Last week marked the annual Silverdocs Film Festival and Conference, one of the largest convocations of documentary filmmakers in the country, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. This year, Silverdocs was replete with red carpet photo ops and premiere parties, but those feted were not the glamorous celebrities showcased at other top fests. Instead, the honored guests included a “violence interrupter” from Chicago, an accused (but excused) domestic terrorist, the “godmother” of the voting rights movements, an octogenarian Olympian and Senator Al Franken. The festival was a celebration of those whose quotidian quests have transformed social, cultural and political life and of the filmmaking craft that gives voice and shape to their extraordinary stories.
A collection of 108 films representing over 60 countries screened during the weeklong festival. While diverse in theme and style, the films tended to depict a sobering portrait of pressing national and global issues. Docs, such as If a Tree Falls and Semper Fi: Always Faithful illustrate the dire state of the environment through the personal stories of charismatic and controversial advocates. Better This World— the San Francisco International Film Festival 54 double award winner—and Scenes of a Crime are riveting tales that critically interrogate the meaning of justice within the American legal system.
Festival Director Sky Sitney explained this programmatic through-line, “there are the number of strong films exploring issues of law and order, a subject that has always figured prominently, but this year speaks to a more pronounced focus on eroding civil liberties, false imprisonment, entrapment and explorations into some of our nation’s most high-profile legal dramas.”
Also figured prominently were harrowing stories of contemporary wars. Hell and Back Again, the first feature by photojournalist Danfung Dennis, shook audiences with its stunning and disturbing footage of war in Afghanistan. The film tells the story of 25 year-old Marine Corps Sergeant Nathan Harris, who was severely injured while leading his battalion during the 2009 Surge. Harris feels most alive while on the battlefield. In the desert, he is a leader on a mission; he has a sense of meaning and purpose. And that purpose is to kill. “All I ever wanted to do ever since I was 18 years old was kill people,” Harris ponders in the film.
His real war starts when he is forced to return home in bandages—his side, from his hip down to his knee, now covered in train-tracks of stitches after getting shot in the field. The fierce warrior finds himself incapable of the most routine tasks. We are transported directly into his visceral anguish as he attempts to buy kitchen appliances, move into a new home, go to the doctor and even look for parking. The more mundane the activity the more hellish his world becomes. Ultimately, Danfung Dennis paints a picture of one young man who stands for a generation of soldiers returning home, grappling with their own personal hells and bringing the war back with them.
The Centerpiece film, The Interrupters, also illuminates a gruesome story of war—though this time, it’s war in Chicago’s marginalized, violent neighborhoods. Steve James, the acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams, portrays a year in the life of three “violence interrupters,” or community members—with histories of violence themselves—who intervene in the heat of conflicts just before they turn deadly. They are part of “CeaseFire,” a program founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who contends the spread of violence is like that of infectious diseases: “The treatment should be similar to that of disease,” he explained. “Go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source.” Indeed, the three protagonists, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, throw themselves into the source. The charismatic cadre interrupts explosive disputes through a nimble but forceful diplomacy. It’s the stuff of good drama and an inspiring model for community-based social change. While the situation is still bleak, The Interrupters offers hope.
Films like Hell and Back Again and The Interrupters lend the powerful imagery that in years to come, may define the contemporary political and economic landscape. The annual Guggenheim Symposium, on the other hand, took Silverdocs’ audience back to the classic American cultural iconography of the past five decades by honoring the prolific work of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. The filmmaking team—both partners in life and behind the camera—have produced and directed over 50 films, the likes of which include: Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust, The War Room, Kings of Pastry, Al Franken: God Spoke, among dozens of others. Their cinema verité-style allows delicate observation of their notorious subjects as tumultuous lives and times unfolded. By doing so, Hegedus and Pennebaker invite audiences to feel as though they are participating in the drama of history. Whether it’s Clinton’s race for the presidency or Bob Dylan’s youthful shenanigans, they make us feel close to the icons, and thus a witness to profound cultural change.
Senator Al Franken introduced the two with reverence for the tremendous body of work Hegedus and Pennebaker have contributed to the documentary canon. “You won’t live forever, but your films will!” He joked. He went on to quip about what it was like to be the subject of one of their films. “In comparison to the other people—Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, James Carville and others, I come off as the most normal! Its quite a testament to me, really,” he laughed.
A 20-minute retrospective reel followed, along with a panel moderated by former NPR Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen. The Symposium concluded with a sneak peek at their latest project on Russian composer Igor Stravinsky culled from newly restored footage shot decades ago. In the brief clip, we saw Stravinksy’s eccentric genius come to life through the flickering black and white celluloid, playing piano for a small audience of peers. True to form, the verité camera work constructs a sense of intimate observation: We were witnessing Stravinsky’s brilliance reveal itself right there in the moment.
Aside from the comprehensive film program, Silverdocs hosts a five-day-long International Documentary Conference for filmmakers, distributors, funders and other industry professionals, along with “School Docs,” a particular conference thread geared toward using documentary in the classroom. Over 1,200 people hailing from around the country participated in the multitude of master classes, workshops and panels on topics ranging from DSLR cinematography to transmedia distribution. The networking events that followed made the new Silver Spring Civic Center buzz with those eager to meet and trade information. A slew of speed pitch sessions with funders and broadcasters, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the San Francisco Film Society Documentary Film Fund, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Publis Broadcasting Service (PBS), gave filmmakers direct access to get their projects heard by industry decision-makers.
Conference highlights included the “Story Leads to Action” two-part seminar, a new partnership between Chicken and Egg Pictures, Working Films and the Silverdocs festival. With a panel of experts from internationally renowned organizations, Rock the Vote, The League of Young Voters, The Natural Resources Defense Council, and others, participants were invited to discuss just how to leverage powerful doc stories to create sustained social action campaigns. The Barber of Birmingham—a beautifully crafted short on Mr. James Armstrong, a “foot soldier” of the Civil Rights Movement—and Semper Fi: Always Faithful, one former Marine’s quest to rid his old base of highly toxic water, were used as case studies. After viewing the slate of heavy films over the weeklong festival, this seminar and its conference counterparts equipped filmmakers with tools for inspired social change. The films screened at Silverdocs and the work-shopped in the conference undoubtedly will have legs—they’ll go on to continue shaping our social, cultural and political life.
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