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'Original Child Bomb' and 'Death in Gaza' Split the Gold at Silverdocs

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Daniel Anker's 'Music from the Inside Out.' Photo: George Lange. Courtesy of Daniel Anker

In its sophomore year, Silverdocs—based at the American Film Institute Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, and co-sponsored by AFI and Discovery Networks—became a hub for documentary makers. It was possible not only to see several of 75 documentaries, but also to attend a conference for working filmmakers and programmers and, of course, to network.

Some ten feature films competed for the festival's top prize of $10,000 in cash and services, and two ended up splitting it: Carey Schonegevel's compelling and poetic pastiche film Original Child Bomb, which combines familiar and unfamiliar images, phrases and interviews to explore poetically the dizzyingly destructive legacy of the atomic bomb discovery; and the late James Miller's Death in Gaza, a film finished by Saira Shah under the auspices of HBO after an Israeli soldier shot him dead. While Schonegevel's film appeals to an avant-garde sensibility, Death in Gaza is ready to pull in the distracted and remote-happy broadcast viewer.

Peruvian filmmaker Juan Alejandro Ramirez's short Porter, which gives poetic voice to Peru's disenfranchised rural poor through the life of a man who hauls the belongings of strangers over mountaintops, won the top award for shorts and $5,000 in cash and services. The criteria for inclusion in the competition were something of a mystery for festivalgoers, and even to some of the jurors.

Silverdocs aspires both to be a national and a local festival, with greater current success at the latter but promising prospects for both. Many of the titles were familiar to veteran festgoers (15 of the 75 were US or world premieres), but titles that had already received play, such as No. 17 (David Ofek, dir.; Edna & Elinor Kowarsky, prods.), Deadline (Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson, dirs.; Dallas Brennan, prod.), Tintin and I (Anders Østergaard, dir./prod.) and Born into Brothels (Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski, dirs./prods.)—the latter became the Audience Award winner—attracted solid audiences.  

Programming catered to many facets of the politically-engaged, multicultural Washington, DC area audience. (Discovery Networks, by the way, has a hands-off policy on programming; only a couple of Discovery-backed productions were in the festival.) Local Cambodians enthusiastically went to see Rithy Panh's The People of Angkor, which poignantly reveals the challenges and recent history of Cambodians through the eyes of tourism workers at Angkor Wat.

A panel showing clips from political films offered glimpses of George Butler's forthcoming Going Upriver—The Long War of John Kerry. Showings of other films about politics, including Paul Stekler's Last Man Standing, were accompanied by dogged representatives from the League of Women Voters. Robert Stone's superbly crafted historical documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst triggered where-were-you-when conversations in the lobby. The film puts media at the center both of the action and of the dreams and fantasies of the story's main actors. Stone later noted that it was becoming heartbreakingly hard to make such documentaries, because broadcast networks destroy old tapes and movie studios make it excruciatingly hard to quote from feature films, no matter how historically significant.

Australian public affairs documentarian Janine Hosking's assured and riveting Mademoiselle and the Doctor, in which a cheerful, 79-year-old, birdlike French woman decides to die "before it's too late" and a doctor with a cause agrees to share information with her, was followed by a vigorous discussion with the doctor, Philip Nitschke. He had agreed, he said, to let Hosking film a case that might be used to accuse him of a crime, because he hoped to give his take on the issue publicity. Nitschke advocates do-it-yourself right-to-die, which is controversial among euthanasia supporters, some of whom want a doctor's supervision. And so, ironically, key pro-euthanasia organizations refused to attend the screening. 

Disability featured in several offerings. San Francisco independent Jan Krawitz in Big Enough returned to the group of little people, or dwarves, that she had visited two decades before in Little People. Some are sadder, some wiser and some just older. Gretchen Berland and Mike Majoros brought Rolling, in which three wheelchair-bound people with cameras at wheelchair height show you what their daily life is like, complete with awkward and embarrassing moments. Susan Smiley's quietly courageous film about what it took to find help for the schizophrenic mother who had physically abused her as a defenseless child, Out of the Shadow, makes a vivid, personal plea for more and better public health programs.

Charlene Gilbert's Children Will Listen was both a world premiere and a local favorite. The record of a performance of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, Jr. at the Kennedy Center by children from Washington, DC's most blighted neighborhoods, it moved audiences with its powerful demonstration of the role of arts in learning and shaping young lives. Children who worked on the project showed up for the opening, with their proud families.

In some cases, the subject matter easily justified the film. The Future of Food, by Deborah Koons Garcia (Jerry Garcia's widow), about genetically modified agriculture, left audiences gasping with outrage, even though the film's format was rigorously lecture-like. Dierdre Fishel's Still Doing It, about sexual desire among ageing women, featured fascinating women and a once-taboo subject, holding attention even though neither story structure nor technical quality rose to the dimensions of the characters. Barbara Rick's In Good Conscience, about a cheerfully stubborn nun who takes her support of lesbian and gay Catholics to the top, is a good-enough one-woman vehicle that easily makes you feel you know and love Sister Jeannine Gramick.  

The AFI's lovingly restored 1938 theater, with state of the art projection, made it easy to forget most docs' ultimate destination on small television sets. The elegant, deliberate images of PAL-format Tintin and I were mesmerizing on a huge screen. French journalist Numa Sadoul had interviewed Belgian cartoonist Hergé in 1971. Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard took the crackling audio tapes, animated still photos of Hergé, found news clips and composed vivid images that reflect the mental state of the cartoonist as he took a lifelong creative journey. Then he wove a psychological narrative about the gradual awakening of a spirit stifled early by a culture dominated by anti-communism, fading imperialism and parochial Catholicism. The result is an interior odyssey as well as a visual feast.

Daniel Anker's Music from the Inside Out benefited from both high-quality sound and image. His film takes you inside the creative process of members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, tracing their personal careers and approaches but most of all getting inside their love of music. A violinist escapes into a bluegrass jam session; a horn player decides to learn Cuban band music; an Israeli cellist forms a duo with a Palestinian who plays the traditional oud. The intricate sound editing is a journey in itself. 

Legendary documentarian Barbara Kopple was honored with a screening of her Harlan County, U.S.A., followed by a bluegrass performance with Hazel Dickens, whose music was featured in the film. After what for many was a gap of decades, Harlan County acted as a reminder of the enduring power of well-told documentary. Introducing the film, Kopple and her early mentor Al Maysles talked about the importance of emotional investment and story in making a compelling, authentic documentary. 

This year, Silverdocs launched a concurrent daytime conference, co-hosted by the World Bank and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provided remarkable networking opportunities. The obligatory "Funding 101" panels showcased many usual suspects; as well, panels touched on new technologies, international co-production and partner case studies, and strategies to make issue documentaries have an impact. Partly because the World Bank had hosted an internal conference immediately before, European commissioning editors such as Finnish YLE's Iika Vehkalahti and BBC's Nick Fraser attended. South African makers including Don Edkins, producer of the 28-documentary series on AIDS, Steps for the Future. Silverdocs Executive Producer Nina Gilden Seavey expects that the conference will continue, although next year's sponsors have not yet been lined up.  

Veteran left-wing activist Anand Patwardan, an Indian documentarian, daringly insulted his World Bank sponsors in his keynote, but noted that "institutions, not individuals, are the enemy, and enemies are not forever." He showed clips of activist films and recounted his success in getting Indian state television to show work of his that had won an award from another Indian agency.

"International media is not letting anyone tell the stories that matter," he said. "There is a velvet curtain of mindless entertainment." Like many activist filmmakers, Patwardan himself is deeply involved in outreach for years after making a film. For film student Lucia Duncan, Patwardan was "inspiring, because he so obviously cares more about the issues than about himself."  

Attendees sometimes found themselves frustrated by lack of coordination between conference and festival, and between earlier and later releases of schedules. Nonetheless, said producer Mitch Teplinsky, "This is great because it's an affordable opportunity to meet so many people." Tim Nackashi, accompanying Ed Norton at a screening of their film Dirty Work (Norton is executive producer), said, "The networking opportunities are terrific, and that's critical to the educational process of making a film." Aaron Mathews, whose film A Panther in Africa is slated for P.O.V. and features Black Panther Pete O'Neal's life in exile, savored the chance to talk with other documentary filmmakers. He also appreciated Silverdocs' audiences: "This has been the most diverse and enthusiastic audience for the film so far."


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.