Ann Hornaday on Silverdocs, featuring 'Freakonomics,' 'The Other City'

The Silverdocs Documentary Festival, co-sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, brings a week's worth of films from around the world to the Washington area.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Lots of good documentaries arrive in Washington every spring on the local festival circuit, but by far the best pickings are saved for June, with the Silverdocs Documentary Festival. Now in its eighth year, Silverdocs, co-sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, has steadily gained audiences and recognition among filmmakers as an important venue for nonfiction films. At its best, each year Silverdocs has given viewers not only a glimpse of good documentaries, but also a vivid sense of what it looks and sounds and feels like to be alive at that particular moment in time.

This year's Silverdocs, which opens Monday with the local premiere of "Freakonomics," is no exception. Like festivals everywhere, this one will feature its share of celebrity sightings. But instead of Paris Hilton or Woody Allen, nonfiction fans will be able to attend events featuring Oliver Stone (here with his essay film "South of the Border"), Danny Glover (who co-produced "The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan"), Davis Guggenheim ("Waiting for 'Superman' ") and Frederick Wiseman, who will be honored for his career in pioneering the unnarrated, immersive filmmaking style known as "direct cinema." And if that term sounds highfalutin, just think "The Office," but with fewer laughs and more investigative fervor.

The main attractions at Silverdocs aren't directors or actors, though, but the movies on offer. And a sampling of some of the best documentaries to be screened this year reveals themes that smoothly migrate between films, uncannily echoing and harmonizing with one another across a wide range of styles and subject matter. War, peace, the burdens of history and unresolved loss weave in and out of many of the films, whether they have to do with the most public current events or private agonies.

Thus two films set in the midst of the Arab-Israeli dispute, "Budrus" and "My So Called Enemy," have much to say, along with two portraits of extremism and its costs: "HolyWars," Stephen Marshall's alternately irritating, unsettling and surprising portrait of an evangelical Christian and pro-global-jihad Muslim, and "War Don Don," about a war crimes trial in Sierra Leone. And the teenage girls who make such compelling protagonists in "Budrus" and "My So Called Enemy" -- both of which offer inspiring examples of reconciliation in that embattled region -- would most likely feel at home with Francesca Woodman, the gifted young photographer whose search for self-expression and 1981 suicide are sensitively portrayed in C. Scott Willis's family portrait "The Woodmans."

Fittingingly, the festival's closing-night selection, "The Tillman Story," revisits all the themes that weave through those films, from its investigation of how the U.S. government tried to propagandize Army Ranger Pat Tillman's 2004 death in Afghanistan to its wrenching portrayal of a family dealing with unresolved loss. And its searing critique of revisionism strikes an unmistakable chord with two films that approach that subject with dramatically different points of view. In "A Film Unfinished," Yael Hersonski reconstitutes a Nazi propaganda film made in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 to prove that powerful truths can be found even within such a compromised context. That's the same impression left by "Marwencol," Jeff Malmberg's entrancing film about Mark Hogancamp, who after suffering near-fatal brain damage after a brutal beating in Kingston, N.Y., reconstitutes his life by creating a miniature World War II-era world inhabited entirely by Barbie dolls.

With such echoes and unexpected harmonies, this year's Silverdocs often resembles a sprawling conversation, with the films and their subjects the most lively and contentious interlocutors. The round robin is part coincidence, part collective unconscious, according to Silverdocs Artistic Director Sky Sitney.

"There are these wonderful surprises," she says, "so the festival itself becomes a wonderful surprise." Each year, she adds, thousands of filmmakers submit their work, hoping for one of 50 coveted feature slots (the festival will also screen 41 shorts). Sitney also travels regularly to the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, as well as documentary festivals from Amsterdam to Missouri, to find promising candidates. "As a programmer, I have to be responsive, but I also have to lead, and it's a really interesting dance."

Inevitably, there are films that get away. Two of the biggest hits at Cannes in May -- "Inside Job" and "Countdown to Zero" -- are conspicuously missing from Silverdocs this year, as well as a highly anticipated film about Eliot Spitzer by Alex Gibney, "12th and Delaware" by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, and Steven Soderbergh's "And Everything Is Going Fine," about the late Spalding Gray.

The gaps are all the more palpable because Gibney, Grady and Ewing will be at Silverdocs on behalf of "Freakonomics," based on the best-selling book. Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") and Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong") also made "chapters" of the omnibus, which promises to be diverting enough but, as a "for hire" project, not particularly fired by personality or passions.

The fact that distributors feel they can skip Silverdocs suggests the festival has a way to go to become an essential stop to the marketplace. But in some cases, Sitney explains, she simply has to make a tough call.

For example, in the case of "Countdown to Zero," Lucy Walker's galvanizing call-to-dis-arms about nuclear nonproliferation, Sitney says that the film will be in theaters soon, and she preferred to program "Waste Land," Walker's film about artist Vik Muniz. "I was grappling with whether to show both," she says. "But I knew ['Countdown to Zero'] was opening immediately after Silverdocs, and I thought, 'We could probably use this cherished slot to help a filmmaker who doesn't necessarily have as much support or isn't destined for theatrical release.' "

And once in a while you land a big fish. Sitney adds that an important "get" this year was Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman,' " a documentary about the educational system that was partly filmed in Washington, and that was acquired by Paramount Pictures just as it made its debut at Sundance, where it won the audience award. Guggenheim, who grew up in Washington as the son of the filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, will attend the Silverdocs screening along with Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and teachers' union chief Randi Weingarten. He'll also lead a discussion with Wiseman, this year's Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree.

As a look at entrenched local bureaucracies, it stands to reason that "Waiting for 'Superman' " will have something to say to "The Other City," Susan Koch's sobering film about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington, based on articles written for The Washington Post by Jose Antonio Vargas in 2006. In other words, the conversation that is Silverdocs continues, sure to reverberate long after the films themselves have had their say.

The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival

runs from June 21 through June 27 at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., and Discovery HD Theater, One Discovery Place, both in Silver Spring. Tickets to individual screenings may be purchased in the Silver Theatre lobby for $10 (unless otherwise noted), and voucher packages are available from $150 for 20 tickets to $1,200 for an all-access platinum pass. For a complete schedule, see Page 32 in Weekend or visit http://www.silverdocs.com.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company