Correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in one reference as the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival. This version has been corrected.
When the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival was launched 10 years ago, it arrived on a landscape that, if not exactly barren, was largely unsettled — literally and figuratively.
As new neighbors in Silver Spring, the American Film Institute and Discovery found natural mutual interests in creating a festival dedicated to nonfiction cinema (this was before Discovery was better known for “Deadliest Catch” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” than old-school nature documentaries).
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.
When Silverdocs claimed its week-long June play-date, it became an informal bookend to the festival season, rounding out a circuit during which a film might begin its journey at Sundance in January, visit Berlin or True/False in February, play Austin’s South by Southwest in March and New York’s Tribeca or Full Frame in April, then Hot Docs or Cannes in May.
The result is that Silverdocs isn’t known as a “premiere-only” festival (although it garners its share of U.S. and world debuts, including 14 this year) as much as a “best of the rest” festival, allowing local audiences to see the buzziest documentaries of the season before they hit theaters or TV. (Some locals are even known to take the week off in order to attend Silverdocs — a staycation for cinetourists.)
“For our audiences, the fact that we’re showing the grand jury prize winner from Sundance is a bonus,” says Silverdocs executive director Sky Sitney, who has been with the festival for seven years. “We’re taking the best of that programming and bringing it here.” What’s more, she adds, the fact that Silverdocs takes place in suburban Silver Spring rather than downtown Washington “creates a campuslike feel. Even though it may not be as sophisticated as the heart of downtown D.C. or New York, it winds up being a really fertile place, because everyone’s able to access the environment and each other easily.”
The best film festivals manage to serve two constituencies with equal devotion: audiences and filmmakers. Judged by those standards, Silverdocs has been a solid success, treating filmgoers to some of the best nonfiction works on offer in any given year, shown with pristine projection in the Silver’s plush, art deco-inspired theatrical space. (Festival attendance has nearly tripled since Silverdocs’ inception, to 27,000; by way of comparison, Full Frame claims 32,000 visitors over its four days.)
“The crowds are great” at Silverdocs, says AJ Schnack, whose film “Convention” premiered at Silverdocs in 2009 and who considers it the top documentary-centric festival in the country. “You get the feeling that they’re real moviegoing crowds — they’re not just doc-nerds.”
What’s more, they’re moviegoers who often possess disproportionate sway in the culture, whether as journalists, policymakers, thinktankers or government officials who can actually do something about the issues they see being addressed in the documentaries Silverdocs plays.
“The films at Silverdocs do weigh towards high-impact documentaries . . . as opposed to story or character-driven documentaries,” says producer and director Doug Block, who has brought several of his films to Silver Spring over the years. “I think being in the D.C. area is a big draw for the filmmakers.” When Block brought his film “The Kids Grow Up” — about his daughter’s tumultuous last year at home before going to college — the filmmaker reached out to Washington-based organizations dealing with kids’ issues, fatherhood and mental health. “You can send them screeners,” Block says, “but for them to see it with an audience and see the impact it’s having on an audience is huge.”
But more than influence or impact, the word most commonly used to describe Silverdocs is “relaxed.” Unlike Sundance, where filmmakers are either desperately trying to be picked up by a distributor or broadcaster, or get publicity for their film amid all the others vying for the same attention, in Silver Spring, the vibe is mellow and unpressurized.
Industry executives are still on hand — and some might even buy one or two movies while they’re here — but most encounters occur casually, at the bar at the nearby Marriott hotel or after a workshop, panel or master class at the conference in the new Silver Spring Civic Building. (The conference used to take place at Discovery’s office building further down Colesville Road, giving it a more isolated, tacked-on feel.)
“At Silverdocs, the [industry] access is there, but it’s probably more democratic,” Sitney says. “Any filmmaker has access to the head of HBO, the head of Discovery, [the PBS documentary series] POV, because they’re all going to the same parties, the same networking events.”
For documentary producer Josh Levin, who manages the West End Cinema, Silverdocs affords an opportunity to experience Washington as “Docuwood,” where such nonfiction production and commissioning powerhouses as PBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel make their homes — not to mention the myriad independent filmmakers plying their trade in and around the city.
“I can’t think of any other event that shows just how large the D.C. filmmaking community is,” Levin says of the five-day industry conference Silverdocs holds every year. “We have a tremendous amount of filmmaking here, and not a tremendous amount of the concept of it being an industry here. So going to the conference and seeing a couple hundred people . . . who are here and making good stuff — I think that’s pretty cool.”
Levin adds that, thanks to a pitch session he attended in 2009 while he was producing the wind-power documentary “Cape Spin,” he met with representatives of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We ended up meeting a funder,” Levin says, “and several nonprofits who have agreed to help us with outreach and awareness.”
Still, Levin won’t be showing “Cape Spin” at Silverdocs this year. The festival occurs too close to the film’s opening at the West End next Friday. “If a movie premieres at Silverdocs in June and opens June or early July, it’s not going to work,” Levin says. “There’s a limited attention span and limited imagination-capture with audiences. And if all of the marketing, promotion and awareness that’s being built around a film is about playing a festival on these two dates in Silver Spring, then for us to open it a week later means that everybody’s looking over there and not over here.”
For now, at least, everybody’s looking “over there” — a bustling corridor in Silver Spring that Seavey, for her part, remembers as a construction zone she needed to wear a hard hat to navigate. “It takes a decade or more to make a place feel like home,” she says today. By that calculation, Silverdocs is right on schedule.
More on Silverdocs:
The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival takes place Monday through June 24 in Silver Spring. Call 301-495-6705 or visit www.silverdocs.com.