by Karen Schafer | Staff Writer | June 10, 2009
Forget "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." It's time to get real. After all, who can resist a school designed to teach women how to manipulate and snag a millionaire or a bunch of daredevils who hold onto the side of a moving train while doing acrobatics?
Programmers have spent months comparing and critiquing some 2,000 submissions before whittling the number to 122 films from 58 countries for the seventh annual AFI-Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS documentary film festival, set for June 15 through June 22 at AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.
For documentary filmmakers, Planet Earth and its inhabitants are like a big candy store. Fight fanatics might get a glimpse of Mohammed Ali when the famed heavyweight makes an appearance at the screening of "Facing Ali," and feline freaks will learn about a few ladies' penchant for taking in strays in "Cat Ladies." Subjects include a poor guy stuck filming Winnebago ads in the scorching heat, a South Korean farmer and his best friend, a 40-year-old ox, and even people struck by lightning.
Not so long ago, PBS and elementary schools were the genre's most viable venues, but with the advent of inexpensive camera equipment and the Internet, famous and not-so-well-known filmmakers are "exploring issues in-depth that the mainstream media isn't covering," notes Sky Sitney, SILVERDOCS' artistic director.
The festival also offers short films and classes, panel discussions, and meet-and-greets for those in the biz or seeking to try their luck in documentary filmmaking.
Sitney readily admits that the nuanced nature of most documentaries isn't suitable for children; this year's exception is "Racing Dreams," which follows two boys and a girl as they compete in the World Karting Championship.
Then there's the movie about Michelle and Colin Beavan, who live on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. For one year, the couple gives up 21st-century accouterments, and not just their apartment's elevator. Gone are electricity, takeout pizza, even toilet paper. And best of all, they gave up their anonymity for Justin Schein; the filmmaker documented the good, the bad and Michelle's grieving for her favorite pastimes, shopping and reality TV, in his film "No-Impact Man."
Even when the subject has global implications, Schein believes great documentaries have to be "character driven." Environmental issues were the catalyst for creating this film, but the relationship between man and wife is what will fascinate audiences. Michelle is "everyman," while Colin is "the vegetarian and the driving force."
Just a few hundred miles north in Buffalo, N.Y., Samantha Buck spent almost a year filming what the Arlington, Va., native describes as an "ordinary Jewish family" living under "extraordinary circumstances." Karen, 21, is about to give birth to her third child, fathered by a black youth with a history of drug abuse from the "other side of town." With the pregnancy comes news that her second child is terminally ill with Tay Sachs disease. Within 91 minutes, class distinctions, racism and the complex melding of families makes for some uncomfortable moments. Audience reactions have been "visceral," the filmmaker admits. "Some people yell at the screen." Others demand to voice their outrage to the filmmaker. As for Buck, "that's what I hoped for."
Hope is a strong emotion, yet one's legacy can be equally important. This may have been one reason Marion Barry allowed filmmaker Dana Flor into his life. Making "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry" was never on Flor's to-do list, but while working on a story on police brutality in New York City, she was mistakenly given an old tape of Barry as an activist talking about police brutality.
"I was captivated. He was handsome, engaging, and this was a man I knew nothing about," recalls the D.C. native. "Yet everyone has such a passionate response, hatred versus love, for him."
Flor learned he was an important District leader in 1965, when there was a "dearth of leadership." Traveling with Barry, she also witnessed the city's "racial divide" while filming in Ward 8. "It was a different world; the people feel they have been forgotten."
Barry plans to attend, and a post-screening discussion is planned.
While most films have an underlying political or social theme, some docs just want to have fun. And for Michael Paul Stephenson, it demanded revisiting something that for years "horrified" the Los Angeles-based filmmaker. About two decades ago, Stephenson was just 11 when he made his feature film debut in the low budget "Trolls 2." Now he has created a homage to the film by making the "Best Worst Movie."
Such an idea would have been unfathomable after the first film's release. Months after finishing the movie, the actor received a tape of the film for Christmas, and immediately knew something was wrong. He didn't recognize the boy on the cover; they used another child for advertising. Nor did he understand why the film was called "Trolls 2," as the creatures were goblins, not trolls. As his family watched the movie, he recalls his father putting his head in his hands in shock, calling it the "worst movie ever," Stephenson recalls.
For years, "Trolls 2" may have embarrassed him, but he "never denied" he was in it. Stephenson went on to work behind the camera in marketing and ad campaigns. But about four years ago, he started getting e-mails from young people around the world telling him how much they loved the movie. Some were creating costumes and having "Trolls 2" parties. It was becoming a cult classic.
Stephenson knew it was time to revisit the "Trolls 2" phenomenon and make a film about its fans and the cast members' personal stories. He sought out the handsome young actor who played his father. George Hardy may have had dreams of stardom, but after making the film, he returned to his native Alabama. Stephenson says "he settled" and became a dentist.
The film's Italian director, "Claudio Fragasso, had courage," Stephenson insists. "He didn't speak English, but was trying to make a good film. There was no camp, no irony. There was sincerity in the film."
"Trolls 2" will be screened right after "Best Worst Movie."
Not every film will have a cult following, but "for the 15 people searching for a challenging film," Sitney suggests "The Sound of Insects — Record of A Mummy." As abstract images take over the screen, a narrator reads a man's diary as he commits suicide by starving to death.
On a much lighter note, "September Issue" highlights the making of Vogue magazine's largest edition.
"It was interesting watching the tension between the photographer and Vogue editor Anna Wintour and seeing [actress] Sienna Miller having a bad hair day," Sitney says. The work it requires to create "such seamless beauty" takes the film to another level, showcasing the "mysterious Wintour and how this multibillion-dollar business affects all of our lives."
Seems that fashion is a lot like film.
The seventh annual AFI-Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS documentary film festival is set for June 15 through June 22 at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Admission to each film is $10, $50 for opening night. Visit www.silverdocs.com.