by Erica Ginsberg, Docs In Progress Executive Director
Hard to believe it has been 10 years of the AFI/Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival (known by its shorthand Silverdocs). Even harder to believe I have gone to every one of those 10 festivals. And harder still to figure out how to distill my wrap-up in a new way beyond a review-style run-down of films. I am busier than ever this year too so pardon my brevity (at least by my usual run-on standards).
First up, I loved Silverdocs from the start and still love it. I love having a world-class film festival in my backyard. I love having time where I don't have to be doing anything but watching, talking, sleeping, and eating documentaries. I love getting caught up with the doc film community from here in DC and our friends from afar who are visiting.
I love the aesthetic of the festival which always mixes politics, music, quirky shorts, international issues, films which have gotten big buzz from other festivals, and a few surprises which I'll love and then never see again until maybe some insomniac night watching The Documentary Channel.
And yes in some ways, I love the predictability:
Every year I find the opening night film entertaining but about 20 minutes too long. I think I have figured out by now that the opening night film is usually a music film and maybe I just find most music films too long for my taste (but likely just the right length, if not long enough, for music fans). That said, Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey was feel-good fun and that's what's best for the kickoff to a festival.
Every year I have a difficult time choosing which film to see since the ones I circle as I must-sees always seem to be programmed up against each other.
Every year I have to tell some first timer from away that Silver Spring actually has a lot more character than the corporate faketown block of Ellsworth Drive. Just walk another block or two over and you'll see the funky, fun side of my hometown.
Every year I am hoping some funder or distributor will reveal some great new truth or tidbit at the conference. Every year (with the exception of when Silverdocs hosted the Good Pitch), I am disappointed.
And yet every year, I recommend to emerging filmmakers that they should try to go to as much of the conference as they can. Silverdocs is one of the few affordable documentary film events in DC where so many industry leaders are gathered, and it is important to know who is who and get a sense of what is being supported. (The Cliff's Notes version is: character-centered documentaries with a strong social issue hook, ideally with a companion transmedia component.)
Every year, I complain that there is not enough attention to films made by DC-area filmmakers. And yet every year, I am happy to see that many of those films get the attention they deserve at the region's several hundred other film festivals rather than getting lost in a sea of big name festival circuit documentaries. Silverdocs can't be everything to everybody.
Every year, I am impressed by 90% of the films I see at Silverdocs. Not a bad track record at all.
Every year I learn some great new truth from some corner of the globe by seeing a film that was flying under the radar of the festival circuit buzz. This year, that film was Special Flight. It is now nearly a month later and I am still thinking about that film. About how the filmmaker got such inside access to a detention center for undocumented immigrants in Switzerland. About how he was able to portray both the detainers and the detainees with such humanity. About how the film deals with such a complex social issue, but doesn't knock you over the head with solutions. Sometimes that is refreshing.
Every year, there is one film which tugs on my heartstrings and makes me forget that being sentimental is not necessarily a bad thing. This year, that film was Brooklyn Castle. Yes, I suppose this film about the beleaguered chess team at a New York public school could easily be compared to Mad Hot Ballroom or Spellbound or any number of other at-risk-kids-compete-for-stakes-that-are-higher-than-the-competition films. But you know what? So what. I still loved it. Even more so because some of the kids were there for the Q&A and they even participated in a chess match with some local DC kids afterwards. I like when a festival looks at films as ways to engage the local community beyond the theater.
Every year, there is one film which challenges me. I don't particularly like it, but I am glad that Silverdocs screened it since it represents something far different than many of the other films in the festival. This year, that film was The Argentinian Lesson.
Every year, there is a film that gets a lot of buzz and I don't quite understand fully why. This year, that film seemed to be The Imposter. I actually found it a fairly decent film, but much of the buzz seems to surround the style of the film which involves a particular style of interviews and reeactments which some folks seem to think is pushing the boundaries of documentary storytelling. Well, it didn't feel that way to me - it just felt like an episode of one of those docu-reality shows on Court TV or National Geographic. In fact, when I discovered the filmmakers came from producing Locked Up Abroad, it didn't really surprise me.
Every year, there is one film which perplexes me as to why it is in the festival at all. This year, that film was Ann Richards' Texas which I felt was a lost opportunity to tell the story of a complicated character, choosing adulation over complexity.
Every year, the festival redeems itself by showing a film which does tell the story of a complicated character so well. This year, that film was Beware Mr. Baker (which I must confess, I saw for the second time, after seeing it at its premiere at SXSW). By the end of the film, I had simultaneous love and loathing for Ginger Baker. Sometimes a story about humanity doesn't have to reveal great social truths.
Every year, I vow to go to the special screening room at the Marriott Hotel to check out a film which I couldn't fit in to my screening special. In nine years, I had never actually done this until this year. I didn't want to miss Private Universe since I knew it was the kind of film that would likely never get distribution in the U.S. (Helena Trestikova is the undoubted champion of long-term observational documentaries, but her work seems to be largely unknown beyond Europe).
Every year, there are films that didn't sound that appealing from their written descriptions, but which I am sorry I missed since colleague's and friends whose opinions I trust couldn't stop talking about them. This year, those films seemed to be Planet of Snail and Fanuzzi's Gold.
Every year, I somehow manage to miss the films which end up winning awards. This year, the only award-winning film I saw was Special Flight (well, and Ann Richards' Texas). Ah well. Hopefully the others will make it on to television the next time I have a bout of insomnia.
Every year, I recover the following week by going to see some mindless but mildly entertaining Hollywood blockbuster. Except this year for some reason. I watched some reality TV instead.
Most of all every year, I end Silverdocs somewhat wistfully, happy to have spent a week in a magic documentary world not to be repeated for another 12 months (barring occasional travels to other festivals).