- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2007

Silverdocs gets bigger and bigger every year. The American Film Institute/Discovery Channel documentary festival has quickly become one of the most important showcases for nonfiction film. Its fifth annual program starts Tuesday at the AFI Silver Theatre with more than one hundred films, an additional day — it runs through June 17 — and four new awards.

One of those is the Beyond Belief Award, presented to “a feature documentary that shows excellence in telling complex issues in faith and society.” Many documentaries that get widespread attention are the fun titles focusing on the amusing foibles of obsessives — like last year’s Silverdocs feature “Wordplay” — or warm stories only a cynic could hate — like “March of the Penguins.” So it’s good to see recognition given to those filmmakers grappling with some of humanity’s most intractable problems, even if they don’t always do well at the multiplex.

The festival features a number of docs under the Beyond Belief rubric, but what might be the festival’s most fascinating film on the subject wasn’t given the classification. “Lake of Fire” didn’t have to be about faith — but Tony Kaye’s look at the American abortion debate most certainly is.

Almost all of the pro-life activists profiled in the film are religious believers who speak often of hellfire and damnation. (Columnist Nat Hentoff is a rare exception.) But don’t think that this film is one-sided. The starkest moment comes when an abortion doctor casually discusses his work “facilitating” choices as he sorts through the various pieces of an aborted fetus — arms, legs, a tiny head. This film is not for the faint of heart: More than one abortion is shown, graphically. Those who can stomach it will find that the director of the well-done “American History X” has self-financed an intelligent film that seems to leave nothing out. Anne Dudley’s score gives gravitas to the film’s heartfelt speeches, many from women who have had abortions.

Two Beyond Belief films offer a lighter look at faith and assimilation in America. “Stand Up: Muslim American Comics Come of Age” is a laugh-out-loud take on a serious subject. “We can’t define who we are on a serious note because nobody will listen,” says one of the handful of comedians profiled. Some pretty good jokes are interspersed with a discussion of how a much-maligned minority is using laughter to reach out to the almost half of the population that holds a negative view of Islam.



Might peace in the Middle East be attained if we all saw “Stand Up” in conjunction with “Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women”? Trailblazers like Molly Picon and Sophie Tucker (forced to perform in blackface because agents thought she wasn’t attractive enough) are profiled, along with more recent comediennes such as Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers (told by agents that she was “too Jewish” to be successful).

“What Would Jesus Buy?” isn’t a Beyond Belief film, either, but it certainly fits the bill. Rev. Billy and the Stop-Shopping Choir will make a special appearance at next Sunday’s screening. See what surprised shoppers at Wal-Mart and Disneyland have been accosted with.

There might have been an Asian theme this year: Three very different films explore life in the East.

It has some stiff competition, but “Please Vote for Me” could be the funniest film of the festival. The film, competing for the $25,000 Sterling Feature award, follows the first election at a school in China. These third-graders don’t even know what the word “democracy” means, but they’re about to vote for their class monitor.

It turns out you don’t need to know much about Western-style politics to practice it with finesse. “Vote for me, I’ll make you study committee officer,” says one of the three candidates. The lone female candidate faces some nasty dirty tricks, as when her opponents start chanting that she’s the “slowest eater” and a “rotten gossip.”

These young Chinese children can be more eloquent than our leaders, however. “Over time, we have built up a profound friendship,” says one candidate in opening his speech. But then, he’s the same one who insists, “If I am not strict, you kids will never obey me.” There’s even a libertarian cynic in the class, who warns his fellows that if this one wins, “he’ll torment you to death.”

The other two Asian-themed entries strike a more serious note. “Nanking,” whose producer, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, will be delivering Silverdocs’ keynote address, dramatizes the stories of the Chinese victims of the Nanking Massacre and the Western missionaries and expatriates who saved many of them. Some of the actors reading from diaries and letters are better than others — Jurgen Prochnow is by far the best. However, the heart-rending stories transcend their telling.

“Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” explores what one subject calls “an epidemic of sick souls” — the depressed in Japan. The first Western companies didn’t start selling anti-depressants there until 2000, to some controversy.

Jonathan Demme is the honoree at this year’s Guggenheim Symposium, named after the late Washington documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. Fans can see two of Mr. Demme’s best music documentaries outdoors starting at sunset, free at the Silver Plaza. “Stop Making Sense,” about the Talking Heads, plays Thursday, while “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” screens the next day.

Mr. Demme’s latest film, “New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward,” about post-Katrina New Orleans, gets its world theatrical premiere on Thursday, with a Q&A; with the director following.

Perhaps in honor of Mr. Demme, Silverdocs is screening a number of music documentaries. “Note by Note (The Making of Steinway L1037)” is a beautifully shot film that follows the creation of a single 9-foot concert grand piano. Built the same way as a century ago, it takes one year to make. The blue-collar guys responsible were amazed when they first heard what a Steinway costs — they start at $25,000.

Fans of a different genre will want to check out “Kurt Cobain: About a Son,” with excerpts from interviews a music journalist conducted with the frontman of Nirvana. They need his name in the title of the film because not a single picture of Mr. Cobain appears until nearly the end.

“Kurt Cobain” is preceded by a Sonic Youth video celebrating club life. And there are plenty of other shorts in the festival. In fact, you can see some free, every weekday at noon. One is “Monsieur Borges and I,” a charming movie about a charming, but seemingly lonely, man who has devoted his life to the legacy of his friend. Jean-Pierre Bernes and writer Jorge Luis Borges shared a love of words: “He made literature, while I tried to explain it.”

A full festival schedule, and information on special events and appearances, is at www.silverdocs.com.

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