[29 June 2009]
The signs weren’t always up in time, the average age of the volunteers appeared to be about 12, and only a couple of enthusiastic workers seemed to know everything. But both the theater manager with the bird’s nest of grey hair and the fresh-faced Jimmy Fallon type were too busy whispering into headsets.
The good news at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival was that almost all films screen in just four theaters, three in the same, sleekly restored movie house, and the other was right next door. The popcorn was the real thing (no stale multiplex garbage here), and there was Stella Artois on tap, not to mention numerous nearby bars and restaurants—ranging from Lebanese tavernas to Chik-fil-A. After each film let out, the gregarious Bangladeshi owner of the Indian/American café came running over with menus and discounts for attendees. Screening times were conveniently staggered and the projection was always superb, both rarities at film festivals.
Running from 15 to 22 June, in the shadow of co-sponsor Discovery Channel’s headquarters (the American Film Institute is the other co-sponsor), Silverdocs brought over 120 non-fiction films to Silver Spring, Maryland, just a few metro stops away from downtown D.C. The result was a rewarding and refreshing event, offering classic and independent documentaries and previewing several that will crop up over the next year or two on PBS, HBO, various Discovery outlets, and the occasional brave art-house theater screen.
The Festival honored Albert Maysles, easily the most celebrated living American documentarian. In addition to gala events, Silverdocs highlighted a smart retrospective of some of his greatest work, much of it shot with his late brother David. Along with a number of shorts, the Festival showed a number of their best-regarded features, including 1968’s Salesman, the 1976 cult fave Grey Gardens, and a new print of When We Were Kings, the high-impact 1996 documentary about the 1974 Ali-Foreman match in Zaire, directed by Leon Gast, and including footage shot by Albert Maysles.
The influence of the nearby District’s international government agencies and think tanks could be felt in the Fest’s wide world of subject matter, not to mention its attendees. One can hear someone in line offhandedly remark that she works at the State Department’s Iraq desk, only to find out that she’s talking to someone who spent many years at State as well. There are good vibes in the air (maybe something to do with the pretty uniformly excellent films being shown), but also an element of seriousness and humility. Even the industry filmmakers tend to look more like reporters than advertising executives.
Dancing with the Devil
That sense of getting the story right, of digging up dramas from far-flung corners of the globe was evident in many of the Festival’s more gripping selections. Dancing with the Devil by Jon Blair—who introduced the film by calling it “my home movie… because my home stands or falls on it,” to appreciative chuckles from the filmmaker-heavy crowd—throws viewers into the middle of Rio de Janeiro’s bullet-pocked favelas, where drug gangs and police squads battle it out on a near-daily basis. A vertiginous assault on the senses, Blair’s film uses a reformed gangster turned silver-tongued preacher, “Pastor Jonny,” as its entry point to a brutal melodrama.
As voluble and trigger-happy gangsters rail on about police brutality, and thick-necked, tattooed police commandos rev themselves up for Fallujah-like assault, Jonny prays with both sides, trying to keep the peace. All he can do is keep one drug lord (an acne-scarred kid nicknamed “Spiderman”) from killing all his enemies (and instead just torture them)—and that small victory is impressive enough. This is the film equivalent of a great multi-part state-of-the-city piece by a big newspaper, back when more of them still had the desire and wherewithal to do such things.
A sort of elegy for the last days of journalism could be read into Richard Parry’s Blood Trail. Over the past 15 years, Parry filmed war photographer Robert King as he covered bloodbaths from Bosnia to Chechnya and beyond. The movie captures King’s transformation from terrified 24-year-old to seasoned veteran with Time and Newsweek cover credits, not to mention recurrent bouts with addiction, and what appears to be a nascent case of PTSD. An easy-to-like guy with a sly grin, King exhibit that danger junkie jones, easily fed in the journalistic free-for-all of the Balkans, but painfully stunted during embedded outings with an American unit in Iraq—the Humvee looks like a cage. Parry’s film glances at the unfortunate need for damaged souls like King to bring the news back to the West, but doesn’t engage with them in a way that King’s haunted eyes and the ashen horror of his photographs demand.
Long Distance Love
A couple of films left journalistic ambitions aside in favor of allusion and personal portraiture, poor decisions both times. The better of the two, Magnus Gertten and Elin Jönsson’s Long Distance Love, follows a pair of Kyrgyzstani newlyweds separated after the callow husband heads off to Russia to find work (like one-quarter of his countrymen have to), but makes one bad decision after another. The filmmakers beautifully capture the bleak desperation so endemic to former Soviet Republics (closed factories, frustration, and rusting machinery), but don’t quite bring the subjects to life. The result is some stagey moments and a sweet ending that doesn’t feel entirely earned.
Sea Point Days
Less successful still was Francois Verster’s Sea Point Days, which looks at the titular Cape Town seaside suburb, utterly segregated during apartheid, but now a place where blacks and whites freely mingle on the promenade and in the public swimming pool. Although Verster’s patience with his cross-section of subjects is commendable, his lack of interest in digging below the surface or providing more historical context makes the film little more than a talky curiosity, albeit one set in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
A small knot of activist documentaries at this year’s Silverdocs had already played in New York the previous month at the 20th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and each one more than made the case for being booked at both. Havana Marking’s Afghan Star follows the four top finalists (two men, two women) in Afghanistan’s improbably popular version of American Idol. The women’s appearance on the show sparks controversy and the campaigns garnering text-votes for different performers rage like revolutionary street protests. Neither overly hopeful nor reflexively cynical, Marking’s film uses a seemingly meaningless bit of pop ephemera as a sharp lens through which this country can be seen in a whole new way.
In Crude, Joe Berlinger, who directed the great American gothic nonfictions Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper takes on the issue film with a precisely focused anger. Tracking the twisted and lengthy trail of one of the world’s largest and longest class actions suits—one filed against Chevron in the early 1990s on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians charging the oil giant with polluting their rain forest homeland—Berlinger faces corporate obfuscations and numerous legalistic frustrations. Though the film does founder a bit after the introduction of celebrity activist Trudie Styler, Berlinger keeps Crude sharp.
Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter
Three other films from the HRWIFF took on problems in Africa with equal parts fervor and compassion. In Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, a Malian mother living in Philadelphia fights her threatened deportation on the grounds that if she is forced to return home, family and tribe members will force her baby daughter to undergo female genital mutilation. Anne Aghion’s My Neighbor, My Killer tracks the painful, problematic ordeal of the open-air tribunals set up by the Rwandan government to help resettle genocidal killers in villages with people whose families they butchered in 1994. Also refusing to provide easy answers, Landon van Soest’s Kenyan-set Good Fortune is a brave riposte to the Western assumption that foreign aid and investment will solve the Third World. Sometimes it just makes things worse.
Mugabe and the White African
Like van Soest’s film, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s Mugabe and the White African challenges assumptions. Winner of Silverdocs’ Sterling World Feature Award, the film highlights Mike Campbell, a 75-year-old white Zimbabwean farmer threatened with eviction under President Mugabe’s policy of seizing land from all white farmers. Ostensibly created to help some of the country’s many poor and landless black peasants, the policy is revealed here as a land grab for Mugabe’s pals as well as a cynical bit of racial scapegoating by a leader who has done everything in his power to ruin Zimbabwe. The documentary vividly captures the bravery of Campbell, his family, and their black employees, as they quixotically fight Mugabe’s cronies in court and in the fields (beatings and kidnappings in the dead of night are the norm, advanced age being no protection). Mugabe also quietly wrestles with the larger question of whether a white man can even be considered an African, helping to make it one of the most heartrending films of the year.
Tears were copiously shed at a screenings of two American-set films that, somewhat coincidentally, also featured some of the world’s cutest dogs. In Geralyn Pezanoski’s Mine, Hurricane Katrina victims forced to leave their pets behind face the added indignity of having to fight to reclaim them from their adopted families who frequently don’t want to give them up. The comfortably bourgeois animal advocates clash with the former owners, claiming that Katrina was “the best thing that could have happened” to the dogs they rescued and then essentially kept hostage. Given the humble charms of many of Pezanoski’s subjects (particularly the happy-go-lucky widower who strikes up a surprising friendship with a Canadian volunteer half his age), it’s difficult not to feel a swell of outrage at the callousness of those who say they want to help.
The Way We Get By
In The Way We Get By, a trio of retirees (one of them director Aron Gaudet’s mother) spend many of their waking hours at Bangor International Airport, greeting thousands of grateful, jet-lagged soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although all three have problems (ranging from prostate cancer to bankruptcy), their volunteer duties come first. While the soundtrack veers to the sappy, that’s about the only wrong note in Gaudet’s film, which shakes off any hints of sentimentality by dealing straight-on with both its subjects’ impending mortality, and the unceasing tragedy of those lines of camouflaged figures coming home from foreign battlegrounds.
Best Worst Movie
Strangely enough, next to Mugade and the White African and The Way We Get By, the most affecting film at Silverdocs was Michael Paul Stephenson’s hilarious and strangely meaningful Best Worst Movie. Examining the enduring legend of the little-seen 1990 “horror” flick Troll 2, in which Stephenson starred when he was only 10, the film tracks down the rest of the cast and filmmakers, who range from the nearly insane to the merely grandiose (the editor claims in all seriousness that the film paved the way for the Harry Potter series). The clear standout is the blond and broad-shouldered George Hardy, a gregarious and ridiculously likeable Alabama dentist who gets sucked up into Troll 2‘s dangerous circuit of anti-fame and becomes the genuine hero of Stephenson’s film.
Stephenson includes choice bits of Troll 2, showing that its bargain-basement awfulness eclipses even Ed Wood’s oeuvre, with vegetarian goblins instead of trolls, and more dreckish acting than a half-dozen Michael Bay films. The documentary also dissects its continuing popularity among Mystery Science Theater-types. Emerging from beneath all this pop-culture rubble is an unexpectedly honest plea for the greatness of Troll 2. Shots of revival screenings prove that viewers’ laughter has a genuine and unsnarky quality to it: any movie that has brought so much joy to so many people is a special sort of art.