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Silverdocs rides non fiction wave

SILVERDOCS June 14-19, June Silver: Spring, Maryland

Blame it on Michael Moore. The filmmaker provocateur of FAHRENHEIT 911 created a tidal wave of audience and media interest in documentary film that has not yet crested. The truth is that documentaries have escaped from their restricted niche and now can generate the kind of publicity and audience interest that was once reserved for fiction features.

Documentaries are suddenly hot, and the financials of making and distributing them have made them unstoppable box office. The films cost a fraction of the average fiction feature, and the theatrical potential, not to mention revenues from television and video/dvd exposure, have made them safer bets than the many uneven fiction films in the marketplace. “These days, we are spending more time at film festivals looking at the documentaries”, one leading US distributor stated. “The quality is generally better and we have decided to ride this current wave of curiosity and interest in the non-fiction form.”

With more film buyers and programmers seeking out the latest non-fiction gems from around the world, film festivals devoted to the art form have become increasingly important. In just its third year, SILVERDOCS has become on of the essential “musts” on the Festival circuit, and an important place to take the pulse of the industry and see where the new trends will be coming from.

The Festival, which opened last evening and runs through June 19th, is presented by the American Film Institute, a non-profit film education and preservation organization, and Discovery Networks, a leading cable television network devoted to non-fiction programming. The Festival is held at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capitol of Washington, D.C.

The Festival will present almost 90 films from 43 countries, making it one of the largest non-fiction showcases in the world. In its short history, the Festival has helped launch such landmark documentary films as MY ARCHITECT, ASYLUM, CONTROL ROOM and this year’s Oscar Winner, BORN INTO BROTHELS.

The Festival opened last evening (June 14) with a gala screening of MIDNIGHT MOVIES:
FROM THE MARGIN TO THE MAINSTREAM, a look at the phenomenon of off-beat independent films which became cult sensations in the 1970s, despite the fact that they only screened at the midnight hour. Based on his book of the same name, writer/director Stuart Samuels offers a lively look at such underground classics as ERASERHEAD, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, PINK FLAMINGOS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film features interviews with such iconoclastic filmmakers as David Lynch, John Waters, George Romero and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The film screening was followed by a discussion moderated by television critic Joel Siegel with director Stuart Samuels, Perry Henzel (the director of the reggae film classic THE HARDER THEY COME) and Ben Barenholtz, a New York theater owner who created the midnight movie genre at the now-defunct Elgin Cinema in New York City.

The festival will close on June 19th with JAMES DEAN: FOREVER YOUNG, a celebration of the life and career of the “rebel without a cause”, narrated by actor Martin Sheen. The film explores the power of Dean’s legacy and features clips from his early television work and the three films that captured his unique charisma (EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and GIANT).

Other film highlights include GRIZZLY MAN, a documentary by celebrated German auteur Werner Herzog; political documentary OUR BRAND IS CRISIS by American director Rachel Boynton; THE ARISTOCRATS, the Sundance Film Festival favorite that features over 50 comedians all telling the same classic dirty joke; SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: RAISE YOUR VOICE, a portrait of the acapella singing group; Austrian cult hit DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE; Costa Rican social issue documentary ROSITA; and PUCKER UP, THE FINE ART OF WHISTLING, by Americans Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.

A group of 15 films are in competition for Festival awards, which include a cash prize plus services of more than US $20,000. The international jury is comprised of Ally Derks (director of the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam), director/producer Don Edkins (STEPS FOR THE FUTURE), Alyce Myatt (multimedia consultant), Emmy-winning documentary director Stanley Nelson (THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL) and writer/director Etienne Sauret (COLLATERAL DAMAGES).

As intriguing and expansive as the Festival is, one of the key features of this year’s event is a greatly expanded International Documentary Conference. The Conference features over 100 professional panelists from the US and Europe and over 40 sessions covering topics from film financing, distribution, new media, the film festival circuit and documentaries as agents for social change.

Among the US and international producers, distributors and television programmers represented are such companies as Discovery Networks (US), Public Broadcasting Service (US), Wellspring (US), ThinkFilm (US/Canada), Palm Pictures (US), 7th Art Releasing (US), National Geographic Channel (US), Home Box Office (US), Sundance Channel (US), Films Transit (Canada), Instituto Luce (Italy), ZDF/ARTE (Germany), TV2 (Denmark), British Broadcasting Corporation (UK) and ARTE (France). .

Other highlights of the Conference are the Keynote Address, given this year by acclaimed cutting edge director Penelope Spheeris (THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION); Doc Talk, an interview of actor-turned-director Richard Dreyfuss (THE GOODBYE GIRL) with the BBC’s Nick Fraser; and Silver Sessions, intimate one-on-one opportunities for filmmakers to network with key professionals.

In addition, the Documentary Project, an international consortium of commissioning editors from the BBC, Arte France, TV2 Denmark, YLE Finland and ZDF Germany committed to the production of films exploring the concept of democracy, will hold a “pitch session” for six pre-selected American projects, all vying for the sole American spot in the ten-film series.

“A key theme for this year’s Festival is Freedom and Democracy”, SILVERDOCS Director Patricia Finneran explained. “We will explore this theme not only in political terms, but how it relates to freedom of expression, exploring the struggles of filmmakers in both the US and overseas to find the money and partnerships to produce challenging work that sometimes defy governments and conventions.”

When asked about a running theme in this year’s programming, Finneran pointed to “trends that deal with universal issues that have dramatic impact. Also, we are seeing a greater diversity of subject matter and stylistic approach. Films as diverse as SUPER SIZE ME and CONTROL ROOM now co-exist under the same non-fiction umbrella.”

As for her hopes for this year’s session, Finneran expressed a desire to see “more films acquired by distributors and television programmers, as well as stimulating new commissions or new programming ideas for future projects. We’ve worked hard to solidify the Festival and the Conference, and think that the combination of this year’s program and the new excitement in the documentary world will combine to put us solidly on the map.”

For more information on SILVERDOCS, log on to their website:

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor



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