Silverdocs Documentary Festival
[AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Washington, DC]

Introduction

What is true? Just because we see something on the screen or read it in a book, does that mean the very essence of the subject is truth? It is true that the documentary form of filmmaking has seen a rise in its popularity of late. Movies such as Bowling For Columbine and Grizzly Man received not only the usual critical backing, but decent bucks at the box office as well.

So, what separates a documentary from a narrative film? That the subject matter is “true?” Audiences are lulled into believing that information presented onscreen featuring non-actors can be nothing but the truth. But there are slants; there are creative additions such as sequencing and background music. Vital footage can be withheld or changed to conform with a theory. The right score can turn something mundane into a grandiose spectacle on par to anything Michael Bay pumps out.

So, what's the ultimate goal of a good documentary? There are many. One is to educate without being pedantic. There is no better way to impart information than by entertaining at the same time. Documentaries also introduce audiences to people or places that are fascinating and bizarre, people and places they would never meet without the transporting power of cinema. There are so many interesting and uncanny stories out there that it's impossible to believe Hollywood has to remake The Hulk less than 10 years after Ang Lee's failed attempt to bring the green guy to the screen. That is the place of documentaries: to bring audiences to these fascinating “true” tales and eschew the rehashed crap Hollywood offers them each and every weekend at the multiplex.

But documentaries can be misused if produced by the wrong people. The “truth” can be twisted (and I assume it usually is) to promote a belief or tenet held by the filmmaker -- but who doesn't change stories to get the listener to agree to their slant? It is wanton, willful destruction of “the truth” and the fragile trust of the audience that documentarians need to prevent. There is a fine line between cautious education and scaremongering.

Over the eight-day Silverdocs Festival held at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, filmmakers from all parts of the world exhibited their movies, displaying various forms of documentaries and pushing the art into new and more engaging configurations. Rather than the traditional talking-heads-charts-and-graphs-guerrilla-archival-footage of old, these new docs used theatrical reenactment, cinema verité without voice-over, and even cinematographic techniques usually reserved for narrative film to convey their stories. --David Harris

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Forbidden Lie$

The film that really shook the notion of “truth” was Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$, winner of the WGA Documentary Screenplay award. In 2003, Norma Khouri's book Forbidden Love became an international hit. It described the killing of one of the author's Muslim friends at the hands of her own family. Narrated by Khouri herself, the film began as a faithful reenactment of the events that traumatized both the author and her audience. But Broinowski has a multitude of tricks up her sleeve, as Khouri's book was eventually discredited as a fabrication. And that's not the end of the story. In an age of Stephen Glass and James Frey, Khouri takes her deception a step further. She agrees to take the film crew back to her “native” Jordan and prove that the story really did happen. By allowing her to narrate a large majority of her own tale, Broinowski lets the audience experience what it is like to be duped by a pathological liar. Even when Khouri claims she was molested by her father during most of her adolescence, by the time the information is revealed, it is impossible to believe anything the woman says. Like most intelligent films, Forbidden Lie$ does not tell us whether Khouri is honest or a self-serving criminal. In fact, Broinowski doesn't seem to want us to decide. Instead, we get a glimpse of how easy it is to be caught up in the fabrication of Khouri's world, a place where she only has the best intentions, a place where only she can claim master to the “truth.” --David Harris

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Kassim the Dream

A homecoming trip of a different nature is the focus of Kassim the Dream, winner of the American Film Market award and easily the best feature I got to see at the festival. To tell the story of Kassim Ouma, Ugandan ex-child soldier turned boxer, director Kief Davidson incorporates archival footage of Kassim's matches with candid moments of the boxer adjusting to life in America. Abducted at the age of six, Kassim was conscripted into army service and forced to kill and torture people. He escaped to the United States at 18 and fell into boxing. The first half of the film chronicles Kassim's rise to the 2004 IBF World Junior Light Middleweight championship. But for all the Americanization, Kassim cannot shake his love for Uganda, a place where he is an outlaw and his family has paid in blood for his exodus. In the effective second half, Kassim returns to Uganda to make peace not only with the government, but the ghosts of his family and those he, himself, has killed. Davidson knows that Kassim is an electric personality and he allows the camera to linger on him. Though he is transparent in his emotions, it is impossible not to feel Kassim's successes and failures. He is such an engaging figure than another hour spent with him would not seem insurmountable. --David Harris

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Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Africa played a large role in many of the films screened at the Silverdocs and war was once again the topic in Gini Reticker's well-intentioned, if one-dimensional, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Recipient of the festival's Witness Award, the film focuses on Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who helped start a pan-religious women's movement to stop the Civil Wars that plagued the country and killed over 250,000 people. After a brief history lesson on president Charles Taylor's bloody rise to power, Reticker uses current interviews and archival footage to piece together the story of the movement's effective use of non-violence to bring peace (and a woman president!) to Liberia. Though the tale is compelling, it felt oversimplified. Sure, the story is inspiring, but in a matter this dire, I would have liked to see more multi-lateral interviews. The women are given the conch shell here, but it would have been more powerful to hear from the hundreds of boy soldiers or ordinary villagers saved by the movement. Bordering on self-congratulatory (saving lives is, of course, something to be proud of), the film could have benefited from a broader base of interviewees. --David Harris

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I.O.U.S.A.

Unfortunately, the film most concerned with a subject closer to home for U.S. audiences was the weakest of the bunch. Patrick Creadon's I.O.U.S.A. tackles the subject of the national debt, which will pass $9 trillion by the time George W. Bush is out of office. Splitting its focus on the history of the debt and the struggles of former Comptroller General David Walker to bring awareness to country, the film uses the traditional format of charts and talking heads to illustrate the point that we're in big trouble. Of course, Creadon does a valiant job in trying to make economics exciting, but rather than educate, the film amounted to a lot of statistics and several people carrying on about China overtaking us as a superpower. Of course, the requisite Bush-backing is there (and I don't mind that), but the film is too didactic for its own good. Subtly is not Creadon's strong suit, and when the film enters its “What YouCan Do To Help” section, it is hard not to feel lectured at. --David Harris

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Encounters At the End of the World

Away from Africa, Werner Herzog's Encounters At the End of the World was the first of two films I saw that visited frozen wastelands. Shot from the first-person perspective, this trip to Antarctica is just the jumping-off point for the director whose obsession with Man vs. Nature motifs once again take center stage. Contrasting breathtaking footage of icebergs, volcanoes, and seals against interviews with the denizens of the McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Herzog ponders over the nature of humanity and what future creatures will think when they find the ruins of our extinct culture. What is it that makes people want to walk away from society and join the band of misfits that make up the residents of Antarctica? Among them, the most memorable are a woman who drove a garbage truck across Africa and a penguin biologist who has spent so much time with the birds he seemingly has forgotten how to speak with humans. As always, Herzog's slant towards chaos reigns over the film and some of the bombastic music he chooses elevates the common shot to Olympian proportions. But it is the natural phenomena that are most haunting here. When three scientists lay down, ears against the ice to hear the symphony of seal cries, the power of these natural shots is stronger than any man-made chorus could muster. --David Harris

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Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed On the Mountains

The people in Gonzalo Arijón's Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed On the Mountains do not go into the tundra by choice. Chronicling the 1972 plane crash that led its survivors to cannibalism, the story of Stranded has been told before in both the Piers Paul Read's book Alive and its film adaptation. But in Stranded, the survivors relate their own tale of surviving 72 days in the Andes. It is a true testament to the human spirit that these 16 men survived not only the crash, but freezing conditions, avalanches, and the lack of food. Because it's been a part of our consciousness for so long, the story is not as shocking today as it would have been in 1972. Even so, watching the survivors reunite at the exact spot of the crash more than 30 years later is both potent and moving. Of course, hearing the stories firsthand has the extraordinary power that no Ethan Hawke film could adequately convey. Over the years, the survivors have had time to reflect on the experience, and they offer deep and poetic meditations on life and death. For two gripping hours, I watched these men relive an event that most of us will thankfully never have to endure. It is with honesty and grace that Arijón allows the survivors to tell their tale, capturing this historic story forever in their own words. --David Harris

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Going on 13

Going on 13 follows four young girls for four years as they traverse life in school and at home through their difficult prepubescent years in Oakland, California. Filmmakers Kristy Guevara Flanagan and Dawn Valadez gain incredible access to the lives of these girls. They are eager to talk about themselves, play, and simply enjoy what life has to offer at age 9 but gradually find life more difficult to manage as they get older. Each of the girls has a unique family life, and their stories are fascinating, each struggling with self-image issues. One says, “I don't like anything about myself,” when asked to describe her best trait. “I am ugly. Everyone tells me that I am ugly.” These heartbreaking words are common to many young girls, and it's both compelling and disturbing to watch it on film. As the girls enter puberty, questions about sex, boys, and even marriage rise to the surface in often amusing, yet genuine ways. Isha, who comes from a traditional Indian family, is already concerned at the age of 13 about whether she will be allowed to choose her own husband. The film tackles issues of race, gender, cultural diversity, a problematic public education system, post-traumatic stress disorder, and divorce; but, in reality, this is a story about four ethnically diverse young women, who, like all of us, have unique obstacles and opportunities through which they must maneuver during this formative time in their lives. --Magritte

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Throw Down Your Heart

Not all stories coming from Africa have to tell of bloodshed and displacement, and Sascha Paladino's Throw Down Your Heart shows how the power of music can unite disparate cultures. In this winner of the Music Documentary Award, Paladino traces the journey of his brother, banjo whiz Béla Fleck, across Africa in search of the origin of his instrument. As Fleck visits Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia, and Mali and meets a multitude of musicians (most memorable are blind thumb-pianist Anania Ngoliga and Malian diva Oumou Sangare), he learns that music and joy are universal. The most telling scene is when he encounters Bassekou Kouyate, who plays the n'goni, a Malian version of the banjo. Fleck and Koyate do not speak a common idiom, but the language of music unites them and allows them to communicate. Even though the specters of colonialism and slavery hover over the film, music is its primary subject. Mostly, I was relieved to finally see a doc about Africa where no one dies and the only tears shed are those of happiness. --David Harris

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The Tailor

I did not get the chance to catch most of the shorts on offer at the festival, but I did happen to watch Oscar Perez's puzzling The Tailor. Presented with no introduction or narration, Perez fixes his camera on a bastardly Pakistani tailor who repeatedly screws over customers and belittles employees in Barcelona. This is customer service at its worst, as clothes are lost and employees verbally abused. It isn't until the tailor shows just the slightest flash of jealousy that we glimpse something underneath the hardened shell and into the window of a twisted soul. --David Harris

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Hi! My Name Is Ryan

Hi! My Name Is Ryan is the story of an energetic and charismatic 19-year-old Phoenix resident who has made a name for himself as a kind of modern musical and performance artist. His pudgy, cherubic face and infectious laugh would seem to make him the ideal protagonist, but the story never quite fulfills its potential. We learn early on that Ryan appears much younger than he is because he suffered from hypopituitarism (a deficiency in hormones from his pituitary gland), which stalled his development, giving him the appearance and voice of a pubescent teenager. Instead of shying away from the public, like so many with his condition, Ryan sought ways to express himself. Again, this idea seems noble and intriguing. However, his antics rarely separate him from other younger teenagers, and the filmmakers don't explain well enough what makes Ryan so special until far too late in the film, by which time his act has worn thin.

The first half of the film talks about all of Ryan's "projects," which are primarily musical groups he and his three friends create to perform at local coffee houses and other venues. Each group is a bit stranger than the next. One has each of the guys dressed as their favorite animal, yet each seems to have a few things in common – loud noise, no intention of actually sounding good, and breaking stuff. Certainly this could be a means of expression, but the band themselves seem satisfied by pissing off people who try to take them seriously. This begs the question, what is the point? A local artist, Wayne Michael Reich, is set up as the film's "bad guy." He hates all that Ryan and his friends stand for and criticizes everything about them. While Reich is portrayed as a prick, his points are not without merit. If Ryan and his cronies want to be serious artists, why don't they practice and attempt to do something interesting? And if they are not serious artists, why do they go out of their way to destroy the livelihoods of those men and women who are? Just when I thought Ryan was irredeemable and just plain annoying, I learned that he has dealt with many physical and emotional issues that have caused a real rift between him and his father and has led him to consider suicide. The final quarter of the film focuses on his attempts to express his emotions on stage through a monologue series entitled "Hi! My Name Is Ryan." This is a very touching piece that eventually leads to reconciliation with his father and yet another surprise for the audience, which I won't spoil here.

While Ryan is certainly a unique young man whose decisions, especially at the end of the film, make him a fascinating protagonist, the filmmakers focus far too much attention on what makes him not so special, his annoying antics, and not nearly enough time on those things, like his emotional problems and his faith, that make making a film on his life worthwhile. --Magritte

  

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