Skip to main content

Docs Rock the Terrapin State: Silverdocs Celebrates its Fifth Edition

By Lauren Cardillo

Some days you wish you were Hermione Granger. In the third Harry Potter book and movie, the plucky wizard-in-training manages to cheat time and be in two places at once. This would have been a great power to have at the 5th annual Silverdocs AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival earlier this month in Silver Spring, Maryland.

There is just way too much to do and see at Silverdocs, which is both good--you really can't go wrong with any panel discussion or screening you walk into--and bad, because you can't attend everything. This time crunch was a common theme expressed by many filmmakers, but, hey, as the subject of one featured documentary said, "We didn't come here to sleep."

That's because Silverdocs has become one of the necessary stops on the documentary circuit, and according to many, it's getting better each year. Says Pat Aufderheide of American University, "Silverdocs has now established itself as a festival that the business people have to pay attention to and attend." It's also a pretty unique animal--both festival and conference. This year, it even declared itself carbon neutral and promoted a green code for filmmakers.

Equally impressive were the numbers: 180 panelists and speakers participated, 100 films (many sold out) were shown from the 1,700 submitted and a record-breaking 1,088 passes were purchased. Yet even such a crowd can produce some warm and fuzzy moments, like singing legend Odetta enchanting the audience after the screening of Jim Brown's Pete Seeger: The Power of Song on opening night, or when Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's War/Dance received a standing ovation.

Almudena Carracedo echoed this view. She won an award for her short film here a few years ago, and she returned this year with Made in LA (Robert Bahar, prod.). "Silverdocs always feels cozy, like a big documentary family celebrating the craft each year," she notes. Silverdocs director Patricia Finneran had a moment of her own, too: It was the journey profiled in Anja Al-Erhayem's Enemies of Happiness. Malalai Joya, the first Afghan woman elected to her country's parliament, risked her life to appear in the film and at Silverdocs. "It was kind of magical," Finneran reflects. "I thought, We made this happen."

This year I was one of the lucky few celebrating a world premiere at Silverdocs with the film STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age. As the doc's co-producer, I had many goals: publicize STAND UP, determine the viability of a feature release of the film, learn as much as I could and have a good time. Not easily achieved over the course of the very busy week, but there were plenty of highlights.

I wasn't alone in my quest. Carracedo took the time to touch base with East Coast contacts and European broadcasters. Producer Carolyn Projansky met with a distributor she had first encountered at MIP. "These conferences become more and more useful the more you go to them because the same players make the circuit, and you get to know them," she says. DC filmmaker Robin Smith describes the experience as essential each year: "It's like going back to graduate school."

My Silverdocs experience started off at a small gathering at National Geographic where each division of the company did a pitch: what they were interested in, and specifically from National Geographic International, how much they wanted to work with local filmmakers. Even though their interest was partially based on the weak dollar, it was a refreshing angle. "They came to us," explains conference organizer Diana Ingraham. "They wanted to create an environment to meet new talent."

From there on it was all about picking the best panels to attend, the most appealing films and the most valuable and smaller Silver Sessions, where you could pick the brains of folks like Cara Mertes of Sundance, Nancy Abraham of HBO and Cynthia Fenneman of APT. A must-see panel for me was "Distribution Now." Opinions here ranged from desperate to delightful with Richard Lorber, Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, and Doug Block (51 Birch Street) supplying different points of view as to the state of distribution these days.

Keynote speaker Ted Leonsis picked up on this financial theme when he expertly explained the future revenue streams with some deep number-crunching. That theme of alternate delivery systems was a big one at the conference, dubbed "The Future of Real 2.0." You could learn about streaming, VOD, downloading, podcasting, and the business models of Netflix, Joost and CustomFlix.

Both the Discovery and PBS panels, according to attendees, were noteworthy for the openness of the industry participants. Of course, as filmmakers we're always skeptical of people who say they welcome any good idea and are very accessible. But it was nice to hear. And the luncheon attended by many CPB and PBS folks was truly impressive.

For the gear heads, the Panasonic new tapeless camera presentation and the accompanying Avid demo ran a few times during the week. "They made you want to go out and buy these new toys," says Maryland-based editor Bill Creed. "Although right now all the camera computer cards cost more than the camera. But it's coming."

"Filmanthropy" was a popular topic of a standing-room-only panel. DC filmmaker Ginny Durrin liked "the focus on the new term--showing the philanthropic world how they can use films in getting out their messages." Filmmaker/educator Kristine Samuelson added that she "really learned a lot about bringing activism and filmmaking closer".

As for the films, Liz Garbus' Coma was heartbreaking and intense as it explored the lives of several patients after head injuries. 4 Elements (Joshua Rickels, dir.) was an editor's favorite as it looked at the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. The Devil Came on Horseback (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, dirs.), was a popular primer on Darfur. Shimon Dotan's Hothouse, about another volatile area, Israel, featured some lethal Palestinian women prisoners as characters.

The media buzz around Silverdocs seemed to get bigger this year. The festival even gave birth to a media darling from Nepal. Eight-year-old Sajani Shakya from first-time filmmaker Ishbel Whitaker's Living Goddess was supposedly the first living deity to visit the US. (Followers believe she is inhabited by a Hindu goddess.) Sajani wowed the press with her poise, playfulness, sense of humor and love of video games. "She was just incredible," says Whitaker. "She handled the attention so well.

"She bridges two worlds--that of goddess and normal child," Whitaker continues. For all the excitement about the film, Whitaker concedes that it will be challenge to sell in the US, since the film also explores blood sacrifice, as well as the wider political events and bloody uprisings that have been taking place in Nepal recently.

Of course, any event of this size will have a few drawbacks. For STAND UP producer Glenn Baker and me, it was the torrential downpour right before our screening, though we still drew a good crowd. For others, tickets for evening screenings were tough to come by, unless you ordered them in advance, and the lack of a really good central meeting place was also a problem. The Cinema Lounge, a few blocks away, was off the beaten path. Also, the night life was often lacking.

For us, though, it was a successful week. I learned plenty about theatrical distribution, and saw many old friends. One, a fabulous editor, said, after going to several screenings, "I came out thinking that being a documentary editor is the best deal in the world."

This sentiment was echoed by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, the subject of the 2007 Charles Guggenheim Symposium, who offered, "When I'm making a documentary, I feel like a real filmmaker." I'm sure plenty of other folks felt the same this year at Silverdocs, too.

For a complete list of winners at Silverdocs, click here:

You can read more about STAND UP and Lauren Cardillo's other works by visiting, or