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Silverdocs documentary festival offers a few lighthearted choices

FAN WARS: In "The People vs. George Lucas," Alexandre O. Philippe presents the cases for and against the "Star Wars" director.
FAN WARS: In "The People vs. George Lucas," Alexandre O. Philippe presents the cases for and against the "Star Wars" director. (Silverdocs)

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By Jen Chaney
Sunday, June 20, 2010

In a wonk haven like Washington, we like our documentaries. Often we like them serious and filled with plenty of tightly framed shots of talking heads sharing important observations about even more important public policy issues, all of which will inevitably leave us feeling compelled to make a difference.

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But let's be honest: Sometimes we want entertainment, not a lecture or a history lesson. Even the most hard-core documentary devotees have to admit that there are days when they would skip "Food, Inc." and "The Fog of War" in favor of some popcorn time with, say, "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" or "Spellbound." (Spelling bees: They're just so much cuter than Taliban strongholds.)

The programmers of Silverdocs -- the international documentary film festival that kicks off a week of nonstop nonfiction at Silver Spring's AFI Silver Theatre on Monday -- know this. That's why in 2010, as they have done throughout its eight-year existence, the festival's programmers selected several lighthearted entries to screen alongside the docs about the No Child Left Behind Act and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here's a look at some of the more solid efforts in the "happy documentary" category.

"The People vs. George Lucas" (screening Friday at 10 p.m. and June 27 at 5:45 p.m.)

"I love-hate George Lucas. I love-hate him hard." That comment from "Star Wars" fan Matt Cohen, uttered in the first five minutes of "The People vs. George Lucas," pretty much sums up the narrative arc in this passionate and often funny look at the rocky relationship between the director who gave birth to Luke Skywalker and the middle-aged Force faithful who still can't let go of their light sabers.

Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary, which debuted earlier this year at Austin's South by Southwest festival, trots out all the dirty geek laundry that's already quite familiar to the card-carrying Jedi: the Lucas worship that began with those mind-altering first screenings in 1977, which then turned into frustration over the digital alterations made to the original trilogy via the '90s-era special editions and then evolved into rage over the debacle that was Jar Jar Binks, the Gungan nightmare blamed, in part, for ruining the much-anticipated prequels.

Other important intellectual questions (did Greedo shoot first?) are also covered. Like each of the much-derided prequel installments, "The People vs. George Lucas" could have used a tighter edit. But during a summer movie season largely devoid of luster, it's satisfying to revel in the fanboy glee found in a documentary about the movie franchise that set the summer-blockbuster standard.

"The Invention of Dr. NakaMats" (screening Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. and Saturday at 1:15 p.m.)

Yoshiro Nakamatsu, otherwise known as Dr. NakaMats, invented the floppy disk. He also created a springy pair of sneakers called Jumping Jax, a perfume called Love Jet that allegedly boosts sex drive, and a tablet that allows people to write underwater -- convenient, because that happens to be the place where he comes up with his best inventions.

As he's not shy to explain to the camera in this absorbingly odd documentary, the 82-year-old Japanese inventor has amassed 3,357 patents during his long career. (Thomas Edison? A piker. He had only 1,093 to his credit.)

"Invention" could have benefited from more interviews with people speaking to Dr. NakaMats's legacy. As it stands, the film is a portrait of a man as told by that man. But when said individual boasts that he'll live past 100, speaks out in favor of eating one meal a day and musters enough hubris to insist that a hotel rename a banquet room after him in honor of his birthday, that portrait makes a pretty surreal, entertaining little work of art.

"Men Who Swim" (screening Friday at 3:45 p.m. and June 27 at 4:15 p.m.)

There's a whiff of "Anvil" and even "The Full Monty" about this movie from British filmmaker Dylan Williams. But the activity that bonds this group of middle-aged men isn't heavy metal or male stripping; it's synchronized swimming. Williams turns the camera on himself and his teammates as they attempt to go from guys in Speedos who can barely float to genuine competitors at the Male World Championship in Milan.

The results may not surprise, but they often charm, especially when frustrated teammates get a little liquor in them. "I don't intend to stand here, after a couple of beers, and name names," says one swimmer after a particularly dreadful performance in the pool. Then, naturally, he proceeds to do exactly that. ("Lars was okay, but also quite bad.") Of course, he seems decidedly sober next to the guy who brings a bottle of bourbon straight into the locker room showers . . .

"Ride, Rise, Roar" (screening Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. and June 27 at 8:30 p.m.)

This David Byrne concert film isn't exactly "Stop Making Sense," but fans of the Talking Heads frontman, as well as aspiring choreographers, may be intrigued to learn how Byrne infused interpretive dance into his stage show during a recent tour. Filled with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, and intense performances of the artist's solo efforts as well as Heads classics such as "Once in a Lifetime" and "Road to Nowhere," it's another example of Silverdocs' commitment to making sure music gets heard through all the documentary message-making.

The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival

runs from June 21 through 27 at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre at 8633 Colesville Rd. and Discovery HD Theater, 1 Discovery Pl., both in Silver Spring. Tickets to individual screenings may be purchased in the Silver Theatre lobby for $10 (unless otherwise noted), and packages are available from $150 for 20 tickets to $1,200 for an all-access platinum pass. For more information, visit http://www.silverdocs.com.


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