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SilverDocs 2009: Hoop Stars, Afghan Stars and Docu-Stars

By Lauren Cardillo

Kobe Bryant may have won the NBA Championship this year, but NBA MVP LeBron James was definitely the star of the opening night of SilverDocs 2009 last month. The 7th annual AFI Discovery Channel festival in Silver Spring, Maryland tipped off with More Than a Game. The film follows James and four of his teenage St Vincent/St Mary's High School teammates as they grow up over nine years.

More Than a Game was one of 122 films from 58 countries at this year's eight-day festival.  Other premieres included The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, Convention, Facing Ali and The Philosopher Kings.

"More Than a Game was a powerful, emotional story that showed how a team comes together," explained SilverDocs' new artistic director and longtime programmer, Sky Sitney. "It was a really positive story about the African-American community, and had great appeal as an opening night film."

James, his "fab five" teammates, their coach and the filmmakers all attended SilverDocs, and participated in a Q & A after the sold-out US premiere. Director Kristopher Belman started capturing the Ohio team on video, often not of broadcast quality, as part of a college class assignment. (He ultimately earned a B+.)  Said Belman, "I was drawn immediately to their relationship. Their friendship was special."

Fifteen years later, Belman combined that often grainy but riveting video with interviews, graphics and stills to show the team's compelling journey to the national high school basketball championship. "It was a great story with many wonderful emotional moments," exclaimed audience member and Emmy Award winner Judy Hallet, "It just goes to show you that a good story can overtake technically flawed footage."


Basketball star LeBron James (right) and filmmaker Kristopher Belman discuss Belman's film More Than a Game.


More Than a Game was one of a record-breaking 1,983 films that were submitted to SilverDocs this year. In spite of the tough economic times, the festival enjoyed a small growth in ticket and pass sales too, according to Sitney. "The economy may not be healthy but the form is healthy," she asserted. "There is an incredible appetite for docs."

"Our goal is to secure our position as the preeminent documentary festival in the United States," added Sitney. That translates into "really diverse films, an intimate and accessible atmosphere, and a nurturing environment for documentary filmmakers to come together."

As always, you would have to clone yourself to see the great mix of films, the 6th International Documentary Conference, the Silver Sessions with noted industry players, a keynote on the strange future of docs from Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard, the "Schooldocs" program for educators, and the Guggenheim Symposium honoring Albert Maysles.

Convention, one of the SilverDocs premieres, explored the impact of the 2008 Democratic Convention on the city of Denver. Director AJ Schnack put together minimal funding and multiple directing crews just days before the frenetic five-day shoot began. Each crew covered one of five storylines: the police, the Mayor's office, The Denver Post, the protestors and inside the convention hall. "In documentaries you rely on the relationships you have with subjects," Schnack noted. "Here we had no time." The group effort resulted in 90 hours of footage; they were edited down into a seamless 95 minutes of action. 

Albert Maysles, another filmmaker famous for his work during a presidential race (Primary from 1960), was honored by SilverDocs during the sold-out Guggenheim Symposium. With over 35 films to his credit, condensing Maysles' career was impossible. Instead, some of his specific talents were applauded: his use of a very fluid vérité camera, the commitment to story and filmmaking that both he and his brother David displayed, and the relationship the siblings built with characters and co-workers.

Maysles' mentoring gift was key, too. Explained Sitney, "He and his brother just opened their doors to so many filmmakers." Dozens of them rose to their feet when asked how many in attendance started their careers with the Maysles. Among them was presenter and Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple. As always, Maysles accepted the honor in his usual gracious manner:  "A terrible mistake has been made. This award should go to the people who shared their lives with us."


Albert Maysles addressing the audience at the Guggenheim Symposium.


When asked what he does as a filmmaker, Maysles said, "Capture little moments of poetry." And those days when no poetry is happening? "Sometimes you have to put down the camera and wait for something fabulous to come along," offered Maysles. "None of it is easy. It requires patience and confidence." Sometimes patience does not pay off, confided Maysles; the one man who never answered his query to be the subject of a film? Richard Nixon.

Politics entered into the festival again when the Ryan Seacrest-like character of Havana Marking's Afghan Star appeared at the film screening to reveal he had been granted asylum in the US just two days earlier. Afghan Star is about a wildly popular and controversial American Idol-like TV series in Afghanistan, where both men and women compete for the top singing prize. Daoud Seddiqi, the MC and creator of the TV show, explained his life is now in danger back home because some people see the contest as immoral. 

As for the shorts program at the festival, "It was a stellar year," said Sitney. "The screenings were absolutely packed" for a Maysles retrospective and for two films by Eva Weber: Solitary Life of Cranes and Steel Homes. Docs in Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg explained the appeal of the Cranes project: "I tend to like films which use everyday things--in this case, crane machinery--to delve deeper into human connections and disconnections."


From Eva Weber's The Solitary Life of Cranes.


Among the conference highlights were a panel on the PBS/CPB Challenge Fund, a humorous look at the future of media, new ways of distribution, a dollars and sense look at fees in cable and PBS, and The Good Pitch, the North American tour of which launched this year under the auspices of the Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. The program allows eight pre-selected creators of issue-driven films to pitch potential funders, outreach funders and networking partners. Each pitch and Q & A before a tailored group of possible partners took approximately 25 minutes. Anyone could watch the process, which featured representatives from more than 70 groups such as Al Jazeera, Amnesty International, the Calvert Foundation, P.O.V., Center for American Progress, Human Rights Campaign, ITVS, National Geographic, Rock the Vote, SnagFilms, the Gucci Tribecca Documentary Fund, and the Ben and Jerry's Foundation.

In some cases, funds and support were promised on the spot. Directors Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer brought their finished project, Out in the Silence, to the table. "The experience was fantastic," said Wilson. When the couple posted their marriage announcement in Wilson's small Pennsylvania hometown newspaper, reaction was swift. Their film is about that event, and a gay teenager who now lives in the community. The pitch earned immediate reactions from outreach groups. "We dreamed of those connections," said Wilson. "The Good Pitch provided us with the stage to get them." A funder not even sitting at the main table offered help. Conversation also broke out about the possibility of making the doc into a theatrical feature.

Filmmaker Erin Essenmacher (Mine), observed, "The process was probably nerve-wracking for the pitchers, but it was cool to see what other people are working on, the angle of their pitch and their intended outreach." Filmmaker Glenn Baker, who premiered a project in SilverDocs 2007, thought it was "good to see how docs are pitched, and more importantly, how people respond to those pitches."

At times, the input of those prospective partners felt a bit too brief, but Wilson pointed out, "The event seems to be designed as a theatrical event aimed at introducing potential allies to each other, rather than a way to really engage participants in a deep exchange. The key is what happens in the days, weeks, months, years after the pitch."

Erica Ginsberg added, "There are so few opportunities for such pitching forums in the United States. If even a quarter of the contacts these filmmakers made at The Good Pitch lead to real partnerships, funding, and outlets for these films to make an impact, then it will have been a most worthwhile event."

For those who attended SilverDocs this year, the festival proved to be a worthwhile event again, offering something for everyone--be it funny, provocative, uplifting or disturbing films, access to new contacts, or networking.

For a complete run-down of SilverDocs awards winners, click here.

Lauren Cardillo is hoping to return to SilverDocs in the future with one of the documentary projects she is currently developing. For more information, visit