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Festival Focus: SilverDocs

By Sarah Jo Marks

From 'Jesus Camp.'

People couldn't stop talking about the changes around Silverdocs since its inception in 2003. The Fourth Annual SilverDocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, featured a conference, parties, panels, talks and plenty of movies for filmmakers and industry reps from around the world.

The fest kicked off with Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters, Bill Couturié's look behind the making of movie hits. The film explores the nation's recent obsession with box office performance and how it affects moviegoers and how it can make-or-break industry careers. Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart wrote the book Boffo: How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb in conjunction with Variety's 100th anniversary; he also wrote and executive-produced the film, which airs on HBO this summer. It's interesting to note that the only documentary mentioned in BOFFO! is March of the Penguins.

When former US Vice President Al Gore gave the conference keynote address, the AFI Silver Theatre was busting at the seams--and he seemed truly moved to be involved with the documentary community. "The reason I am so passionate about documentary film is because I sincerely believe that in order to solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the democracy crisis," he said. "Using the medium of film, coupled with the new technology we have, we can fix the democracy crisis." At a private Silver Session with Gore following the keynote, he urged filmmakers to submit short films to Current TV (He's the head of Current, a new cable network that uses 30 percent viewer-generated content). "You can make anything you like as long as it's absolutely fascinating," he encouraged.

This year's (Charles) Guggenheim Symposium celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Following a montage of clips of Scorsese's doc work, director Jim Jarmusch engaged the celebrated auteur in a conversation about film. When asked about the secret to getting a natural response from documentary subjects, Scorsese responded simply, "You can hold a camera on a person and they talk." Following the conversation, there was a free outdoor screening of Scorsese's 1978 music documentary on The Band, The Last Waltz.

SilverDocs 2006 touted itself as "100 films from 22 countries," which included 12 world premieres, two newly added film programs ("DOCS Rx," with films that explored global health, and "Celebrate South Africa!" which presented docs both by and about South Africa) and a great selection of films that have been riding the festival circuit. The festival smartly grabbed up some such favorites as Jam (Mark Woollen, dir.), Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, dir.; Christine O'Malley, prod.), Air Guitar Nation (Alexandra Lipsitz, dir.; Dan Cutforth, Jane Lipsitz, Anna Barber, prods.), The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, dirs./prods.; Katie Brown, William Rexer II, prods.) and Danielson: A Family Movie (J.L. Aronson, dir.).

Painstakingly investigative docmaker Nick Broomfield presented the US premiere of his latest feature, His Big White Self, which chronicles the controversial African Nazi Party leader Eugene Terreblanche. During the late-night Q&A Broomfield expressed his feelings about being a documentary filmmaker and offered a little inspiration: "Documentarians are the historians of our time."

Other film highlights included Walking to Werner, in which Linas Phillips travels on foot from Seattle to Los Angeles, exploring his career choice and confronting his innermost fears. The festival closed with the world premiere of Christopher Quinn's third installment in the American version of Michael Apted's UP series, 21 Up America. The film follows 16 young people asking the same questions Apted asked in the original British version. The film is both obvious and shocking in examining the characters' lives as they come crashing into adulthood.

SilverDocs announced festival winners during two separate but equally modest award ceremonies. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who won the 2005 SilverDocs Sterling Award for Best Feature for The Boys of Baraka, repeated the honor this year with the bone-chilling Jesus Camp, a disturbing look at children who attend a camp for young Christian evangelicals. A Special Jury mention went to Chairman George by Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin. The Feature Audience Award went to Frank Popper's Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, which tells the story of Jeff Smith, a 29-year-old adjunct professor with no political ties who runs for Dick Gephardt's congressional seat in St. Louis, Missouri. (Full disclosure: This writer is the producer's rep on this film).

The Short Jury awarded Seeds by Wojciech Kasperski with the Sterling Award, while honorable mentions went to the animated and experimental McLaren's Negatives by Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre and The Aluminum Fowl by James S. Clauer. Seventeen-year-old Kiri Davis earned a Special Jury Mention for Student Short for A Girl Like Me,  which also tied for the Short Audience Award with John W. Poole's The Sheriff of Gay Washington.

The Music Documentary Award went to Stefan Berg and Magnus Gertten's Rolling Like a Stone, while the DOCS Rx Global Health Documentary Award went to Ruby Yang's The Blood of Yingzou District, with a Special Jury Mention for Before Flying Back To Earth by Arunas Matelis. The $10,000 ACE (Animal Content in Entertainment) Grant went to Cougars on the Edge by Janice Jensen.

SilverDocs is a destination film festival. It's not only a great place to meet industry reps and filmmakers, but a wonderful opportunity to show films before smart and critical audiences. In just four years SilverDocs has erupted onto the scene as a must for documentary filmmakers and a sweet spot for documentary lovers.


Sarah Jo Marks is a Los Angeles-based writer.