- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

Silverdocs just keeps getting bigger. Now in its sixth year, the documentary festival presented by the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring goes from six days to eight days this year. There’s now less chance that you’ll find every showing you want to attend sold out before you’ve had a chance to pick up tickets.

That’s important because last year, over 20,000 people attended the festival, which has quickly become one of the most important showcases for documentary film.

It runs from Monday through June 23. This year’s slate includes 108 films from 63 countries. In fact, the international submissions have grown so numerous that the festival has added a new awards category. The best feature competition splits into two, the Sterling U.S. Feature and the Sterling World Feature competition. That’s in addition to the Sterling Short and the Music Documentary, Witness, Cinematic Vision and the Silverdocs/American Film Market awards. Those will be announced on June 21, while the audience awards for best feature and short will be revealed the following day. You can catch those winners during the Best of the Fest screenings the final day.

The opening-night film isn’t competing for the music doc award, but it’s likely to have the festival’s best music. “All Together Now” is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “LOVE,” Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show. The Las Vegas show, which opened two years ago, was a wondrous trip through the greatest pop music ever; this doc tells you how the Beatles and their widows joined together with the Quebec troupe to make it happen.

One doc competing for that music award could end up as an audience favorite. “Song Sung Blue” is the kitschy, crazy, tenderhearted story of Lightning & Thunder - otherwise known as Mike and Claire Sardina - a Milwaukee covers act.

Lightning is a Neil Diamond impersonator - he sounds just like him - while Thunder specializes in Patsy Cline. Director Greg Kohs details how the pair met and fell in love and looked to be on an unlikely road to stardom until a car plowed into Claire while she was gardening, resulting in the loss of her foot. They go from being joined by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder onstage to having trouble booking shows when Claire’s medication causes her weight to balloon. The doc was made over eight years and includes some home-shot footage that is so unflattering it’s amazing the Sardinas passed it on.

The films in the feature competitions tend to be a more serious lot, but there is some lighthearted fare here, too. The first place that the Vogels of “Herb & Dorothy” went on their honeymoon in the District was the National Gallery of Art. It’s fitting, because this nice postal clerk and librarian from Brooklyn have donated their incredible collection of modern art to the museum. They were wannabe artists who gave up when they realized the paintings they were buying were much better than their own. On a small budget, they bought minimalist art that they didn’t even really understand and amassed a museum-quality collection they displayed in their tiny apartment. Not everyone likes their methods, as you’ll see in Megumi Sasaski’s doc, but it’s hard not to like this couple devoted to each other and to art.

Germany, Mexico, Iran and Denmark each have two films in the world feature competition. Denmark’s pair couldn’t be more different. “Mechanical Love” is a look at the increasing use of robots to provide humans with the affection they’re not getting from other humans. A Japanese professor notes that before we develop these machines, we first need to understand ourselves.

“Milosevic on Trial” might be a play on words. The film follows the former Serbian president’s war crimes tribunal, but the director seems to be putting the first former head of state to face one on the docket again. You don’t get a particularly nuanced view of the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. Still, it’s a fascinating look at the most important tribunal of its type since the Nuremberg Trials. You see both the looks of bemusement on Milosevic’s face and the frustration of the prosecutor who has to balance the 80,000 deportees who all want to be heard against the demands of a semispeedy trial.

There’s no shortage of educational fare at Silverdocs. “I.O.U.S.A.” may have a sexy title, for example, but it feels more like the kind of thing you’d watch in a high school social-studies class. This look at the national debt doesn’t always go very deep, though. We see Jimmy Carter at the beginning warning of the trade deficit, but many economists don’t think such deficits are a bad thing at all. It’s hard to imagine this one becoming an audience favorite, despite its important topic.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the fateful summer of 1968, and Silverdocs has a special program to commemorate it called “1968 and Beyond.” It includes old films - such as Charles Guggenheim’s “Robert Kennedy Remembered” - and new. “Generation 68” is a French film that looks at events from a perspective not often seen here. The marches for and against the war in Vietnam will look familiar to anyone who watches the news these days. Women’s issues get a lot of space - one French commentator notes that women didn’t “loosen up” until the pill became legal.

With all the interesting features, it would be easy to ignore the shorts, but don’t. “City of Cranes” is beautiful, a look at that third layer of our cities (here, specifically London). As one operator says, “There’s people on the floor, people on the roofs and then us above them.” “You Cannot Hide From Allah” follows a District cab driver who won $54.5 million in the lottery and returned to his hometown in Pakistan to become mayor and help his people. Not everyone thinks he’s so generous, however.

Each year, the Charles Guggenheim Symposium, named after the late Washington filmmaker, honors one documentarian for his body of work. This year, the honoree is Spike Lee, and you can see him, as well as his work, including “When the Levees Broke” and “Four Little Girls.”

WHAT: Silverdocs

WHEN: Monday through June 23

WHERE: Silver Spring, locations vary (see list at left)

TICKETS: General admission for individual ticket sales is $10, discounted tickets are $9 and day-of-show ticket sales are $10. Festival passes may also be purchased. Prices for passes range from $125 to $1,200.

PHONE: For registration and information about festival passes, call 301/495-6750. For conference questions, call 301/495-6769.

WEB SITE: Log onto silverdocs.com for additional details and a complete list of festival screenings and events.

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