- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

At a press event previewing this year’s selections for Silverdocs, the documentary film festival from the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel, artistic director Sky Sitney said the festival is “emerging” no longer.

“We’ve fully arrived as the pre-eminent documentary film festival,” she declared.

She makes a good case. All five films nominated as Oscar’s best documentary feature this year were shown at Silverdocs (although only one made its world premiere there) — an impressive achievement for a festival just seven years old. Organizers expect this year’s event, which runs Monday through June 22, to attract more than 25,000 people. The festival will showcase 122 films from more than 50 countries.

Festival opener “More Than a Game” looks at how Akron, Ohio, produced five friends who became great basketball players, including NBA superstar LeBron James. Organizers hinted that Mr. James would attend the screening if he didn’t have a game to play — and maybe he will, because his Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t make it into the finals.

“The Nine Lives of Marion Barry,” a look at the District’s troubled former mayor and current city councilman, closes the festival. District natives Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer present their view of a man whose personal demons have overshadowed his civil rights work.

In between, Silverdocs offers a whole world of film to explore. Legendary documentarian Albert Maysles Is the honoree at this year’s Guggenheim Symposium. The festival is screening nine of his shorts and two of his features, including “Grey Gardens,” the documentary about high-society eccentrics that inspired a Broadway musical and HBO’s recent made-for-cable film. A full schedule can be found at silverdocs.com.

Other highlights include:

The September Issue — The director of the Bill Clinton campaign doc “The War Room” takes us inside another fortress — Vogue magazine. This fascinating look at how the magazine assembled its September 2007 issue, the largest it had ever published, goes far beyond the tell-all novel and film “The Devil Wears Prada.” Vogue editor Anna Wintour is notoriously private, but director R.J. Cutler gets her on camera talking about her life and work. She might inspire fear in underlings and designers, but it turns out the most powerful woman in fashion doesn’t get that kind of respect from her own family.

“I think they’re very amused by what I do,” she says, slightly hurt, about her sister and brothers, one of whom is the political editor of the Guardian. Even her daughter, who appears on-screen, dismisses the idea she would ever work with her mother. “I would never want to take it that seriously,” she says of fashion. Perhaps Miss Wintour’s steely gaze is actually a defense mechanism.

Trimpin: The Sound of Invention — “What is Trimpin?” asks composer Charles Amirkhanian of the engineer-cum-composer-cum-installation-artist. “I’d call him an intermedia artist.” It’s an apt description of the German-born, Seattle-based sound artist, who goes by his last name only. The motivation for his avant-garde soundscapes is a charming one: He has kept a promise he made to himself as a child to keep on doing just what he liked.

His work is based on found objects, and he moved to the United States after a few trips here in the 1970s. “I couldn’t believe what access to high junk you had in this country,” he says.

Trimpin doesn’t always find; sometimes he takes, as when he asks a friend what she’s planning to do with those high heels after a party. Trimpin is an anti-Glenn Gould — he doesn’t like recorded music, so no recordings of his music exist.

The engaging man seems well-liked, but that doesn’t mean his work doesn’t bring him into conflicts with other musicians. While working with the Kronos Quartet on a piece inspired by rock music and toy instruments, he explains that a violin must be smashed at the end. “I philosophically have trouble with that,” one member of the quartet says. “I kind of feel the same way,” another murmurs.

“Trimpin” is a challenger in the music competition.

The Time of Their Lives — When I get very old, I would like to live at the Mary Feilding Guild. The North London home for the “active elderly” has some rather distinguished retirees: Alison Selford, 87, a journalist and novelist; Rose Hacker, 101, a former sex therapist and current columnist; and Hetty Bower, 102, an antiwar activist.

“I always tell people I live in a home for aged intellectuals, but it’s not entirely true,” jokes Mrs. Selford, the niece of the writer Rebecca West. “I have not lost my marbles,” she says, and it’s true of all these mentally sprightly but physically deteriorated women, who keep busy with exercise, debating current events and even writing haiku. One says living a life of the mind is what has kept her lucid for so long.

These women have led full lives, and they have much to say about men, religion, life.

Cat Ladies — “Just because a single lady has cats, that doesn’t mean she’s a cat lady,” says one indignant participant in this documentary. Perhaps not. But the women profiled here certainly are. One spends $3,000 a month on supplies for her 123 cats.

Those looking for an exploration of what’s so appealing about the standoffish but darling beasts won’t find it here. The focus is squarely on the women who own them, and so this doc is a collection of psychological studies.

One attractive woman in Dolce & Gabbana eyeglasses doesn’t seem to be the stereotypical cat lady. Then she tells us she has 16 of the critters — and can’t understand why she’s not married at 35. “I think I’m a great catch,” she says defensively. She continues, quite oblivious to how hilarious she is: “Don’t worry, I’m not on medicine or anything like that … anymore.”

Bye Bye C’est Fini — While many of the features are preceded by shorts, there also are six programs of shorts, some shown free at lunchtime. Some of the best filmmaking can be found here, a lifetime of stories in 40 minutes or less.

This short, part of the “Intimate Encounters” shorts program, is the perfect example. Lina Merceis is the ultimate cougar. The 73-year-old, who looks a decade younger, scopes out men on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. “I’m a daughter of Tarzan. I love an adventure,” says this woman, who has no intention of settling down — or even choosing just one lover.

She brushes off a much younger man, and we hear voice mails from her many admirers. “You give me so much pleasure, my heart explodes,” she tells one, who says they can continue their trysts even after he marries his girlfriend. Watching this senior passionately kiss a couple of her three lovers can be hard to watch, but her joie de vivre is undeniable.

Kelly Jane Torrance

Best Worst Movie — Cult films occupy a unique space on the cultural continuum, badly missing respectability and mainstream appreciation without simultaneously entirely alienating audiences. There are plenty of bad movies that never get watched; the cult classic’s trick is being just bad enough that it finds an audience.

“Troll 2” is a prime example of this phenomenon. Shot on a minuscule budget off a nonsensical script by an Italian-speaking director who was working with a cast of amateur actors, it was destined to die a quiet death, unwatched and unloved — until a small, dedicated audience found it. They loved the train-wreck quality of the picture and celebrated it, “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-style.

“Best Worst Movie” tells the story of “Troll 2” and the actor-turned-dentist who starred in it. It’s a fascinating look at the idea of cult films, but that’s only a small portion of its appeal. It’s a very human story about the power of fame and doing what you love. The story of the actors who starred in this picture 20 years ago is incredibly compelling and, more often than not, just a little sad. Those who have never even heard of “Troll 2” will find plenty to enjoy in this marvelous documentary.

Carmen Meets Borat — When the 2006 surprise smash “Borat” hit theaters, critics and audiences alike were quick to praise the unique comedy. What most failed to mention, though, was the movie’s frequent mean-spiritedness. Star Sacha Baron Cohen has made a living off of humiliating unwitting dupes — first on his “Da Ali G Show” and then in “Borat.” His subjects weren’t in on the joke. They were the joke.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in “Borat’s” opening moments, in which he introduced the impoverished Kazakh village he called home and was abandoning for America. After the film’s debut, it came out that the village was Romanian, not Kazakh, and that the villagers were hoodwinked into appearing on film.

“Carmen Meets Borat” tells the tale of that village through the life of Ionela, a girl with dreams larger than her village can support. It was started before “Borat” began filming, so director Mercedes Stalenhoef was in a unique position to show the village before and after Mr. Baron Cohen’s intrusion. The results aren’t pretty, but they are a handy reminder to think before we laugh.

Afghan Star — Arriving at Silverdocs after taking home a pair of trophies at Sundance, “Afghan Star” tells the story of Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” and the dangers that come with reintroducing pop culture to the war-torn, Taliban-infested country. With music and democracy both forbidden under the rule of the extremist Islamic group, the contest is, in many ways, a revolutionary idea.

Sonny Bunch

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