A year ago, the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel became neighbors near the intersection of Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. A well-timed collaboration between these organizations — the first Silverdocs film festival, a showcase for documentary production — coincided with a resurgence of theatrical prominence for documentary features.
“Capturing the Friedmans,” “Winged Migration” and “Spellbound” opened in the Washington area as the new American Film Institute Silver Theatre was hosting the inaugural Silverdocs, which showcased about 60 titles during a five-day stand. Two other estimable examples of human-interest documentary, “Stone Reader” and “Stevie,” had appeared a bit earlier. The timing looks similarly auspicious as Silverdocs prepares to return Tuesday, expanding by one day and 15 titles. The festival finalists illustrate what a buyer’s market it remains for aspiring documentaries: 75 films were chosen from a pool of about 1,200.
Meanwhile, a market that has already responded to the semi-satirical “Super Size Me” will have a disarming and lovely portrait of a Mongolian herding family, “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” to discover at Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street houses Friday. The same day, a Silverdocs II selection, “Control Room,” Jehane Noujaim’s impression of the Al Jazeera newsroom at the time of the American invasion of Iraq, begins its local commercial run. The following weekend brings Michael Moore’s notorious polemic “Fahrenheit 9/11” to town.
The AFI Silver will also be getting into the act soon after Silverdocs concludes on June 20. The management has booked the American premiere of an agitated feature titled, “Orwell Rolls in His Grave,” for June 25, fearlessly coinciding with the national release of “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
The first edition of Silverdocs introduced several intriguing or stirring films that had local theatrical bookings later in the year: “My Architect,” “My Flesh and Blood,” “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” “To Be and to Have” and “Power Trip.” This track record bodes well for the next round of selections, although I have not encountered a preview tape that rivals “Weeping Camel” for pictorial distinction, thematic ingenuity or heartfelt human (and mammalian) interest.
The festival opens with “Seeds,” a distillation of a three-week summer camp in Maine, Seeds of Peace, intended to promote peaceful camaraderie among teenagers. The focus is on Palestinian and Israeli participants; they seem to be heading for a hostile stalemate until the death of the ailing founder, John Wallach, proves a bridge to reconciliation.
A Thursday-night program will be devoted to the topic “Documenting the Candidate.” Excerpts will be shown from the late Charles Guggenheim’s “Robert Kennedy Remembered” and Harry Thomason’s portrait of Bill Clinton, “The Man From Hope.” George Butler, who helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger famous with “Pumping Iron” and is completing a campaign biopic of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, will contribute clips from both films and participate in a panel discussion hosted by Mark Halperin of ABC News.
Although the festival prefers movies that haven’t enjoyed an earlier showcase (there are about 50 premieres among the selections), exceptions are made. A somewhat surprising one, booked for Sunday afternoon, is Alexandra Pelosi’s “Journeys With George,” a 75-minute memoir of President Bush’s 2000 campaign that proved a great disappointment to detractors, since it revealed a chivalrous and blithe spirit rather than a self-incriminating wretch. Before being seen, the movie was confidently rumored to be a withering expose.
The festival recruits a jury to award modest cash prizes for a best feature and short. “My Architect” was no doubt helped by the feature award a year ago. Silverdocs audiences also vote on a best of show. Their selection in 2003 was Peter Schnall’s portrait of women’s basketball, “This Is a Game, Ladies.” Likeliest candidate for oddball crowd-pleaser: “Dirty Work,” an hourlong tribute to the professionalism of three Georgians who specialize in collecting bull semen, cleaning septic tanks and embalming corpses.
An annual career award named after Mr. Guggenheim will be presented to Barbara Kopple on Saturday evening. The first of her notable documentary features, “Harlan County, USA,” will be revived as part of the tribute.
Special-event status has been accorded Charlene Gilbert’s locally produced “Children Will Listen.” Scheduled for Sunday afternoon, it documents the D.C. public school staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at the Kennedy Center two years ago.
Although conferences, workshops and symposiums were part of the festival from the outset, the emphasis on networking seems even stronger this year. A four-day conference on documentary filmmaking begins Wednesday, and the sessions are designed to encourage anyone with a viable project who might want to encounter a film distributor or TV executive authorized to finance stuff. As years go by, it’s likely that worthy movies will not only be shown at Silverdocs but also generated at Silverdocs.
EVENT: Silverdocs, the second annual American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary festival
CONTENT: 75 documentary features or shorts, most shown for the first time in the Washington area; augmented by workshops, symposiums, conferences and special events
WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring
WHEN: Tuesday through June 20
TICKETS: Admission for most programs is $8.50, with discounts of $1 for AFI members, seniors (65 and over), students and military personnel (with valid IDs). Prices for symposiums and special-event screenings range from $25 to $40. Single-day and “all-access” festival passes are available for $130 to $600. Discounts for these passes are available to AFI members and other organizations.
PHONE: Please call 301/495-6776 for information about passes or special events. The regular theater box-office number is 301/495-6700.