- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

If things go according to plan, the nickname “Silverdocs” will become as recognizable to Washington-area moviegoers in a matter of years as Filmfest DC. The initial edition of Silverdocs, an ambitious showcase of documentary features and shorts selected by staff members of the American Film Institute and warmly endorsed by the management of the Discovery Channel, begins Wednesday evening at AFI’s new Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

The time may be ripe for a festival dedicated to nonfiction film. Consider this weekend’s theatrical openings.

The most impressive titles are the documentary features, “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Winged Migration,” which also illustrate the potential breadth of documentary subject matter, from family tragedy to wildlife spectacle. A strong case could be made that the class attraction of last weekend was the documentary feature “Spellbound,” which celebrates the juvenile finalists in a National Spelling Bee.

Although Washington audiences neglected to support them, “Stone Reader” and “Stevie” did the documentary tradition proud a few weeks ago. While limited to museum exhibition in the Imax projection system, James Cameron’s excursions to the Titanic graveyard in “Ghosts of the Abyss” remind us that even the most successful of commercial directors may have creative impulses that fiction cannot satisfy.

As the bias in Hollywood movies tends more and more toward supernatural and futuristic fantasy, the void is enlarging for films that reflect a passion for the here and now, the natural world and annals of human history.

Can Silverdocs provide a timely nudge to the kind of movie culture that can help fill that void? Can it do for the documentary what Sundance did for the indie film?

The festival’s opening-night attraction, already sold out, is Richard Schickel’s biographical chronicle, “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin.” This North American premiere showing will be attended by Mr. Schickel and actress Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of the great movie comedian.

From Thursday through June 21, screenings will be held in all three auditoriums of the Silver multiplex, with programs beginning as early as 11 a.m. to accommodate the many titles, which number about 60 features and 30 shorts, winnowed down by an AFI jury from about 1,000 entries submitted by independent documentary filmmakers.

The choices have been organized under three main topical headings: Competition, World View and Inside Sports. The official competitive entries will be eligible for jury prizes, presented on the closing day of the festival, June 22. There will also be Audience Award prizes for best feature and short, determined by balloting of festival audiences. Popular voters are not required to limit their preferences to the competition list.

The screenings will be augmented by a number of special events. Symposiums on the themes Politics, Sports and Youth will follow a trio of showings, respectively: “Only in America,” an account of Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, during the 2000 presidential campaign; “Tight on the Spiral,” a compilation of National Football League highlights from Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films; and “Party Animals,” an impression of the 2000 election by a precocious 14-year-old, Chaille Stovall, ominously touted by Teen People magazine as one of the “20 Teens Who Will Change the World.”

A final festival symposium will be devoted to the late Charles Guggenheim, who sustained an honorable career as a documentary filmmaker for almost half a century while based in Washington. This invitation-only event is envisioned as an annual highlight of the festival.

The initial film selection is Mr. Guggenheim’s final production, “Berga: Soldiers of Another War,” which recalls the ordeal of American GIs captured by the Wehrmacht during the Battle of the Bulge and forced to work in slave labor details with inmates from the Nazi concentration camps.

An exception to the festival guidelines, “Berga” has been nationally telecast, and it’s available commercially in a DVD edition. Festival director Nina Gilden Seavey, herself a documentary filmmaker, most recently represented by “The Ballad of Bering Strait,” explained in a telephone conversation that Silverdocs is designed to draw attention to movies that have not yet acquired theatrical or TV distribution. Candidates for the inaugural Silverdocs had to be completed by March 2002.

Besides the programs for festival award winners, the final day will be devoted to a Community Day celebration in the vicinity of AFI Silver Theatre and the nearby headquarters of Discovery Communications, which will play host to an open house between noon and 5 p.m. The courtyard will feature a street fair with refreshments and music. There will also be a skateboarding demonstration by Tony Hawk, whose Las Vegas extravaganza, “Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom Huckjam,” is the subject of a behind-the-scenes movie that will be shown at 1 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre, concluding the sports theme with a mass daredevil flourish.

Although the organizers take it for granted that politics will remain an abiding topic of Silverdocs festivals, given the nearness of Washington and the federal government, the other “strands” of the programming could change from year to year. According to Mrs. Seavey, there was considerable sentiment for a musical subdivision when the festival was being planned.

Carrie Passmore, senior vice president for public partnerships at the Discovery Channel, pointed out that programming decisions were the responsibility of the AFI staff.

“We’re an enthusiastic sponsor and partner, but always at arm’s length,” she says. “We started talking about collaborative projects as soon as it was known that both the AFI and Discovery would be moving to Silver Spring. It was never our intention to mirror Discovery Channel programming in Silverdocs. If those contacts lead to mutually satisfying film projects in the future, fine, but there are no guarantees or promises.”

According to Mrs. Seavey, only one existing film festival in the country, Full Frame, held annually in North Carolina, is devoted exclusively to documentary productions.

She singled out Filmfest DC as the crucial model for Silverdocs.

“That event has defined and sustained a loyal Washington audience for international filmmaking,” she says. “We need to do something similar and whet the appetite for documentaries. It may also take awhile for us to determine the best time on the film festival calendar for our event. No one wants to get too close to Sundance. They accept only 16 entries, but everyone still points toward their January date and wants to be seen there.

“We also have an obligation to do right by the filmmakers and help give their work some steam when it comes out of Washington, which is one of the top five markets in the country for specialized movies.”

Although it takes an exceptional documentary to rival the box-office potential in most commercial features, it’s also the rare year in which some documentary title fails to make a significant impression, for better or worse.

During the period in which I’ve been reviewing movies professionally, plenty of titles come to mind: Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer”; the Frederick Wiseman cycle of “Titicut Follies,” “Law and Order,” “High School” and “Welfare”; Albert Maysles’ “Salesman”; Emile de Antonio’s “Milhouse: A White Comedy”; Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity”; Peter Davis’ “Hearts and Minds”; Erroll Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line”; George Hickenlooper’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse”; Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me”; Ray Muller’s “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl”; Taylor Hackford and Leon Gast’s “When We Were Kings”; Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams”; Ken Burns’ “Civil War” series; and within the past year, “Comedian,” “The Endurance” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

Modern musical documentaries merit a separate list of their own: “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” “Monterey Pop,” “Woodstock,” “Wattstax,” “Gimme Shelter,” “The Last Waltz,” “The Buena Vista Social Club,” “Genghis Blues,” “Down From the Mountain” and “Madonna — Truth or Dare.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, popular bands and singers were likely to be fixtures of Hollywood musical features and shorts. In the past two generations, it has been easier to preserve their counterparts in a concert feature of one kind or another.

So a hearty welcome to Silverdocs, which appears happily timed to reinforce the oldest tradition in filmmaking: photographic impressions of real events and individuals. Hollywood’s continuing estrangement from real life may prove an unwitting boon to the longevity of Silverdocs.

EVENT: Silverdocs: The First Annual American Film Institute/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival

CONTENT: About 60 documentary features and 30 documentary shorts, augmented by symposiums and special events

WHERE: AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Wednesday through June 22

TICKETS: Admission for most programs is $8.50, with discounts of $1 for AFI members, seniors and students with valid ID. Symposiums and certain programs are priced at $12.50 ($10 for eligible discount customers). A $15 “Best of” pass will cover admission to award-presentation screenings on the final day of the festival. Attendance to all showings and events can be bought with a Silver Pass ($250). A Patron Pass ($125) will cover everything except invitation-only events and sold-out screenings.

PHONE: Call 301/495-6776 for information about passes or special events. The regular theater box-office number is 301/495-6700.

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