Skip to main content

Silverdocs Set to Shine: Production Value, Heart and Originality Characterize Film Programming

By Michael Rose

The AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, home base of the AFI Silverdocs Documentary Festival

Oh no, not another doc festival! Just because you're reeling (no pun intended) from attending Sundance, IDFA, Hot Springs, Full Frame, Real Screen and one or two other markets or fests doesn't mean you shouldn't book a comfy Jet Blue flight and take in the AFI Silverdocs Documentary Festival, running June 14-19 in Silver Spring, Maryland. It takes place in a recently renovated classic theater just down the street from Discovery Channel's new headquarters.

The third annual installment of this alliance between the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel is impressive; they are supported in this effort by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Washington, DC region, headquarters for Discovery's ever-proliferating number of channels, National Geographic and PBS, has spawned an enormous number of documentary filmmakers who make this a vital center for filmmaking. The festival's proximity to so many filmmakers and network honchos helps to create a certain business buzz.

"I think there are a lot of important program execs here that filmmakers are going to meet," says festival director Patricia Finneran. "The other interesting thing is that there are so many co-productions that happen. People from BBC or Arte will come here and be with filmmakers, but they'll also do their meeting with Discovery."

The public comes to see the films, but some filmmakers and programmers come to mix business with viewing pleasure. They can take advantage of another important component to Silverdocs--the International Documentary Conference. It's three days of seminars, workshops, pitch sessions and informal networking opportunities for filmmakers and funders designed to appeal to both experienced and novice documentary filmmakers. The organizers have lined up an outstanding program of screenings, conferences and informal get-togethers that combine a little serious schmoozing with pleasure. Among the offerings at the conference include a symposium on democracy and the documentary, a slew of conference topics covering theatrical distribution, film festival strategies, copyright (with IDA former president Michael Donaldson), DVD distribution and music docs, as well as small group meetings with commissioning editors at the Silver Sessions.

For the film fest, Finneran and programming director Mary Kerr culled the best from Sundance and other fests as well as from the hundreds of submissions from around the world and selected 75 films, including six world premieres. Finneran and Kerr have created a mix of serious, thought-provoking programming with lighter fare, and the festival will feature a keynote address from Penelope Spheeris. "I think it's a really nice balance between having fun doing comedy and doing movies addressing substantive issues," says Finneran.

Silverdocs opens with Stuart Samuels' Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, a full immersion salute to '70s cult classics that trumpeted taboos and were laden with kitsch. Films like Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, El Topo, Night of the Living Dead and, of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show lured young people into theaters for ritual late-night screenings and changed the viewing habits of a generation. The festival wraps with Forever Young: A Biography of James Dean.

Silverdocs offers a wide range of programming in between its opening and closing. The audience will have a chance to see Danielle Beverly's Learning to Swallow, a film about a charismatic bipolar artist who struggles to rebuild her life after swallowing an almost lethal dose of Drano.

For the environmentalists, Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare takes us to the heart of Africa, where we discover the damage the Nile perch have done to Lake Victoria, since their introduction in the 1960s as part of a little scientific experiment. Unfortunately, they've eaten almost the entire stock of the native fish species. The presence of the perch has given rise to a huge but questionable export business: Giant Soviet-era cargo planes descend on Lake Victoria every day to trade Kalashnikovs and ammunition for fish, thereby fueling countless conflicts all over the continent.

Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro, dirs.) introduces us to the US ParaOlympic Rugby team, its captain Mark Zupan and Joe Soares, the one-time US star, now coach of Team Canada, who lead a band of rivals in a sport that smashes our stereotypes about the disabled.

The beautifully shot Shape of the Moon (Leonard Retel Helmrich, dir.; Hetty Naaijkens-Helmrich, prod.) profiles the life of an Indonesian family as it struggles with poverty, choices between urban and rural life and religious differences brought to the surface when the younger generation coverts to Islam from Christianity.

Like the Holland-originated Shape of the Moon, many of the films in Silverdocs come from outside of the US. The festival organizers work hard to find these films and present them and the filmmakers to new audiences. "We feel it's really important to have international filmmakers here to show films from around the world," says Finneran. "It's so difficult to get a chance to see these films. They don't get theatrical releases and it's hard to get them on television."

Kerr searches for three qualities when she's hunting down films: production value, heart and originality. While production value is pretty easy, heart and originality are harder to define. "What we look for are films in which you can tell that directors were very passionate about the subject and have gone out to make these films not just for someone else but for themselves," says Kerr. "Even if the documentary is not crafted that well, and you don't think it's going to get into the festival, you keep watching it because it's a really interesting subject."


Michael Rose is a writer / producer / director of factual programming and serves on the IDA Board of Directors.