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Erica's take on the films at Silverdocs
Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg has split the duties of Silverdocs reporting this year with Matthew Radcliff from Paignton Pictures. While both have already chimed in a bit about the conference, what did they get from the festival itself? First up, Erica...
I do not know if it comes with age or merely exhaustion of work catching up with me, but I didn€™t get to as many films at Silverdocs this year as I have in past years. It was certainly no fault of the programming €“ looking back at my program, it is full of circled films that I wanted to see but didn€™t, among them Budrus, Marwencol, Wasteland and His and Hers. I am also embarrassed to say that, after always being a booster for Silverdocs€™ Shorts Programs, I only made it to one of the five all-shorts programs. But there was not a dud in the bunch and I have no doubts the other shorts programs were probably just as strong. (And I was especially excited to see that Silverdocs took a chance on two Docs In Progress alums, Andre Dahlman and Ian Cook whose short film Corner Plot about an urban farmer in downtown Silver Spring was seemingly the only local film to get into the festival).
This has also been an unusual year for me in that this is actually the fourth film festival I€™ve attended, so between Sundance, Full Frame, and the Los Angeles Film Festival, I had already seen Freedom Riders, Circo, The Last Train Home, My Perestroika, and The Kids Grow Up (all of which I would consider among the best documentaries I€™ve seen this year) as well as The Invention of Dr. Nakamats and Waiting for Superman. I did actually see The Kids Grow Up again at Silverdocs to appreciate it more for its storytelling structure than for that initial purely emotional reaction, but the waterworks came anyway. That€™s a real gift for a filmmaker to make me get lost in the story and not once but twice. Then again, who wouldn€™t shed a tear at a film about parents letting go of their children in a relatively normal rite of passage that many of us can easily relate to?
I had also wanted to see Waiting for Superman again, not because I loved it so much (it was a well constructed film, but suffered from some of the same issues of over-simplifying complex issues that Davis Guggenheim€™s previous film An Inconvenient Truth had). I had mostly wanted to see it to see how a critical DC-area audience would react to a film which made an unquestioning heroine out of DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, but it turned out they got Rhee for a panel discussion after the film and, since I suspected this would also involve no audience Q&A, it just didn€™t seem as interesting anymore. Plus it became the hottest ticket in town.
So instead I headed to see The Red Chapel, a film which had intrigued me ever since I saw the three main characters €“ all Danish comedians €“ at the awards ceremony at Sundance. They stole the show there and while none of them made it to the Silverdocs screening, their personas came through loud and clear in the film about a strange cultural exchange they took to North Korea. I remember tweeting the day after the film that I was still trying to process it and perhaps I still am. But I do know it is well worth seeing if you are interested in films which expand the definition of documentary filmmaking morals.
Utopia in Four Movements €“ another film I had been stalking but not quite getting my act together to see from Sundance to LAFF €“ was the one film I most wanted to see at the festival both because I am interested in the theme of utopia and also because I wanted to see how a live documentary could be pulled off. But it was done so well and the live aspect in some ways felt like the 5th movement of the piece. This was definitely the highlight of the festival.
I wish I could say the same about South of the Border. Although Silverdocs has seemingly given in to the same cutbacks that have affected film festivals and arts organizations more broadly, they did manage to nab Oliver Stone to participate in a panel after the oddly timed (4:00 pm on a weekday) local premiere of his latest film. While the panel was not open to audience questions, it was probably just as well since the film received a mixed response from the audience. Including yours truly. I have no beef with Stone€™s re-interpretations of history in his fiction films or even with his past documentaries (I really loved Commandante when I saw it at IDFA and was concerned when HBO pulled it from its lineup that one of America€™s most daring mainstream media outlets was giving in to the same political pressures as everyone else). For those who have not yet seen it on its theatrical run (which began the week after Silverdocs), the film follows a similar style with Stone interviewing the €œNew Bolivarists of Latin America. The concept is intriguing and I applaud Stone€™s ambition to provide a different perspective on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the series of left-leaning South American leaders who have come to power in the years since Chavez first did. The film also deals with the way Chavez in particular has been treated in the American media, not only by Fox News but by CNN and other mainstream media outlets. However, in setting out to question media oversimplification, the film only succeeds in replacing one oversimplification with another by grouping all of South America's leftist leaders in the same boat as Chavez -- something which was pointed out by Cynthia Arnson, the Director of the nonpartisan Wilson Center's Latin America Program at the panel. Still, although I found the film lacking, I appreciated being able to see it in a festival setting with a panel.
Plus a little bit of celebrity never hurts a film festival. That said, I applaud Silverdocs for not going too overboard with the star-craze. While the festival made it a habit for many years of honoring a number of well-known feature film directors (Martin Scorcese, Jonathan Demme, and Spike Lee) who also have some worthy documentary credits for its Charles Guggenheim Symposium Honors, the festival has now embarked on honoring some of the documentary world€™s biggest living legends -- who may be lesser celebrities in the wider world, but are revered by many in the documentary film community. Last year it was Albert Maysles and this year Silverdocs chose to honor Frederick Wiseman.
Wiseman is a master filmmaker €“ one of the greats not only of documentary but of American film as a whole and it felt like a masterclass to hear him talk about his approach to filmmaking. (Although many of his films could not be screened during the festival itself due to their lengths, a number of clips were shown at the honors and AFI showcased many of his less-known works in the week following the festival). I was almost tempted to tweet Wiseman€™s wise words at the interview conducted with him after he received his honors. But perhaps fittingly, his wisdom doesn€™t come in neat 140 character tweetables. Still there were some gems as he discussed his approach to filmmaking and I include the abbreviated summaries in my next posting...
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