- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

At the press luncheon for this year’s Silverdocs, organizers seemed confident that the American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary film festival had become the pre-eminent event of its kind in North America.

In a relatively short time, the selections for the festival, which begins a fourth annual showcase on Tuesday at the AFI Silver Theatre, have more or less doubled (to about 100); submissions are climbing to a volume that demands considerable dedication from the screening committee (almost 1,700 this year); the jury prize for the best documentary feature (the Sterling Award) has grown to a substantial $25,000; and several hundred filmmakers and media executives share a vested interest in mingling, schmoozing and perhaps deal-making during an international conference that has been expanded to four days.

It may already be easier to view Silverdocs as an annual professional gathering that has far more to offer aspiring documentary filmmakers and their prospective corporate or foundation sponsors than it does casual, inquisitive moviegoers. Glancing at a Silverdocs calendar, such moviegoers might feel a bit irrelevant to the festival’s purpose while pondering how to spend an available day around the AFI Silver. As a practical matter, you reconcile yourself to taking a chance on an unreleased movie about some nonfiction topic that sounds intriguing or compelling.

The titles that qualify as self-evident good times are already on the commercial calendar. The engaging sports documentary “The Heart of the Game,” which follows six seasons of a girls’ high school basketball team in Seattle, was shown at a pre-festival program earlier this week and opens at area theaters on Friday. “Wordplay,” which revolves around New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and culminates in the annual tournament for puzzle virtuosos that he supervises, is the closing afternoon selection at Silverdocs on June 18. Mr. Shortz will attend that event and moderate some post-screening fun and games. The movie arrives commercially on June 23.

It helps the popular profile of Silverdocs that a figure who straddles the documentary sphere and mainstream theatrical features — director Martin Scorsese — will be honored at an annual symposium named after the late Charles Guggenheim, the most prominent documentary filmmaker in the Washington area for about four decades. As part of the tribute, Mr. Scorsese’s rock-concert classic, “The Last Waltz,” will have a free outdoor screening on Thursday at 9 p.m. in nearby Veterans Park.

The festival’s attraction to movie-biz compilation documentaries such as “Midnight Movies” last year or “Boffo!” this year (the official opening-night attraction on Tuesday) probably reflects a suspicion that audiences cannot thrive on earnest subject matter alone for six straight days. I was grateful last year for such lighthearted festival entries as “Pucker Up,” an account of an annual whistling competition, and “Stan Kann: The Happiest Man in the World,” a portrait of America’s most cheerful theater organist.

This year I was overexposed to grimly earnest offerings. Confronting a succession of titles about people with serious or terminal illnesses, chosen as part of a festival subcategory called “Docs Rx” that ostensibly is devoted to “global health,” I found myself vicariously transported from one sickbed to another.

Even a movie nominally dealing with a ragtag sports environment, “Jam,” alluding to the roller derby, turned out to be a discouraging death watch. Preoccupied with old-timers in the San Francisco Bay Area who have tried to resist the decline and demise of their favorite spectator sport, the film fails to make an endearing case for this collection of lost souls.

Another form of deflation lurks in “Spaceman,” a portrait of the former Boston Red Sox pitcher and counterculture oddball Bill Lee, whose dilapidated charms and ideals cause him to gush mercilessly after he’s discovered in retirement in Vermont and then as part of a barnstorming team of retirees in Cuba.

Political agendas can be stumbling blocks in the documentary sector, where it’s always safe to assume that 99 percent of the practitioners will prove politically correct. Knowing that a number of Silverdocs organizers worked in the Clinton administration also helps explain such beau gestes as the selection of former Vice President Al Gore to kick off the conference programs on Wednesday with a keynote address.

Somewhat to my surprise, the festival selections don’t seem to be heavily invested in environmental topics this year, so the preoccupation of Mr. Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” (directed by Davis Guggenheim, the son of the late Charles Guggenheim) isn’t reflected directly in the programming.

The most provocative and gripping festival features I have seen in advance have evangelism as a common subject — and source of apprehension. “Jesus Camp” is calculated to keep secular liberals on edge while traveling in bad faith with a fervent “children’s minister” named Becky Fischer as she conducts a summer camp for the children of Christian fundamentalist families in the Midwest.

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple” recalls the notorious career of Jim Jones, the renegade Assembly of God minister from Indiana who ended up as the despotic leader of a California sect. Transposing his followers to a plantation in Guyana, Mr. Jones orchestrated their mass suicide in November of 1978.

Both movies are being shown next Saturday, with an ample recovery interlude between showtimes. While “Jonestown” documents an undisputed sectarian calamity whose tendencies were decidedly left wing and delusionary, “Jesus Camp” keeps uneasy company with heartland zealots whom the filmmakers clearly regard as right-wing heavies and a menace to the children entrusted to their fleeting but perhaps indelible influence.

Despite the prejudicial undertow in “Jesus Camp,” three of the children are wonderfully intuitive camera subjects. The fact that they seem to relish the attention spares the filmmakers from total flesh-crawling disapproval of their religious mentors. Even scornful documentary films are dependent on figures who justify disarming and spontaneous appeal. Both movies are caught in binds because they can’t completely reject the force fields projected by true believers. Anyway, if any Silverdocs films are calculated to arouse debate and dissension, these two are the best of show.

EVENT: Silverdocs, the fourth annual American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary film festival

CONTENT: About 100 features or shorts, many shown for the first time in the Washington area, augmented by a four-day international conference on documentary financing and production, plus workshops, symposia and special-event programs

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Tuesday through June 18

TICKETS: Admission for most public programs is $9.25. Prices for symposiums and special-event programs range from $15 to $45. Six grades of festival and conference passes range from $125 to $1,000. You may want to inquire about discounts offered on such passes to AFI members and members of other participating organizations.

PHONE: 301/495-6758.

WEB SITE: www.silverdocs.com

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