Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Silver Spring + Silver Screen = Silverdocs

Docs rock when the annual documentary festival comes to town.

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Courtesy of AFI⁄Silverdocs
‘‘Living Goddess” is one of the many documentaries being screened at the Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring.
Kurt Cobain and Pete Seeger. David Byrne and Fanny Brice. An incarnation of the goddess Shiva, a Muslim standup comic, a long haul trucker and a Chinese only-child third-grader with delusions of democratic grandeur.

One meets the most interesting people in Silver Spring, particularly during Silverdocs, the documentary film festival that runs through Sunday.

‘‘There’s a lot to navigate,” concedes festival director Trish Finneran. ‘‘Potential audience members need to peruse the calendar, peruse the quick guide, look at their schedules and decide what they’re interested in.”

And it’s not just the documentaries themselves. Silverdocs also will feature concerts, lectures and panel discussions, plus 100 films from 42 countries, culled from 1,735 submissions received from filmmakers around the world.

Every one is a D.C. area premiere — except ‘‘Stop Making Sense,” which will have a free outdoor screening on Thursday in honor of Jonathan Demme, who will be on hand to accept an award from the Charles Guggenheim Symposium. Eleven are East Coast premieres, four are U.S. premieres, six are North American premieres and nine will have their world premiere right here at Silverdocs — in the three-screen, state-of-the-art Art Deco film center restored by architect John Eberson.

‘‘Our goal is to provide them with a special audience,” says Finneran, a native of Andover, Mass., who lives in Silver Spring. ‘‘The D.C.-area audience is so aware and engaged.”

And because Silverdocs is also the site of a film industry conference during the film festival, filmmakers get to meet with those in the industry who acquire films.

Films screen in five permanent sections: Sterling Award Competition, World View, Music Documentaries, Shorts and Special Programs.

Each screening is a potential Cinderella story, and the excitement hangs in the air for everyone.

‘‘It feels huge, says Finneran, ‘‘but it’s still an intimate experience. The filmmakers have a chance to meet people, to make connections.”

And the film lovers?

‘‘You never know what jewel you’re going to find.”


This is Finneran’s fourth Silverdocs; the festival was launched five years ago and has grown steadily as the popularity of the documentary art form has skyrocketed.

For the festival director, the growth in popularity of documentaries can be traced to ‘‘pop-out documentaries.

‘‘The ones that hit it big: Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling for Columbine’ and ‘Fahrenheit 911;’ ‘March of the Penguins,’ ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’

‘‘A documentary is a story that engages you in the world a filmmaker has captured,” she adds. ‘‘And documentaries keep getting better and better.”

If anyone can vouch for this, it’s Sky Sitney, the festival’s director of programming.

‘‘Every single film will be appealing,” promises Sitney, a native New Yorker with a background in film that extends to her childhood. ‘‘There’s not a single film that will speak only to people in the industry — every single film we consider to be excellent in terms of subject matter and quality.”

And she can say that with authority, because seeing films is, basically, her job description.

‘‘If I see three films a day, it’s a light day,” says Sitney, who spends quite a bit of time on the film festival circuit. ‘‘Usually it’s five or six.”

She reckons that Silverdocs attendees who take in five or six films a day most likely will be ‘‘in the industry.” But the slate has an overall appeal, with subject matter ranging from war to comedy to religious beliefs around the world.


Gail Reimer is planning her first trip to Silverdocs this year.

‘‘I’ve never been,” says Reimer, founding director of the Jewish Women’s Archive and a producer of ‘‘Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women.”

‘‘But I identify with Silverdocs; we’re simpatico.

‘‘The Jewish Women’s Archive is a young organization in a sea of established organizations. We have a kind of energy, a tendency to be more edgy. I look to Silverdocs, only 5 years old, as a pioneer film festival — a film festival that’s still finding its legs.

‘‘That excites me.”

Massachusetts-based Passmore started her career as a professor of literature and women’s studies at Wellesley College. She’s an avid film watcher with a particular interest in documentaries, and when she founded the JWA 11 years ago, she used new and old technology to promote the stories of Jewish women.

‘‘We did a lot of work with oral histories,” she says, ‘‘tape recorders and video cameras.

‘‘But we wanted to use the Internet as more than just a brochure.”

After pulling together film clips for a celebratory gala two years ago, she says, ‘‘There was a sense of: ‘There’s a movie here. There’s a story that needs to be told.’”

The story told in ‘‘Making Trouble” traces the comic trajectory from Molly Picon and Sophie Tucker to Gilda Radner and Wendy Wasserstein, with the newest wave of Jewish funnywomen looking back from a booth at New York’s Carnegie Deli.

Perfect union

Silverdocs does not exist in a vacuum. The film festival is a collaboration — a ‘‘unique alliance” — between the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications, along with a coalition of partners.

‘‘Our goal was to partner with AFI and become part of the Silver Spring Renaissance,” says Carrie Passmore, Discovery’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Social Responsibility. That was in 1999, she adds.

‘‘It took us until 2003 to actually launch the film festival.”

Since its launch, Silverdocs has gone from strength to strength — and so has Silver Spring itself.

‘‘Year after year, it’s been the biggest week of the year for restaurants and local merchants,” says Passmore. ‘‘Twenty thousand-plus people are coming through.”

The festival’s staffers — like Sitney — fan out to scout other film festivals like Toronto, Tribeca and Sundance, and they find an increasingly enthusiastic bunch of filmmakers and fans.

‘‘Filmmakers know about Silverdocs,” Passmore says, ‘‘and they want to bring their films here in June.”

Sean and Andrea Nix Fine know all about Silverdocs. Their documentary ‘‘War Dance” is one Passmore singles out when asked for her favorites, and it did take home the best director award at Sundance. But for the Chevy Chase husband-and-wife documentary makers, Silverdocs means coming home.

‘‘Silverdocs is getting bigger and bigger,’ says Sean Fine. ‘‘But to us, it’s this very historical Washington, D.C. theater.

‘‘My dad grew up less than a mile from [the AFI Silver].

‘‘He said, ‘That’s where I had my first kiss.’”

War and wonder

The Fines’ film is not similarly romantic, but it has been a labor of love. He comes from an old Washingtonian family, and a ‘‘long line of documentarians.” She is an ‘‘important to D.C.” who came from Rochester, N.Y., 20 years ago and worked at National Geographic.

They never wanted to make ‘‘another ‘Africa film’ with a lot of experts and a lot of horrific stories,” but they decided to go ahead with ‘‘War Dance,” which is set in northern Uganda.

‘‘This is a war that no one seems to know about,” says Andrea, ‘‘but 30,000 kids have been abducted. The story is told through these children and their experiences.

‘‘From the get-go, we decided we didn’t want to rely on any narration: no politics, no policy, just the kids, their stories, and Sean’s amazing cinematography.”

The civil war in northern Uganda has been raging for 20 years, but it’s in a place that’s remote, cut off from the rest of the world. Even feature stories about last year’s Oscar-winning ‘‘The Last King of Scotland,” Sean says, ignored the war and marveled at the peacefulness of the country’s southern capital, Kampala.

‘‘When you go there, you would never think there was a war,” says Andrea. ‘‘If you go to the south, everything is great; the north is forgotten.”

But not by Shine Global, the organization whose goal is ‘‘to end the exploitation of children through documentary filmmaking.”

Shine Global sent the Fines to Uganda to consult, and they found a refugee camp filled with children dancing and singing despite the ravages of war all around. ‘‘War Dance” follows those children to a music festival in the south, allowing them to tell their stories as they go.

Film to film

For the Fines, Silverdocs is an experience on many different levels: the hometown excitement, the buzz their film is generating, the awareness and funding (through Shine Global) that the success of ‘‘War Dance” will create for the refugees in northern Uganda.

‘‘For us, it’s an honor,” they say. But for those who attend, it’s an experience.

Murray Horwitz, director and COO of AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, spent much of his career in front of the camera before coming to AFI five years ago. At Silverdocs, though, he gets in front of the screen.

‘‘There really is something exhilarating about going from film to film at a leisurely pace,” he says, his cell phone on speaker mode as he drives down the Hollywood freeway after a dinner honoring Al Pacino. ‘‘There’s just an astonishing variety of expression: if you want to learn about people from other countries, laugh or cry.

‘‘To get the real festival atmosphere, people should see as many films as possible.”

Horwitz likens it to ‘‘going to the Olympics or the World’s Fair: You go from pavilion to pavilion.” And he believes that the revitalized downtown Silver Spring is the perfect setting for film, fun and food.

‘‘I go into Potbelly’s for lunch, and they say ‘We’re gearing up for Silverdocs,’” he says, and its that community enthusiasm that really excites him.

‘‘It’s really a delight to share expressions of real merit with a broader audience,” Horwitz says. ‘‘We’re living proof that you can have works of high quality and be popular.”

Silverdocs runs through Sunday in and around the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 301-495-6000 or visit