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Silverdocs Shine with Elegance and Energy

By Patricia Aufderheide

A People's Liberation Army soldier during China's Cultural Revolution, from Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon's 'Morning Sun.' Courtesy of Nora Chang.

After several false starts, personnel shifts and delays, Silverdocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, finally launched in June with a promising mix of professionalism, elegance and energy.

Held in the brand new AFI Silver Theater triplex (stadium-style seating, plush armchairs, crisp and high-quality projection), and with related events hosted at Discovery's next-door headquarters in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, the festival also debuted a new building and a new relationship. The AFI (American Film Institute) programs the festival in its new theater, and Discovery plays the role of major sponsor. "It's been a long time," Jamie Hindman, co-director and chief operating officer of AFI, admitted. "We started talking to Discovery in 1999 and thought the theater would be ready by 2001. So for a long time it was Ready...Aim...Aim... Aim...." 

The relationship has raised suspicions that Discovery would tilt programming toward its own interests. "This is the celebration of the art of documentary in the city where it's being created, the city that has almost every major documentary production and distribution entity in the US," said this year's festival director, filmmaker Nina Seavey (The Ballad of Bering Strait).

"We wanted to show independent filmmakers that we're reaching out to them," maintained Discovery's senior executive vice president Don Baer. "Yes, we wanted a partnership with AFI in our new home in Silver Spring; yes, we wanted to highlight the quality of work being done in the documentary field and in Washington, DC. But all of that supports the mission to promote independent filmmakers and celebrate their creative spirit."

To those who raise an eyebrow at that mission from a cable programmer known for standardization of form and length, Baer insisted, "We have paved the way for more commercial homes for the work of filmmakers, and Discovery has a history of supporting these kinds of films." He noted the company's support for Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's award-winning On the Ropes, which used finishing funds from The Learning Channel (TLC).  

The festival is still establishing its identity, with programming intended to showcase what this year's creative director, Mary Kerr, called "the latest and greatest." Over four days, the festival showed 74 films, about half of them shorts. More than half the films were on US themes and mostly made by US directors, with 34 other countries represented either by filmmakers or subject matter. The festival treated television-sized documentaries as features, sometimes adding shorts to a session, to bulk it up. Daytime audiences during the week were often skimpy, but evening sessions were sometimes sold out.

Most films occupied a broad middle space in documentary form, with only shorts taking an occasional experimental turn. They showcased the enormous range of engrossing subject matter, from the heartbreaking stories of HIV-positive orphans in Kenya (Orphans of Mathare, by Randy Bell and Pacho Velez) to Rithy Panh's reach back into Cambodia's recent past (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine) to Peter Schnall's three-hanky doc This is a Game, Ladies, on the inspiring coaching of Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. Programmers sought films with themes attractive to competition-oriented area audiences, such as politics (Only in America, Ron Frank and Ann Benjamin's biopic on US Senator Joe Lieberman; tween filmmaker Chaille Stovall's look at the last election, Party Animals) and sports (Ferne Pearlstein's cross-cultural eye opener, Sumo East and West).

Filmmaker Q&As, celebrity panels, workshops and power parties all supplemented the schedule. Silverdocs claimed the late Charles Guggenheim, a DC resident, as its own (following Full Frame Documentary Festival's creation of a career award named for him), with a special event showing his last work, Berga, and a symposium bearing his name. Young people with skateboards flooded downtown Silver Spring (which is only a 13-minute subway ride from DC's Union Station), to see Matt Goodman and Morgan Stone's The Making of Tony Hawk's ‘Boom Boom Huck Jam' and then watch Hawk and pals cruise the unique ramps built for the tour featured in the doc.

The range of subject and approach amply demonstrated the power of the medium. Morning Sun, by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, provided an unprecedented look inside China's cultural revolution. The filmmakers, who have a lifelong relationship with China, have recovered footage thought to be lost, found period films and convinced key interview subjects to talk. It's a rich historical tale, with Hinton and Gordon as interpreters of an experience even the subjects can sometimes not quite believe really happened.

Power Trip is Paul Devlin's scrappily filmed, elegantly edited and quite shocking story of the collision between AES, an electrical company with a social mandate, and the government of ex-Soviet state Georgia, which cannot control either internal corruption or gangster muscle. What starts out to be a tale of installing residential electrical meters ends up being about murder, high-stakes theft and corporate showdowns. The AES employees, including Devlin's old college chum who refuses to cut his hair until half the customers start paying their bills, practically jump off the screen.

In Drowned Out, on the other hand, English filmmaker Franny Armstrong leaps into the water with peasants who are prepared to drown before they will leave their ancestral lands to make way for the Narmada dam. Activist Arundhati Roy becomes a spokesperson for the disenfranchised, among the 16 million slated for dispossession.

Only eight long-form docs and 12 shorts were screened in competition; My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn's personal documentary about his famous father, Louis I. Kahn, won the top prize. Jury Member Larry Kirkman, dean of the American University School of Communication, found selection criteria unclear, and noted that many excellent films in the festival fell outside competition. "This festival should set the standards for excellence in documentary work and draw on all the other festivals worldwide, rather than striving for premieres at all cost," said Kirkman. Pick-up discussions about what makes a great doc were plentiful in the lobby. Filmmakers also found the environment congenial for casual business talk, which in many cases involved the hope of gaining a distributor or broadcast outlet for their work. "It's nice that everything's concentrated in this theater," said Power Trip's Devlin. "It's a great meeting spot." As cameras trailed him in his permanent publicity/presidential campaign, comedian Jim Taylor (Run Some Idiot) noted, "It was a pleasure to meet other people here, and of course the big hope is that someone will pick up the film. Oh, and vote for me."

Next year's staff will change once again. Seavey, who was tapped at the last minute for the festival director job, will leave. "I'd rather be making films," she said.

The new director of Silverdocs is Patricia Finnernan.


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.