The carefully curated 114 films of the 10th annual Silverdocs film festival, running Monday through June 24, make one thing clear: There is no magic ingredient that makes a documentary great. But finding a special individual never hurts.
Here’s a sampling of character-driven true-life tales, capable of making viewers care about such disparate topics as clean water in Haiti, weightlifting lingo and the band behind the timeless earworm “Don’t Stop Believin’. ”
How many people have been described by journalistic great Gay Talese as a “graceful, captivating writer” and termed a “class act” by Hugh Hefner? The late George Plimpton, whose every syllable exuded the aristocracy, was probably the only one. He also must be the lone human to boast of playing football with the Detroit Lions, dinging the triangle with the New York Philharmonic and suffering nose-bloodying blows from boxer Archie Moore. He did it for the stories — turning his amateur experiences with professionals into enchanting prose. Whether you consider the Paris Review co-founder a dilettante or a literary giant, he provides plenty of fodder for an entertaining and enlightening 90 minutes.
Patrick Shen’s artfully shot documentary follows Haitian-born Josue Lajeunesse. He works days as a janitor at Princeton before spending his nighttime hours driving a taxi to provide for his family back home in La Source. In his sparse spare time, he plots to pipe clean water into his village, where the inhabitants must make a treacherous hour-long climb (and even more taxing descent) to access a mountain spring. The alternative? Drinking from a bacteria-laden river where villagers also bathe, wash their animals and do laundry. After the cataclysmic 2010 earthquake leads to a cholera outbreak from contaminated water, the urgency for such a basic necessity becomes even more pronounced.
Around the Olympics, a lot of spectators become overnight experts on triple salchows and balance-beam dismounts. But how many people pause to learn the difference between a clean and jerk and a snatch? Cheryl Haworth, a weightlifting bronze medalist in Sydney in 2000, offers a few lessons during this film, which charts the 300-pound woman’s quest to snag Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008. But Julie Wyman’s documentary — exuding cool with snazzy black-and-white shots and a catchy soundtrack — is hardly a mere sports film. Haworth, now 29, who’s also a talented artist with a dry sense of humor, has conflicted feelings about her sport, which requires her large size but also has a fixed expiration date.
One of the more buzzed-about docs of the festival is this opening-night film, which tells the remarkable story of Filipino singer Arnel Pineda. Journey band members discovered the formerly homeless musician on YouTube during a frantic search for a lead singer, and what did they find? A sweet-natured man with a mind-blowing ability to replicate Steve Perry’s voice. Director Ramona S. Diaz intersperses the history of the San Francisco-based band and Pineda’s past life with a look at the onerous demands of newfound fame.
For more information about these and other documentaries screening in Silver Spring, visit the Silverdocs Web site at www.silverdocs.com.