2009 Silverdocs Documentary Festival

Silverdocs 2009 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 TV and art house screens.

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.


Grey Gardens

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.


Blood Trail

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.

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