Still, the cultural hub that Silver Spring has become — anchored by AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, as well as the nearby Regal Majestic multiplex, the Fillmore and the Round House Theatre, not to mention boutiques, restaurants and al fresco gathering places — was still a rose-colored vision. And, with such box office record-setters as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth” still years away, a week-long festival showing nothing but documentaries was anything but a sure thing.
Upon announcing Silverdocs’ inaugural program, founding director Nina Gilden Seavey predicted in 2003 that it would become a “standout” on the international festival circuit, adding that “the festival’s proximity to Washington, D.C., places Silverdocs in a unique position to engage policymakers, journalists, issue experts, elected officials and activists, to explore, challenge and honor documentaries and the ideas behind them.”
When Silverdocs launches its 10th edition tomorrow, that mission will largely have come to pass. Within a documentary ecosystem that spans well-respected regional festivals, sprawling market-driven nonfiction conclaves and the 400-pound gorilla known as Sundance, Silverdocs has carved out a niche all its own.
As the festival and attendant five-day conference have grown more integrated and cohesive over the years, the smart, influential filmgoers who make up the bulk of the audience have come to rely on Silverdocs as a venue for that year’s must-see documentaries (such Oscar winners as “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Man on Wire” played Silverdocs, as well as “No End in Sight,” “Grizzly Man” and this year’s “Bully”). Filmmakers, for their part, appreciate it as a respite from the hustle of more commercially oriented festivals.
When AFI and Discovery prepared to launch Silverdocs, they were joining at least a few documentary festivals already in progress: the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival had started in Arkansas in 1992, and six years later Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies began the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place in downtown Durham, N.C. Such big international festivals as the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, Hot Docs in Toronto and the Sheffield Doc/Fest in England had gotten underway in the 1980s and 1990s.
Meanwhile, such upstarts as South by Southwest and, later, the Tribeca Film Festival became lauded destination festivals in large part because of their strong documentary programming, and such small but well-respected regional nonfiction festivals as Big Sky in Montana and True/False in Missouri emerged, rapidly earning cult followings.