Silverdocs is carving out a niche as a showcase for smart, high-quality films that combine storytelling, assertive aesthetics and social conscience. No wonder the special guests this year were Frederic Wiseman and Steve James. Festival head Sky Sitney sets a high bar. As well, Silverdocs' International Documentary Conference, organized by Diana Ingraham, provides a wealth of opportunity for the roll-up-your-sleeves work of festival meetings, networking and trend-spotting.
Probably the biggest celebrity splash was Oliver Stone, who opened his doc South of the Border, celebrating his sympathies for some of the most controversial left-wing political figures in Latin America, especially Hugo Chavez. Not far behind in rock-star moments was Davis Guggenheim, part of Silverdocs' royal family (his much-beloved late father, Charles, is an iconic figure for the fest, and symposium that featured Wiseman was named for him). He brought Waiting for "Superman," a passionate essay about the consequences of failing schools for the aspirations of millions of children not privileged enough to have his kids' options of private school.
Waiting for "Superman," well backed by Participant Media, points fingers at teachers' unions, and heralds the work of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, in fixing Washington, DC's tragically broken system. At the opening, American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten quietly asked for union members not to be demonized, and Rhee said, "The important thing is that this injustice to children not continue."
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's Restrepo, which immediately opened in theaters, was also a rock-star moment. Junger repeatedly noted that "this was not a political film," but the chronicle of the daily life of a platoon in Afghanistan. (In the crowd, filmmaker Tia Lessen, a veteran political filmmaker and a producer of Michael Moore's work, wasn't buying that; "I don't believe that's possible," she said.)
Beyond the headliners, there was a wealth of solid, interesting work designed thoughtfully to include partners for audience engagement. Of great regional interest was On Coal River, the first of many forthcoming documentaries on mountain-top removal. The film features several activists in West Virginia's Coal River Valley who unite to move a school imperiled by an earthen dam, which holds back ever-increasing amounts of toxic waste from mountain-top removal. Filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood tell a gripping story with compelling characters, and the cinematography captures the beauty of the mountains and the wreckage left by the strip-mining done with machines the size of large apartment buildings. The film makes the health costs of silica dust in the air and toxic chemicals in the water horrifyingly personal.
Also of great interest in a town riveted by geopolitical issues was Budrus, the story you've never heard from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Non-violence on the West Bank works. (It was part of a strand of "peace-building" films sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Peace.) Director Julia Bacha and producer Ronit Avni (they previously made Encounter Point) show how Ayed Morrar and his daughter Iltezam organized Hamas and Fatah members, men and women in their village, and Israeli activists to change where the barrier/fence/wall would be built. Already hailed by human rights activists worldwide, the film is now launching a commercial release October 8 in New York City, with an Oscar-qualifying run as part of IDA's DocuWeeks later this month; Bacha expects to release the film on as many platforms and screens as possible, as quickly as possible. Avni is continuing to film similar stories throughout the Occupied Territories, to enrich the website.
In The Tillman Story, in theaters August 20 via The Weinstein Company, Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter; My Kid Could Paint That) follows the Tillman family's voyage of discovery after NFL star-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. They discover that the initial lie--the government first said he died in a Taliban firefight--was only the beginning of deception, denial and betrayal by government officials, including their legislators. By the end, viewers identify powerfully with the distinctive and in some ways unorthodox Tillmans, and it's enraging to be in their shoes as betrayed citizens. In the Q&A after the screening, Bar-Lev talked about the family's refusal to discuss key points, such as why Tillman enlisted; he respected their privacy, won their trust and told their story, an exposé of the cover-up.
Personal films also contributed several of the festival selections. Doug Block's The Kids Grow Up chronicles the pain of a child-centered generation of middle-class fathers, as their children leave home, in the story of a daughter who teaches her father, Block, to grow up. Chico Colvard's heart-breaking Family Affair, seen at Sundance, explores the consequences of a father's sexual abuse on the entire family. Alexandra Codina's Monica and David, which airs on HBO in October, features with dignity and respect the challenges for the whole family when her cousin, who suffers from Down syndrome, marries a man who also has Down syndrome. Kaleo LaBelle, in Beyond This Place, confronts his errant father, who proceeds to push back.
Several films verged provocatively into the art-film category. Malcolm Murray's Camera, Camera builds an essay on the tourist's camera-eye in Laos; it requires patience and curiosity. Irish filmmaker Ken Wardrop's Sundance-award-winning His and Hers is a winsome film that tracks a woman's life and relationship with men, using a variety of babies, girls and women, all moving through rooms that radiate gentle light. Wardrop's work is both highly specific--he makes meditative films, edited with great deliberation, about his rural family and neighborhood--and broadly appealing.
Silverdocs' many awards included a top prize for a US feature doc to Stephanie Wang-Breal's Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You Mommy), a sometimes troubling film about cross-national and cross-cultural adoption and its challenges for everyone involved.
At the conference, sponsorship by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting meant strong representation by public broadcasting executives, including reps from Independent Lens and POV. As usual, the conference also drew a strong contingent of New York-based distributors, programmers, funders and brokers of all kinds; networking was made easy with convenient hang-out facilities.
The conference also featured the launch of Public Media Corps--think Americorps, but for public media. National Black Programming Consortium head Jacquie Jones explained that the 16 PMC fellows who were about to spread out over the District of Columbia's community institutions would not only be helping people make media, but would be connecting them to the "valuable resources of public media paid for by the American people," which they could use to improve their lives in those communities. "That connection has to be somebody's job," she insisted.
The conference again hosted The Good Pitch. Eight well-mentored filmmakers pitched a tailored group of nonprofit leaders, programmers, funders and advocates, each of whom had already expressed some kind of interest to Good Pitch organizers. Typically the filmmakers weren't just pitching their films but the total action package, sometimes including interactive applications. Potential partners often found unusual ways to pitch in. When Chad Stevens presented his pitch for The Coal War, about mountain-top removal, AFL-CIO Metro's Chris Garlock, who runs the Labor Film Festival, volunteered not only to showcase the film but to link the filmmaker to his own network of labor film festivals. Victor Buhler's A Whole Lott More, about a factory that employs disabled workers and is threatened with closing, won $50,000 from two funders on the spot. Environmentalists piled on to help with outreach for Jon Shenk's Higher Ground, about the charismatic young president of the Maldives, who is pushing climate-change policy before it's too late for his low-lying nation of islands. Author Alex Kotlowitz and filmmaker Steve James pitched The Interrupters, which features the work of Cease Fire--peacemakers on the front of gang warfare in Chicago neighborhoods; Robert Townsend, now associated with OneEconomy's pic.tv and featured in a separate conference presentation, was wildly enthusiastic about the project: He pointed out it was about his neighborhood.
In this year's Doc Talk, Sky Sitney interviewed Steve James, about his films including Hoop Dreams, Stevie and the TV series The New Americans. James noted that while his films always have a point of view, they avoid polemics. "The trick of making a good doc," he said, "is to take the viewer through the revelatory process that the filmmaker went through--but in less time." He noted that work like his--often exploring hard-to-fund characters and situations, conducted over long periods of time, tackling the complexity of experience--has benefited from his relationship with Kartemquin Films, which provides continuity and support.
Filmmakers continued to ask each other how they were handling the complex and fast-changing distribution environment. The Way We Get By's Gita Pullapilly urged filmmakers to think and act as small business owners. Ford Foundation program officer (and former documentarian) Orlando Bagwell urged filmmakers to think of their work not only as films but as stimulus to a better public conversation about important issues. "Bring the public in as a problem solver," he urged filmmakers. "The public is the new fourth estate in this country."
Pat Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University, and founder-director of the Center for Social Media there. She is the author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction.