Given the typically short life span of film festivals, Silverdocs, is basically “middle-aged,” having made it to 10 years, joked Sky Sitney, the festival’s director, at a luncheon previewing this year’s program.
Middle-aged it may be, but the showcase of nonfiction film (June 18 through 24) shows no sign of slowing down. This year, it has a slate of 114 documentaries (culled from 2,018 entries) on tap at the AFI Silver Theatre and surrounding venues in Silver Spring.
Silverdocs remains the largest documentary festival in the United States and is stocked with world and U.S. premieres, crowd-pleasing (and heartwarming) films about music, politically insightful films about the ability of art to battle totalitarianism, and a trio of films that literally saved the lives of three boys wrongly accused of murder.
The “Paradise Lost” trilogy is the work of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who will be recognized for their body of work as this year’s honorees at the Guggenheim Symposium (June 19, 7 p.m.). Past honorees, including Martin Scorsese, Albert Maysles and Spike Lee, undoubtedly have had a large impact on documentary filmmaking, but Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky have had a far more direct impact on the lives of their subjects.
In “Paradise Lost,” we are introduced to the West Memphis Three, a trio of teens accused of murder based on little in the way of evidence and much in the way of scapegoating. Their fondness for wearing black and listening to heavy-metal music made them likely killers in the eyes of the Arkansas authorities and the jury that convicted them and sentenced one of the three to death and the other two to life imprisonment.
The series of documentaries introduced the boys to the world and led to their eventual release late last year. James Baldwin, one of the now-free West Memphis Three, will join the filmmakers during a discussion of their work.
Other program highlights are more lighthearted. There is “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” an in-depth look at the life of arena-rock favorite Journey’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda.
Mr. Pineda’s life story is practically ripped from the Mark Wahlberg movie “Rock Star”: Journey, searching high and low for someone who can belt out longtime frontman Steve Perry’s patented wail, finds a YouTube video of the lead singer of a Journey cover band who simply nails it. It just so happens that this lead singer is Filipino, was homeless at one time and now is touring with one of the biggest live rock acts in the world.
“Don’t Stop Believin’ ” opens the festival June 18 at 7 p.m., with a repeat showing June 24 at 12:15 p.m.
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” takes a different perspective on art and performance. An in-depth look at the life and times of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei — who has been harassed repeatedly by the Chinese government and recently won the inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation — the film promises to shine a bright light on the brutal dictatorship and the man who is ruffling its feathers.
“Ai Weiwei” plays June 21 at 7:15 p.m., with a replay on June 23 at 3 p.m.
The sillier side of art is highlighted in “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” a documentary about Wayne White. Mr. White was one of the co-creators of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and an experimental artist who served as the art director on the music videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight.”
“Beauty Is Embarrassing” screens June 23 at 5:30 p.m. and again on June 24 at 8:15 p.m.
Silverdocs rarely forgets that it lives in the backyard of the nation’s capital. In addition to politically charged documentaries about the health care system (“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare”) and the war on drugs (“The House I Live In”) that focus on Washington, D.C., locus of government, there also are films focused on Washington, the town.
One such picture is “Bad Brains: A Band in DC,” which chronicles the iconic punk band, which formed in Washington in the 1970s and has survived, in various iterations, through the years in spite of its frontman’s basic insanity. “Bad Brains: A Band in DC” plays June 21 at 10:45 p.m. and again June 23 at 10 p.m.