content in the films, or talking to the filmmakers about their work. A lot of it is also, though, really digging much deeper about things like fundraising, how to create funds for your films, or broadcasters. Who out there is picking up these documentaries to air on TV. So the conference brings all of that together. Thatís an exciting thing.

AS: What do you think audiences have learned from coming to this festival?
SS: First and foremost, I think that people have learned that documentary is extraordinarily compelling. They have long gotten over the idea of ďAre documentaries moving?Ē or ďCan they be exciting?Ē People are deeply moved by the films that they see here. They forget quickly that itís a documentary. I think thatís the first thing for audiences, that weíve really helped embrace this particular forum, so much so that weíve almost forgotten that itís a forum. We donít think of ourselves as being limited in any way.

I also think that audiences have grown to understand the uniqueness of a festival experience vs. a general theatrical experience. They get very excited about the possibility of hearing the filmmakers speak out about the process--getting to participate in the conversation with them, ideally having the filmís subjects also present. You spend an hour and a half falling in love with various people on screen, rooting for them, and then itís very powerful to see them afterwards, to begin to get the thrill of meeting some of these extraordinary people, whether they are ordinary citizens or are making major changes in the world.

Ultimately, thereís just so much energy here. The buzz around films, the excitement of the crowds, the collective spirit that takes place throughout the week.

With the post-screening discussions--I think that those are a wonderful thing that this festival does very well, considering our proximity to DC. When thereís a film about a particular political or social issue, we can bring some pretty heavy hitters to the table. Big thinkers, big policymakers, people who are able to take films about an issue and be in a position to make change, experts in it. The caliber and the quality of our moderators and panelists, is unparalleled.

AS: Placing the films in a larger world?
SS: Exactly, letting the films become a channel, a means of bringing certain issues to the forefront that we can then, all collectively, own or we can listen to other experts here talk about it, but they become part of our own knowledge base, or depending on whether the film has a call to action, we can harness the excitement from that screening and take it into our lives and do something with it.

Adam Spector
June 15, 2012

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