Year Five of Silverdocs, June 12-17, 2007 was another wonderful, enriching festival with huge lines filling Colesville Road as documentary-lovers from around the world descended upon otherwise unknown Silver Spring, MD. I worked the festival for the second year after volunteering last year, with the critical added bonus (guised as obligation) that I got paid to watch movies one after the other all week.
Hmm…”documentary.” The word sends shivers down the spines of some, waves of heavy sleep vibes through others, and flashes of eternally curious excitement through a peculiar few. I happen to love the documentary medium, because it feels–for me at least–like the most direct connection between the subject of the film and its audience. I could spend the rest of my life listening to the stories of other people and times: about the history of something like the Helvetica font or the Chicago riots of 1968, or of folk singers whose songs I know but whose biography I do not, or of comic church groups spreading the “Stop Shopping” gospel.
Watching a good documentary is self-reflexive and introspective: we look upon each other intimately, in ways that are becoming increasingly rare in our modern, ossified existences. It’s the equivalent of arising from months breathing out of a waste dump and inhaling huge mouthfuls of delicious, unadulterated, flavorsome oxygen. Each film is filled with so many grains of universal truth and moments of pure comedy or tragedy.
By far the best highlight of the five days was that, as staff, I got to meet and chat with a number of filmmakers and film subjects. I was impressed by the profound absence of asshole-ish ego and superficiality one would associate with other film festivals. Such are the benefits of working a documentary festival, where the competition and subject matter stakes are so different. The vast majority of filmmakers seemed simply grateful for a chance to screen and talk about their years of obscure toil, staying behind after the screenings to chat informally with everybody in the audience who wanted to talk. I came out of the festival even more convinced of the democratic power of documentary, and respectful of the enormous amount of sacrifice involved in putting together each ‘labor of love.’
My favorite film of this year’s stellar selection was a gentle, humorous film from China named “Please Vote for Me,” a political allegory and cheery “Lord of the Flies” experiment built around the trappings of the democratic process. It features three candidates in a class of third-graders in Wuhan province competing for their classmates’ vote as new class monitor. The kids, naturally, are cute and very funny, whether gathering “fault lists” to use against their opponents or attempting to out-debate one another with their parents’ carefully scripted logic. Intimidation, questionable motives, character, bribery, ruthlessness: some of these darker sides of human nature were played out on-screen by three-foot-tall prima donna Chinese children in a rowdy classroom, edited in a way that was knowingly clever and affectionate. “Please Vote for Me” has moments of total mirth besides those of genuine tenderness, as well as a keen eye for the universal effects that power–no matter the scale–has upon human behavior.
The winners of the Audience Award, screened on Father’s Day, were both–in remarkably prescient manner–built around Father-Son relationships. The short winner, “Son’s Sacrifice”, provided a contemporary day take on long-worn themes, following the relationship between a Bengali-Puerto Rican named Imran and his father, as Imran attempts to prove his capability in taking over the family’s shop-front slaughterhouse in New York. The full-length, “Souvenirs”, tracked Shahar Cohen, a young Israeli filmmaker, and his ex-WWII ‘pappy’ as they retraced his war journey through Europe. On the way, they search for “souvenirs,” potential children that Sleiman left behind during brief affairs during his tour. I can see why it won the audience award: the camera captures some gut-wrenchingly powerful moments–such as when Sleiman is reunited with a Dutch girlfriend he hasn’t seen since the War–as well as the beautiful arc of Shahar and Sleiman’s bond, in a manner that feels so intimate and natural that it makes the socio-historical dimensions of the film quite tangential. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these Jewish/Muslim family stories happened to synch together so perfectly, particularly given last week’s disheartening events in Gaza. Bravo to the festival’s audience for such skillful voting!
The biggest draws of the audience, though, were a couple of the more left-field films in the mix. “Helvetica,” as its title suggests, is concerned entirely with the popular typeface (it means “Swiss” in Latin), which most people are probably more familiar with through its Microsoft Word bastard child: Arial. I have always been naturally observant about the types and design which flood our visual landscape–I can’t walk past a row of subway ads without thoughts about typeface choice or character spacing appearing–and it was totally neat talking to the filmmaker Gary Hustwit about our mutual idiosyncrasy. During the introduction, he asked how many people in the audience were graphic designers…at least three-quarters of them raised their hands.
“And so how many of you others are reluctant dates?” he quipped.
The film itself is clean and artful, with interesting sub-plots about the evolution of typeface in popular culture as well as my favorite score of the festival. According to Gary, half the music is from his iTunes playlist from 18 months back, but he also asked musicians to provide him with music that “sounds like Helvetica.” Little to my surprise, metronomic electronic beats with plenty of blips and syncopated rhythms are what ensued.
The other surprise hit was “Big Rig,” a non-traditional ode to truck drivers and their lives behind and away from the wheel. I had the chance to talk a little with Jesse, one of the truckers featured in the film. In my experience, truck drivers in Australia receive a lot less disregard than their American counterparts, and it was great to see a film cross that class/cultural divide so dramatically at Silverdocs.
Otherwise, I loved “Pete Seeger: The Power of Song,” which opened the festival and leaves you nostalgic for a more unified America in the midst of our current (and repeated) mess, and from what I caught of “Chicago 10”–about the 1968 riots–and “What Would Jesus Buy”–about Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping–were smart and engaging. “Garbage Warrior,” about an iconoclastic eco-architect who constructs houses out of waste materials like beer cans, plastic bottles and tires, received a rave reception. It comes off as a less preachy, equally worthwhile take on the global warming themes of “Inconvenient Truth.” Also, the film’s subject–Michael Reynolds–speaks his mind with utter disregard for convention or popular opinion, making him infinitely more fun than Al Gore.
Perhaps the most important film of the festival, in terms of sparking action, was “The Devil Came on Horseback,” an old-fashioned call-to-arms to stop the genocide that is taking place in Darfur. It is necessarily graphic and brutally honest about the atrocities taking place, but weaves such elements into a narrative that is palatable and accessible enough for a general audience to absorb. The key now, of course, is gaining widespread distribution and viewership, something that I imagine is a central topic during the Filmmaker’s Conference, held simultaneously at Silverdocs each year.