Life Stories: Silverdocs Festival at AFI Silver

Documentaries exist to remind us that “reality” still means something bigger than “Jersey Shore.” Now in its ninth year, the AFI and Discovery’s Silverdocs festival brings together new works from around the world for a weeklong fest, running June 20-26. We’ve rounded up our favorite can’t-miss picks.

“Better Than Something: Jay Reatard”
June 25 at 8 p.m., June 26 at 9:15 p.m.
Memphis punker James Lee Lindsey Jr. — better known as Jay Reatard — sure gave himself an obnoxious stage name. Lindsey was a blazingly gifted musician, but he was possessed by that combination of unhinged talent and drive that often makes geniuses real jerks. He started making music at the age of 14, dropping out of school and compulsively self-recording an unceasing stream of tapes and 7-inches with too many bands to count over the past decade. His shows were unpredictable, raw and unsettling (perhaps most especially to the pigeon he once ripped in half with his teeth onstage). His obsessive need to control his output made him a formidable producer; he could have been the next Jack White. By 2008, Lindsey had signed to the indie label Matador and was one of rock’s biggest buzz names, touring on his first solo disc, the critically lauded “Blood Visions.” Two years later, he was dead of an overdose at 29. Directors Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz present a record of a life spent trying to bust out of a cage — of poverty, of loneliness, of mediocrity. “I’m racing against death, age, seriousness, boringness,” Lindsey says in the film’s last frames. “I make music because I’m scared of everything else.”

“The Loving Story”
June 23 at 2:45 p.m., June 24 at 7:30 p.m.
A lot of American history was made in Virginia, and that didn’t stop once the Redcoats were gone or Appomattox was in the rear-view mirror. In 1958, Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in their Virginia home for being married: He was white, she was black and Native American, and their union — they were legally married in D.C. — was punishable by prison time in Virginia. Their case, Loving v. Virginia, eventually made it to the Supreme Court in 1967 and led to the striking down of anti-miscegenation laws across the country. Through historical footage and contemporary interviews with those involved in the case, director Nancy Buirski tells the moving story of two people who found themselves drafted into a fight they couldn’t back down from: the fight to be allowed to marry the person you love.

“Cafeteria Man”
June 23 at 12:30 p.m., June 24 at 2:30 p.m.
If we are what we eat, we clearly don’t think much of our schoolkids. Changing Baltimore’s school lunches is Tony Geraci’s mission; see how he battles both bureaucracy and anti-broccoli sentiment.

“Age of Champions”
June 25 at 5:15 p.m., June 26 at 2:15 p.m.
Can your grandpa kick ass? It’s possible. “Age of Champions” is about the athletes who compete in the Senior Olympics, including D.C.’s own Tatum brothers, both of whom are in their 80s.

“Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”
June 21 at 6:15 p.m., June 25 at 10 a.m.
You might want to sit down for this revelation: Elmo is really a big black guy. Puppeteer Kevin Clash, a Baltimore native, took the little red monster from relative Muppet obscurity to squeaky-voiced stardom. Director Constance Marks chronicles Clash’s journey from backyard puppet shows to his work as one of Jim Henson’s world-class puppeteers, training actors all around the globe and giving voice to America’s best-loved floppy-armed, cuddly monster, who speaks only in the third person.

“Project Nim”
June 25 at 8 p.m., June 26 at 11:30 a.m.
In 1973, baby Nim Chimpsky came to live with a family on the Upper West Side of New York City. Nim was a chimpanzee, part of an experiment to prove that chimps could learn to communicate with humans. Director James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) tells the story of the family who raised Nim into a full-grown adult — one who “loved alcohol” and had six times the strength of a human.

“Mr. Happy Man”
June 24 at noon, June 25 at 9 a.m.
Director Matt Morris’ short film profiles an 85-year-old Bermuda man whose daily “I love you!” greetings are a welcome reassurance to his neighbors. What happened to Adams Morgan’s Compliment Man? It’s nice to see his spirit translates to other locales.

» Screenings at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; and Discovery HD Theater, One Discovery Place, Silver Spring; June 20-26, see Silverdocs.com for a complete schedule; $11 per program; 301-495-6720. (Silver Spring)

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