When director Scott Hamilton Kennedy came to the Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring in 2008, he never expected to meet his hero, filmmaker Steve James — or win Best Documentary for his film “The Garden.”
Just four years later, Kennedy is showing his most recent documentary, “Fame High,” at next week’s Silverdocs at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, a festival he said has a “fond place” in his heart.
“You’re not just sitting in a room hoping that you’re a filmmaker and wondering if your vocabulary makes sense in the world. You get to bring it to an audience and they laugh and cry, and cheer, and hush at the right moments. And you’re like ‘Wow! I can keep doing this,’” he said. “You can’t really put a price on that confidence.”
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Silverdocs festival, the brainchild of AFI and Discovery, two organizations that relocated to Silver Spring and were the driving force in the renaissance of downtown Silver Spring.
“AFI was always intended to be part of the economic development of downtown Silver Spring. The question [was]: Beyond an outstanding institution, was there something that could help put Silver Spring on the map? AFI and Discovery with Silverdocs did exactly that,” said County Director of Economic Development Steve Silverman. “It put Silver Spring on the map ... [and] it created a tremendous support of small businesses.”
The festival has since become the “leading documentary film festival in the country,” according to Mike Diegel, chair of the Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment Committee.
Silver Theatre, a homage to Art Deco design, was built in 1938 by architect John Eberson, who is credited with building a number of movie palaces across the country, including the Bethesda Theater on Wisconsin Avenue. In 1997, AFI Silver Director Ray Barry said he remembered walking into the building, surprised by the mold and water that had collected in the once grand theater since its closure in the 1980s. The rising popularity of multiplex cinemas nationwide and the lack of commercial development in downtown Silver Spring contributed to its near demise.
In 1998, AFI entered into an agreement with the county to rebuild the theater and in April 2003, AFI Silver Theatre reopened its doors as one of the most technically advanced motion picture exhibition outlets in North America and hosted its first Silverdocs festival two months later. There are, on average, 27,000 attendees for the annual festival that about 300 people work to put on, according to AFI.
“At the time when we began those discussions, there was a real renaissance in documentary film … in the early part of the last decade. Yet there were no real comprehensive documentary film events,” Barry said.
The goal is for Silverdocs to be the top documentary festival in the county, according to Barry. Screening films that matter engenders the conversation with filmmakers, film producers and audiences, thus allowing the festival to serve as a beacon where people can gather to engage and let ideas grow.
“We want [Silverdocs] to be something that the Washington region is proud of and feels that they own and is an important part of the community’s identity,” he said.
Bradley A. Ralph is a self-employed CPA who has worked in Silver Spring for 20 years and has lived in the community for his entire life. Ralph said that between AFI Silver, The Fillmore Silver Spring, Round House Theatre and a few restaurants with live music, Silver Spring is becoming a “cultural center,” something he called “a little surprising ... for an old-time Silver Spring resident.”
“The documentaries that I have seen ... are new stories. They are things that I have never imagined in the world and yet they are the real stories,” said Ralph, who has attended Silverdocs for the past seven years. “Everyone should go and see a few documentaries this year. You might just see something that will change the way you think about things.”