The fun of any festival is discovery — stumbling on a movie that, with no buzz, marketing or preconceptions behind it, winds up changing your life (or at least the way you see the world).
If you’re attending Silverdocs this week, the best advice is to follow your gut, chat up people waiting with you in line for recommendations and always have a Plan B screening in case you don’t get your first choice. Meanwhile, here’s a cheat sheet of 10 films you’re sure to find entertaining, engaging and edifying:
“A Girl Like Her” Ann Fessler’s haunting group portrait of women who surrendered their children for adoption in the 1950s and ’60s juxtaposes their voices with stock archival images from an era when wrenching human drama was buried beneath airbrushed images of family and sexuality.
“Beauty is Embarrassing” You might not know you know Wayne White, but you do: The puppeteer, art director and artist helped create “Pee-wee [Herman]’s Playhouse,” as well as the Smashing Pumpkins’ pivotal “Tonight, Tonight” music video. He also happens to be an exceptionally charismatic leading man in Neil Berkeley’s lively, engaging tribute.
“Betting the Farm” A group of Maine dairy farmers band together to survive in the face of Big Milk only to find their idealism challenged by sobering economic realities and their own feisty, independent natures. Filmmakers Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann capture their struggles with sensitivity and painterly beauty, including a Greek chorus of cows that observes the action with serene implacability.
“Detropia” Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s film about Detroit tells the familiar story of the city’s demise through a slightly new lens, focusing on the poor and working-class African American communities that have been displaced, not just by the economic crisis but also by proposed responses to it.
“Strong!” Champion weight lifter Cheryl Haworth provides the physical and narrative ballast of Julie Wyman’s film, which traces the athlete’s comeback trip to the Beijing Olympics, as well as her ambivalent relationship with her own full-size body.
“The Revisionaries” Forget “Prometheus”; the scariest movie of the summer is this revealing look at the Texas State Board of Education, led by evolution-denier and dentist Don McLeroy. Director Scott Thurman chronicles the board’s review of textbook standards, which McLeroy and his cohorts seek to revise by emphasizing creationism and casting doubt on scientific empiricism.
“The Queen of Versailles” It would be so easy to make fun of Jackie Siegel, the title character of this candid glimpse of a wealthy family brought low by the 2008 financial crisis. But filmmaker Lauren Greenfield doesn’t make a mockery of Siegel and her family, instead presenting them as a poignant, if profligate, flip-side of America’s new economic normal.
“The Source” A plethora of archival footage powers this vivid evocation of Southern California in the 1970s, when a World War II hero-turned-vegetarian-restaurant-mogul, Jim Baker, created the Source Family and became its patriarch, Father Yod. Alternately troubling and absurd, the film is narrated by former members of the cult, many of whom have not just survived but thrived (inevitably, some didn’t). The bonus is the soundtrack, culled from vintage tracks cut by the Source’s psychedelic house band, Ya Ho Wa 13.
“Trash Dance” In 2009, Austin choreographer Allison Orr worked with the city’s sanitation department to create a dance featuring trash collectors and their equipment. Filmmaker Andrew Garrison records Orr’s initial meetings with her skeptical collaborators, her ride-alongs in their trucks and the climactic performance of the piece they create together: a triumphant, improbably moving tribute to skill, professionalism and grace.
“The Waiting Room” If any Silverdocs film should be required viewing at the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s Peter Nicks’s devastating verite portrait of the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. A sad, funny, tense, deeply affecting day-in-the-life of an under-resourced public hospital, the film features unforgettable characters, from a sweet-talking ER nurse to the Bay Area’s very own Dr. McDreamy. Even more inspiring are the patients whose ailments and financial obstacles almost overpower their dignity and fortitude.
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