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Turning Ten: Silverdocs Celebrates a Decade of Growth

By Lauren Cardillo

When Silverdocs launched in 2003, Ann Richards and George Plimpton were still alive, Journey was just another '80s rock band, and a small Moroccan village nestled in the mountains did not yet have any electricity.

This year, which marks the 10th edition of the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, all of the above were subjects of captivating documentaries here. The films capped off a decade of growth; Silverdocs, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, is now the largest documentary film festival in the US, and is seen as one of the best showcases to premiere a new project, or attend an intriguing conference panel.

Just over 100 films were selected for the 2012 Silverdocs, out of a submissions pool of 2,018. According to director Sky Sitney, the number is just right: "We don't want to increase. We are at our natural capacity. We have learned how to handle the numbers." However, the festival's complexion changed a bit this year, adds Sitney. The films "were a lot more celebratory. In the past they dealt more with social issues. We feel it's time to refresh the landscape after 10 years, but we have no answers yet about any changes."


Sky Sitney, director of Silverdocs, addresses the Opening Night crowd. Courtesy of Silverdocs


Among the favorites was the opening-night offer: Ramona Diaz' Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, about the search for a replacement singer for Steve Perry of Journey that took the band to the Philippines and back. "If this story weren't a documentary, you'd be rolling your eyes at how unbelievable it is," Sitney was heard to say. While a crowd pleaser, the film probably will be shortened for a broadcast premiere.

Fourteen films had world or US premieres at Silverdocs over the seven days of screenings. Ann Richards' Texas played to full houses, and captured the essence of the fiery politician and former Texas governor. Director Keith Patterson made the doc because "nobody else had. She needed to be immortalized." Plimpton!, from Tom Bean and Luke Poling, presented the writer and editor George Plimpton as less a dilettante and more of an everyman, complete with a few flaws. Its broadcast premiere plans are still pending.


From Keith Patterson's Ann Richards' Texas, which won the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award. Courtesy of Silverdocs


Now retired Olympic weightlifter Cheryl Hayworth was seen in Strong! struggling to re-capture her bronze medal form against the backdrop of a country that often does not know what to make of strong women. Hayworth received a standing ovation at one of the screenings. First-time Silverdocs director Julie Wyman was thrilled with the reception. "As a filmmaker it's a challenge to explore the range of images we have of beauty, health and body size," she remarked. Strong! airs July 26 on PBS' Independent Lens.

Other films enjoying great receptions at Silverdocs were Betting The Farm, from Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann, which showcases the struggle of Maine milk farmers; Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen's Joe Papp in Five Acts, about the theater icon; garbage collectors turned dancers in Andrew Garrison's Trash Dance; an exploration of the gay community in Uganda in Call Me Kuchu, from Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall; and eventual festival Sterling Award winner, Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims' Only The Young, which focuses on the relationship between three teens in a depressed Southern California suburb. Jérôme Le Maire's Tea or Electricity follows the tale of a small Moroccan village trying to get electricity over a three-year period, underscoring the universal frustration of dealing with phone and utility companies. And a present day Princeton janitor fights to bring clean water to his home town in Haiti in Patrick Shen's La Source.

One of Sitney's personal favorites was Oma & Bella, from Germany's Alexa Karolinski: "It was a little gem about two elderly women--a slow reveal about life." Closing night featured a film the Grateful Dead would have been proud of:  Emmett Malloy's Big Easy Express, which follows the bands Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show on a weeklong train trek from Oakland to New Orleans.

The Charles Guggenheim Symposium honored filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The night started with Jason Baldwin, one of the characters in the Paradise Lost trilogy, telling the crowd how the pair of filmmakers had literally saved his life in prison. Said producer Elizabeth McGraw-Austin, "The symposium was a special event. Their films are a testament to their tenacity, their access and their willingness to push the boundaries as filmmakers."


Guggenheim Symposium honorees Joe Berlinger (left) and Bruce Sinofksy (right) flank Paradise Lost subject Jason Baldwin. Courtesy of Silverdocs




In the past the Symposium was more of a lifetime achievement for such filmmakers as Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and Martin Scorcese. "Joe and Bruce have a huge career in front of them," explains Sitney. "It's great to talk to artists like them while they are still evolving. Their presence injected something new into the program. It looked to the future."

This year's Documentary Conference, which ran concurrent to the festival, was once again wisely centered at the Silver Spring Civics Building. "Each year people expect certain themes with different players, but then we try to sprinkle in some new opportunities," says Sitney. The 25th anniversary of POV was explored, along with the anatomy of a trailer, several master classes, a session with ITVS staffer Richard Saiz, and the pitch process.

Several panels generated plenty of buzz. "Designing for Participation," coordinated by the Association of Independents in Radio, explored how to get more involvement from communities on projects. The creative platforms explored were Zeega, Localore and Peter Nicks' film The Waiting Room. This panel was a fascinating look at how to engage people, gather information and images, and participate in open-source editing--all online.

"Citizen Camera" talked about how to integrate the images from cell phones and the like by non-professionals into a project such Some video ends in crowd-sourced docs, while other video becomes part of a constantly evolving site. The panelists discussed how to keep people continually contributing video from the political unrest in say, Egypt or Syria, and they suggested coming up with new calls for action, or providing feedback to shooters.

The ever-changing landscape of distribution was front and center in "Coming To A Theater Near You." Scott Glosserman, CEO of Gathr, provided the most fascinating scenario on the panel. Gathr provides theatrical-on-demand screenings, or TOD, to filmmakers. (Another player in this distribution game is Tugg.) Working with filmmakers, Gathr sells out local theaters where there is an interest in seeing the film. Films don't get screened unless they surpass a break-even number through advanced sales. "Viewers pick the location, the date and the time of screenings," Glosserman explained. "TOD is really the love child of Netflix and Kickstarter. Theatrical distributors hit only the top 100 or so cities. That leaves 200 cities with more than 100,000 in populations who could see your films."

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit supported this do-it-yourself scenario further during the panel "You've Finished Your Film ... Now What?" Despite seated between one of the best doc distributors in the game, Josh Braun of Submarine, and one of the best publicists, David Magdael, Hustwit saw no reason to deal with them as a filmmaker. "Online presence is more important to me," he maintained. "Twitter is like one of my crew members. I go directly to distributors." His last two films, Helvetica and Objectified, have been about design, and have a built-in audience. "I sell out my films online and usually do only one or two festivals," he noted. "And while media attention would be great, they don't care about my films. I go directly to my audience."

A fitting end to the festival and panel days was "Campfire Stories." Set on a faux campfire set, the panel featured filmmakers telling behind-the-scenes tales about their films. No s'mores, but plenty of great insight about the world of docs.

Lauren Cardillo is a Washingotn, DC-based filmmaker. She is currently producing programming for PBS.




Silverdocs Sterling Award for a US Feature - Only The Young (Dirs.: Jason Tippet, Elizabeth Mims)

Silverdocs Sterling Award for a World Feature - Planet Of Snail (Dir.: Seungiun Yi)

Silverdocs Sterling Award for a Short Film - Kings Point (Dir.: Sari Gilman)

Silverdocs Sterling Short Honorable Mentions--Mondays At Racine (Dir.: Cynthia Wade) and Paradise (Dir.: Nadav Kurtz)

Silverdocs Cinematic Vision Award  ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! (Dir.: Victor Kossakovsky)

Silverdocs React to Film Social Issue Awards-- Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Health Care (Dirs.: Matthew Heineman, Susan Froemke) and The House I Live In (Dir.: Eugene Jarecki)

WGA Documentary Screenplay Award - Ann Richards' Texas (Wtr.: Keith Patterson)

Silverdocs Audience Award for Feature - Trash Dance (Dir.: Andrew Garrison)

Silverdocs Audience Award for Short Sparkle (Dirs.: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert)

Special Jury Mention for a US Feature - The Waiting Room (Dir.: Peter Nicks)

Special Jury Mention for a World Feature- Special Flight (Dir.: Fernand Melgar)