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Inside the Beltway, SilverDocs Rocks

By Lauren Cardillo

What do Elmo, former gang members, gypsy Romanian school children, bullies, a horse whisperer and crowdsourcing all have in common? They were the big hits at the 9th annual AFI/Discovery Channel SilverDocs Film Festival and Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, this past June.  

As always, there was far too much to do in one day, or five days; the offerings were so diverse. This year over 100 films from 60 countries were selected from the 2,200 submitted. But, says festival director Sky Sitney, "I would rather have people overscheduled than sitting around for hours." If that was the goal, Sitney and her staff achieved it.

This year the festival and five-day conference attracted 1,200 filmmakers and 30,000 attendees-a 20 percent increase over 2010. This growth was probably helped by all the panels being housed in one location, the newly opened Silver Spring Civic Center. The movies were just down the street. "We made a real conscious effort to get the conference tied in with the festival," says Sitney. "We did not want divided programs."  The strategy paid off. Most attendees liked the new space and proximity.

Among the most popular films were those with education as a theme. Our School (Dirs.: Mona Nicoara, Miruna Coca-Cozma), the Sterling Award winner for Best US feature, follows the story of attempting to integrate three rural gypsy children into the mainstream Romanian school system over four years; the prejudice endures along the way.


From Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma's Our School.


The Learning, about natives of the Philippines teaching in the Baltimore school system, also played to packed screenings. The idea for the film was sparked by an article director Ramona Diaz had read in the Baltimore Sun. Their story was inspiring, often humorous and sometimes sad.

Lee Hirsch's The Bully Project, the recipient of a Special Jury Mention Award, was a particularly moving story about children being bullied. Editor Randi Cohen said she was "shocked, educated and impressed with the fortitude of the families, and the chance for the film to make a difference in a number of ways using social media and community activism."


From Lee Hirch's The Bully Project.



Crime was also a big theme of the festival. Steve James' The Interrupters, about former Chicago gang members trying to keep the peace in their neighborhood, was very popular. And even though some thought it was a bit long at 144 minutes, its power was undeniable. After the screening, filmmaker Pauline Steinhorn walked up to one of the female characters in the lobby and greeted her as if she were an old friend. "We hugged, although we had never met," Steinhorn reflects. "That was the power of the doc: You cared so much about the people."

Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims' Incendiary: The Willingham Case, about a death row execution that perhaps should not have happened, touched people as well. "Although the film was not totally finished because of some events that occurred after the submission deadline, it really was a frightening film because of the influence of the politicians in Texas," observes lawyer/filmmaker Michael Barrett.

A movie about a monster puppet was the big crowd pleaser. Constance Marks' Being Elmo brought puppeteer and Baltimore native Kevin Clash and his family to SilverDocs. "It is such a feel-good, delightful film," exclaims Sitney. The doc also helps exhibit the SilverDocs philosophy, she adds: "No single film can be everything, but we hope the whole festival can be. We can serve our viewers in a variety of ways collectively." Balancing out Elmo included such films as Xu Xin's six-hour Karamay, about a fire in a China school, and Salome Jashi's Bakhmaro, a slow look at a dying town in the nation of Georgia. "We have a responsibility to make sure we create a platform that includes films that are outside of the box, that challenge viewers, too," Sitney maintains.


From Constance Marks' Being Elmo.



The five-day conference also proved to be popular, with the themes of panels often reflecting the themes of many of the films at the festival-i.e. presentations on crime docs, or filmmakers appearing in their own films,

The master classes in editing, directing and producing were all big hits. Toby Shimin and Tom Haneke, the respective editors from Buck and Where Soldiers Come From, each brought before and after versions of films they had edited. Haneke was particularly good at giving hints on how to organize hundreds of hours of footage. His biggest piece of advice: Put your comments in your edit file the first time you watch video. "You will never react to the footage the same way again."

The best line from the directing workshop led by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, according to filmmaker Matthew Radcliff: "If we've got nothing to learn, we won't make the film." The pair talked about what it is like to live with a subject for two or three years of filmmaking, and how your original idea might not end up being the story you tell. They also stressed the importance of casting, interviews and the three-act structure.

The "Separated at Birth" panel explored the relationship between journalists and filmmakers who use their work as source material. Steve James and Amir Bar-Lev said that print and film each has a role to play. Both agreed that filmmakers have more hurdles to jump over, as access is key to many stories. Often the print side lays the groundwork and film takes it further, giving it staying power as a story. Sometimes the film then gets more of the credit for telling the story-which prompted James to turn to his long-time print collaborator, Alex Kotlowitz, and ask, "Do you hate me?"

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger's panel about the legal troubles he encountered after making Crude was frightening. Through court decisions, Chevron won the right to see 600 hours of outtakes, and all e-mails and documents for five years. The effect could be chilling to filmmakers, Berlinger told his very attentive audience: his legal bills totaled $1.3 million, and his film was ruled not to be "independent journalism."

If the legal world scared you to death at SilverDocs, another panel on crowdsourcing could make your brain explode. For independent filmmakers the lesson was clear: Not only do you have to produce, write, shoot and raise money, but now you have to do it in a completely different way.

Presenter Jilann Spitzmiller of DocuMentors was fabulous at introducing the idea of fundriaisng via the Internet "Everybody has a niche audience for a film," she said. "It's about finding them on the Web. You have to figure out the universal themes of your film, and then compel people to donate. Communicate your mission." She added one caveat: "People give to people and stories, not causes or issues."

Spitzmuller presented the nuts and bolts of how to do it, and explored websites that worked and didn't work. (Only 44 percent of projects get funded.) Bottom line:  Have plenty of time to devote to the idea of crowdsourcing. It is a long-term marketing and fundraising endeavor. For the uninitiated, the two big crowdsourcing sties are IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. Most people raise modest funds for defined tasks such as shooting, music, etc., but one person did bring in $150,000 via Kickstarter.


When Lauren Cardillo is not cleaning up the mess from her brain exploding, she is a DC-based filmmaker. She is currently developing a series for National Geographic.