Wrap-Up from SilverDocs 2009

In this instant-gratification-60-character-status-upsilverdocs-theater-2009date age, it may seem a little odd to be writing up my reflections on a film festival which ended three weeks ago.  But it has taken me that long to collect my thoughts and impressions of the 2009 SilverDocs Documentary Film Festival.  And, although I have attended the festival every year since it began in  2003, this year was a bit different.  For it was the first year where I would be attending as someone with a foot fully in the documentary world, not as a sideline project.   It might seem like attending this year as the full-time Executive Director of Docs In Progress would create a different set of expectations for me.  But in reality, I had few expectations.  Mostly because I had so little time to create them.


I also knew that the festival would involve work for me.  Docs In Progress served as the local coordinator for the D-Word International Face 2 Face, a sidebar event to the festival.  D-Word, which is normally an online D-Word Face 2 Face @ SilverDocsdocumentary community, hosts these get-togethers every so often as a way for its members to meet face to face and have an opportunity to share their works in progress with each other in a safe, nurturing environment.  With 18 filmmakers squeezed together for a full day in the Docs In Progress living room, it was an intense but magical day where documentary filmmakers from across the country and across the pond could get critical feedback and support and enjoy a community of confidantes throughout the rest of the festival.

The festival itself got started in earnest on Monday night.  Through an e-mailing snafu exacerbated by the high demand for tickets to the Opening Night Film, More than a Game (since one of the film's main characters, LeBron James, would be in attendance), I did not get a ticket to the Opening Night film.  But it was not a big deal.  With maybe one or two notable exceptions, the Opening Night film at SilverDocs is usually a crowd-pleaser, appropriate for a kickoff but not necessarily up to the standards of the rest of the festival.  Plus I was tired and needed to save my energy for the rest of the festival's 10 days.

Halfway through the week, Docs In Progress hosted an Open House for visiting and local filmmakers. We enjoyed welcoming so many of our alumni and newcomers through our doors to help celebrate the vibrant local documentaryOpen House at Docs In Progress community.  A gallery of photos from the evening can be seen on our website.  Special thanks to Richard Turner who took the photos and shared them with us.

Although I have balanced attending films with attending the conference in past years, I must admit that my schedule this year did not allow a lot of time for attending many of the conference sessions.  And, truth be told, there were not so many which looked like they would enhance my understanding of the documentary world beyond what I had heard at past conferences or through media.  I do not know for sure, but would guess that SilverDocs has been facing financial challenges which have been hitting film festivals left and right in this economic climate, so the conference sessions simply didn't have the "wow factor" that they have had in past years.  I have to admit that I didn't even feel compelled to go to the keynote by Tom Bernard, Co-President of Sony Pictures.  And I heard later that the session on "The Future of Public Media" was quite lively.  You can judge for yourself. My staff colleague, Sam Hampton, helped out at several of the events focused on youth media and also contributed some of his own family photos to filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris who made a presentation of his ambitious African American photo archives project.  And I attended one session on Documentary Ethics which turned out to be part of the festival's School Docs program aimed at high school teachers.  Not quite the panel I was expecting but a fascinating look into how teachers really use documentaries in the classroom and use them to explore larger ethical issues.

Probably the highlight of the conference for me was observing the Good Pitch.  This is a worldwide traveling pitching forum which is aimed at bringing together social issue films with strong outreach campaigns with potential partners for those campaigns.  The partners being drawn predominantly from the foundation and NGO community more than traditional broadcasting commissioning editors.   It was incredible to see how filmmakers have found ways to see the potential impact of their films beyond being passively viewed.  And I have to admit that I felt like a proud mom when I saw Docs In Progress alums Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer pitch Out In the Silence.  Hopefully good things will come for the film as a result of this unique opportunity.

But the most important aspect of the festival is the opportunity to see films, many with the filmmakers or subjects in attendance. I will say that this year's festival lived up to its reputation for showcasing some of the best documentaries in the world with a healthy mix of films which have been gaining buzz at other festivals, premieres  destined for theaters and international awards, and quality films which Washingtonians would have little chance to see ever again.

I can't comment on all the films I saw because I have been invited to be a juror on another festival which will be screening some films which were also shown at SilverDocs.  But I will say that there were no lemons in the 27 features and shorts I saw at this year's festival.  Some were more successful than others.  Some were more memorable than others.  And some challenged me perhaps more than I wanted to be challenged.  But each film I saw stood out for how it represented the diversity of documentary today.  Not just in topics, but in styles of filmmaking and depth to which the audience is privy to the relationship between the filmmaker and the filmed.

As usual, the strength of SilverDocs is in programming excellent shorts, which stand alone and together on equally high footing.  Some of the standouts: SaltSteel HomesPocketsThe Shutdown, and The Kinda Sutra.  And among the feature films, I will just make a few brief comments about three which stood out for various reasons:

The Cove: This film has been garnering buzz since it premiered at Sundance in January.  It tells the story of how a group of animal rights activists fought by hook and crook to make the world aware of a dolphin kill in Japan.  Considering the film is made by activists, the filmmaking is superb and the story unfolds in the style of a thriller more than a typical social action film.  It is no surprise then that The Cove will be getting a theatrical release later this year and is probably doing all the right things to get an Oscar nomination.  While this will invariably raise awareness even further, I only hope the activists behind it do not lose their driving spirit and do everything they can to make sure the film gets seen, including in communities and campuses where activist spirit may be strong but art house cinemas are not.

Carmen Meets Borat: A documentary dream or nightmare or both?  The filmmaker started out making a film about a teenage girl in a small Roma village in Romania who wants nothing more than to get out of town.  Already an Old Maid by the standards of her community, the girl wants to be free of the town and travel the world...or at least get as far as Spain.  But what starts out as a coming of age story set against the pull of modern and traditional values goes in a completely different direction when the town and townspeople get thrust into the spotlight, in the role of a backward Kazakh hometown of the title character of Borat.  After the film is released worldwide, the village goes in to an uproar over how it is portrayed and how little they were compensated.  They no longer trust film crews, but do trust two western lawyers who seek to take their case against the makers of Borat all the way to Hollywood.  We eventually return to the story of the teenage girl, but not before the film takes us on a journey into the heart of how tenuous the relationship is between a filmmaker and subject.

This same theme is explored even more overtly in Enjoy Poverty, which was probably one of the most difficult films I saw at the festival.  A thesis-style project for Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens, the film takes us into Congo where the filmmaker, playing a caricature of himself, challenges the local population to exploit their poverty as a means of financial gain and later tells them that there's no point in doing so because the cards are purposely stacked against them.  In so doing, he both makes the audience feel extremely uncomfortable and acknowledges fully that he is also "using" his subjects in support of his thesis.   While I have issues with this type of deception, others I know who saw the film appreciated that the film ultimately focused more on an honest in-your-face acknowledgement about the relationship between the haves and have nots in the global economy.Filmmaker Albert Maysles at SilverDocs.

The relationship between filmmaker and subject is something which has long been a topic of conversation for legendary American documentary filmmaker Al Maysles.  And so it was appropriate that Maysles was feted in the festival's Guggenheim Symposium.  With touching tributes from longtime subjects/collaborators, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who began her own career working for the Maysles Brothers), Al Maysles then shared with the audience clips and thoughts on filmmaking from his long and continuing career.

If there is any criticism I would make of the festival this year, it relates to its never-ending search for the right balance of festival hangout and bar.  In past years, these were often combined into one space with varying levels of success.  This year, the festival had a hub close to the screening and conference venues which was used predominantly for picking up passes and checking e-mail.  The filmmakers lounge was located at Jackie's, a beloved local bar and restaurant which is nonetheless a bit of a hike from the festival and was also extremely loud.  While this was fine for happy hours and late night filmmaker shenanigans, it would have been nice to also have a central space where filmmakers could get together at times for something to drink or eat and actually be able to hold a conversation without screaming.  Thankfully Silver Spring has no end of chain and local cafes and restaurants which do not have New York City levels of background noise, but  I still think SilverDocs itself can find that balance between uses for the daytime networking point and the nighttime party place.

SilverDocs continues to explore new ways to draw both local audiences and the national (and, to some extent, international) documentary community.  Many screenings were sold out and the festival deservedly remains in the A-List for all-documentary film festivals.

For more on the festival winners, click here.

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