From Beatles to Brecht: A Week of Pleasure at SilverDocs

Attending a film festival
is always a guilty pleasure. There's something almost sinful about spending a
week immersed in watching movies. But not at SilverDocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel
Documentary Festival in Silver Spring,
Maryland, which celebrated its
sixth year this past June. I mean, these are documentaries.

SilverDocs offers a lot in eight
days. This year there were 108 films, ranging from several three-minute shorts
to all 12 hours of the landmark cinéma vérité series An American Family. Running concurrently was the SilverDocs
International Documentary Conference, a series of panel discussions featuring
people who do documentary business at the highest level. Plus, SilverDocs offers
hands-on sessions, master classes, filmmaker breakfasts, brown bag luncheons,
and a daily industry happy hour where one can hang out with other

It all began Monday evening with
the US
premiere of Adrian Willis' All Together
. Before his death, Beatle George Harrison dreamed of wedding the music
of The Beatles to the lush performance of Cirque Du Soleil. This beautiful
theatrical documentary follows the bumpy process of doing just that-creating a
show called Love at the Las Vegas Mirage.

From Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$, which won the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award at SilverDocs. Courtesy of Silverdocs.
From Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$, which won the WGA
Documentary Screenplay Award at SilverDocs. Courtesy of Silverdocs.

At a festival like this, there is
more available than one person can do: Attend the session on "New Commissioning
Models in the US Cable Landscape," or the one on "Music Rights and Clearances,"
or see one of the several films showing at the same time? While I checked in on
several of the sessions, I have two problems with panel discussions. The first
is that they are always somewhat extemporaneous, veering off in whatever
direction may interest some member of the panel or some questioner from the
audience. So, while we're getting the word
from experts, it's hard to predict what sort of word we'll get. The second is
that panels are often hard to hear. Conference AV people seem unable to solve
the simple problem of putting microphones on five or six people, separating the
sound and controlling the volume.

The good part of panel
discussions, like the meal that follows the worship service at rescue missions
on Skid Row, comes after the session, when you have a chance to make yourself
known to an industry leader on the panel.

My personal interest is in films
crafted from solid visual evidence, and specifically films that observe and
document behavior. So those were the kinds of films I chose to view. As a
result, I missed most of the films that won jury awards.

One exception was Forbidden Lie$, written and directed by Australian
filmmaker Anna Broinowski, which won the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award. The
film investigates Norma Khouri, who wrote an international bestseller, Forbidden Love, purported to be about
her best friend's murder by her Muslim family, and the subjugation of women in Jordan; the
book was exposed within a year as untrue. Broinowski accompanied Khouri to Jordan, as she
tried to explain the discrepancies between her book and the facts. The film
grabbed my interest immediately, and by the time I realized it was not a
behavioral documentary, I was hooked.

From Chow Gan's The Red Race. Courtesy of

Chow Gan's The Red Race focuses on kindergarten-age children in China training
as gymnasts. It's a brutal exploration of the cost of winning. Twenty minutes
in, we see two little girls hanging from a bar, obviously in pain. They hang
there until we realize they have to hang until they drop. Eventually one falls.
The other hangs on in pain for another two minutes and receives the praise of
her coach.

Jenny Mackenzie's Kick Like a Girl is the delightful story
of a girls' soccer team in Utah
that petitioned to play in the boys' league to get some real competition
because they had been undefeated in the girls' league. We see them playing the
boys in what is for them a winning season, and for the boys a consciousness-changing
experience. I wish we had seen more of how the girls won instead of hearing
again and again about boy chauvinism and girl power, but I almost always wish
documentaries would show more and talk less.

A film that grants that wish is Shikashika, directed by Stephen Hyde. It
simply shows a family making its weekly trek into the Andes
to collect blocks of ice for their shave-ice stall in the local market. It's
all observed; no dialogue, no narration, no interviews.

Cheryl Furjanic's Sync or Swim follows a group of girls
training in synchronized swimming, competing for spots on the team in the US
Olympic Trials, and going on to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. This is an observational documentary
augmented with sound bites that do add to our understanding. We're there when
two friends get the phone call that one has made the team and the other hasn't.
We're there during training-above and below the water-and we're there when the
team goes to the Olympics. Just an all-around excellent film.

From Andrew Jacobs' Four Seasons Lodge. Courtesy of Silverdocs.

From Andrew Jacobs' Four Seasons Lodge. Courtesy of

Four Seasons Lodge, directed by Andrew Jacobs, is an exquisite
observational documentary that spends the summer with a group of old friends at
the summer vacation site in the Catskills. Now in their 80s and 90s, they are all
Holocaust survivors, and each year fewer of them return. This film does exactly
what we want it to: It lets us get to know these people as they are. And they
are wonderful.

Maximilian Plettau's Comeback is an excellent behavioral
documentary that follows, for the better part of a year, a German boxer who had
once been national champion as he trains for a comeback, which ends with a
ten-round bout in Philadelphia.

The audience and I agreed on
Megumi Sasaki's Herb and Dorothy, which
had its world premiere at SilverDocs. The story of a postal clerk and a
librarian, who began collecting art shortly after they were married and now
have a collection valued in the millions of dollars, the film won the Audience
Award, while not even making honorable mention among the juried awards.

The closing night film, John
Walter's Theater of War, goes in so
many directions that it's almost a mini-series in itself. Using the staging of
Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her
, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, as its central event, the
film looks at Brecht's life, the anti-war movement of his time, as well as
during the Vietnam War and today, and, to a lesser extent, how a play is made.

Barry Hampe is the author of Making
Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition
( and is working on a new book about
behavioral documentaries. E-mail: