Monday June 24, 2008

Silverdocs expanded to 8 days this year for the first time allowing additional screenings. When the festival first started in 2003, the opening night was on a Tuesday and the award winners played on the following Sunday. This year, opening night was last Monday, with the awards ceremony held on Saturday. The winners, as well as "back by demand" films, are now playing on Monday. So, off I went to explore 2 of the major winners.

First up was the Sterling U.S. Documentary feature award, "The Garden" (****). Scott Hamilton Kennedy ("OT: Our Town") masterfully chronicles the rise and fall of the largest urban farm in the U.S. Arising from the ashes of South Central L.A. after the 1992 riots, the community garden was tilled by mainly poor Latinos who turned the blighted 14 acre lot into a place of beauty, pride, & sustenance. For 11 years, the tenants were allowed to work rent-free on the city-owned property until, in 2003, they a received notice of eviction from the original owner-who had re-obtained the land from the city. And what was this owner planning to do on the land? Why-build a soccer field and warehouses! To make matters worse, the film reveals that the reacquisition by the owner was as a result of a sleazy deal perpetuated by the City Council. The tenants proceeded to enlist the aid of attorneys to fight for their right to stay-a fight which would last 2 1/2 years and would eventually include the financial backing of Hollywood celebrities and organizations-all to no avail. Once again the poor cannot compete against the immoral political and financial powers that, unfortunately, all too often determine their fate. The proceedings are effectively told using interviews and stock footage as it dramatically reveals the injustice perpetuated upon a group who were able to produce something beautiful in the most unlikely of places and is well deserving of the Sterling Award!

My final screening was the great Witness award winner, "Pray The Devil Back To Hell" (****). A phenomenal way to end the festival was this stunning story by Emmy winning ("Ladies First") and Academy Award nominated (for her short "Asylum") Gini Reticker who seems to be drawn to the role of women in war-torn, politically charged countries. The Devil in this story is the head of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Coming to power in 1997, he proceeded to plunge the country into a 2nd civil war in which over 250,000 were killed and a million people displaced. Tired of seeing this happening to her country once again, it took a Martin Luther King-like dream by Leyman Gbowee to be inspired with a plan: enlisting the aid of the women to end a war started and maintained by men. Not only did they accomplish the astonishing feat, but the result of the first democratic election was won by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-Africa's first female woman elected head of state. The film maker wisely includes subtitles to accompany the heavily English accented Liberians (a process I'd wish some famous Irish and Scottish directors would utilize!). Gini's superb storytelling and the utilization of an amazing soundtrack combine to tell one of the most inspiring stories of our time.

Final Thoughts

-This amazing festival only seems to get better and better each year. From the opening in 2003 with the presence of Geraldine Chaplin presenting Richard Schickel's heartwarming film about her father: "Charlie: The Life And Times Of Times Of Charles Chaplin", to the conclusion this year where 97 full length films representing the best in documentary films from all over the world were presented, it is quite clear that Silverdocs is becoming one of the most important and influential platforms for the genre.
-The expansion to include the category of World Feature is a welcome addition to the awards process, as is the newly created Writers Guild of American Documentary Screenplay Award.-The first class treatment of all who attend the festival by everyone from the organizers, film makers, down to the multitude of volunteers is to be commended.
-This was the first time in all the festivals that I've attended that EVERY screening started on time with NO technical glitches! BRAVO! to everyone involved in this feat.
-The additional two days made more films available to the public and the showings at the state of the art AFI Silver Theater results in the absolute best presentation for each film.
-This was clearly the best year yet for Silverdocs. Festival directors, Patricia Finneran and programmer Sky Sitney are to be applauded and should be proud of the work they have done to bring this elite festival to fruition.


Sunday June 22, 2008

A relatively light day today with only 2 screenings. I started it off with the U.S. premiere of "Letter To Anna: The Story Of Journalist Politkovskaya's Death" (***) which chronicled the events surrounding the assassination in 2006 of the Russian investigative newspaper reporter. A fearless, relentless journalist, she knew her days were probably numbered as a result of her writings about Chechnya and the Putin administration and the enemies she created along the way. (She was nearly poisoned to death in 2004 while on her way to Beslan to help in the school hostage crisis.) Director Eric Bergkraut ably describes the dangerous political climate in Russia where she and over a dozen other journalists have now lost their lives since 2000. My main fault with the film was the monotonous manner it was presented as was the narration from Susan Sarandon and the filmmaker himself (necessary when he revealed during the Q & A that Richard Gere backed out of the project at the last minute). However, the documentary did convey the bravery of the slain writer and her heroic attempts to report on the continual injustices in and around Russia. (Bergkraut stated in the Q & A that Anna's killers have recently been arrested-but, so far, not the people who were behind the killings.)

It was finally time for something light-hearted and no better way to satisfy that urge than the east coast premiere of "Hi My Name Is Ryan" (***). Directors Paul Eagleston and his first cousin Stephen Rose, give us a unique portrait of the 19 year old Phoenix native who conquers his insecurities stemming from his upbringing and hypopituitarism (which stunts his growth and gives him the appearance and voice of a pubescent teenager) by becoming an over the top performance artist. As a result, he has become somewhat of a local living legend among those who have witnessed all the various incarnations of his acts. And what are these acts? Well . . . that is really hard to define in this space. You are witness to a barrage of videos of Ryan in action and, although you are laughing at him at times, you'll eventually be won over by his will to overcome his physical deficiencies and the absolute sincerity in his performances. Then, at the height of his popularity, he reveals that he is ending it all so that he can spread the Mormon gospel! The film makers revealed at the Q & A that they only had a week and a half to film Ryan but were blessed with the existence of videos of him in actions, which they were successfully able to weave into the story. The addition of a hilarious running dialogue by Wayne, his main protagonist in Phoenix who constantly puts Ryan down but only serves to make himself look foolish, adds greatly to the fun. A sweet profile about someone you are not likely to forget after the lights come up.

(Note: "I.O.U.S.A." was shown today and my review can be read in my May 2nd post of The Maryland Film Festival)


Saturday June 21, 2008

I went back-to-back with 2 of the most amazing docs that I screened at the festival, with a stop in-between for the awards ceremony. First up was the D.C. premiere of the gut-wrenching documentary, "Dear Zachary: A Letter To His Son About His Father" (****), which premiered at this year's Slamdance Film Festival . This is award winning director Kurt Kuenne's riveting documentary about his childhood friend with whom he made childhood movies but whose life tragically ended when he was murdered as a young adult. He initially began the project as a tribute to his friend, Andrew Bagby. However, what he uncovers along the way would rival any Hollywood crime drama. I could write volumes but it is best not to lay out the details as its full impact can only be achieved by going into this one stone cold. The twists and turns it takes will have you thoroughly emotionally exhausted at the end. Kurt displays incredible editing techniques while narrating the amazing details that unfold along the way. Kurt revealed during the Q & A that the film was picked up and that the formal announcement would be made on Monday. Great news for an absolutely incredible work!

Before the next film, I attended the hour long awards ceremony. The envelope please:

Sterling US Feature Award
Special Jury Mention: TROUBLE THE WATER
Sterling World Feature Award
Special Jury Mention: THE RED RACE
Sterling Short Award
Honorable Mention: GROUND FLOOR RIGHT and ONE DAY
Music Documentary Award
Cinematic Vision Award
American Film Market/SILVERDOCS Award
Writers Guild of American Documentary Screenplay Award
ACE Grant Winner
Audience Awards (Announced Sunday after all of the audience ballots were tabulated)

Time to get exhausted once again by taking in veteran documentary director, Gonzalo Aragon's "Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountain" (****). That was the statement scribbled on a piece of paper by one of the 16 survivors of the Uruguayan 1972 plane crash to one of his rescuers. The incident has since been immortalized in Piers Paul Reads bestseller, "Alive" as well as a 1993 Hollywood version. However, even if you think you know the details, think again. After the plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team of 45 crashed into the Andean Cordillera mountainside, the survivors set up camp for an astonishing 72 days. Twelve days later, when they hear over a transistor radio that the search operation for them was being called off, the group realized that they had to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. Then, to make matters worse, they experienced an avalanche that buried the plane's remains. How they survived is told via the astonishing eyewitness testimony of several of those surviving 16 people (some of whom were childhood friends of the director), reenactments to give you a visual feel for their situation, and actual photographs taken at the crash site that convey the desperate straits of the survivors. Aragon is there 35 years later when they and their families reunite at the crash site (The Valley of the Tears), which brings further poignancy to the proceedings. This is, hands-down, the most harrowing survival story I have ever heard, and to listen to the accounts of those who were there makes their feat even more miraculous.

I ended the day with a repeat viewing of "Song Sung Blue" which I saw in early May at the Maryland Film Festival (see previous older post in this blog). Here was my review from 5/3:

First up was the amazing "Song Sung Blue" (*** 1/2) which won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. Being an aspiring musician in several rock bands in my early 20's, I have always had a keen interest in films dealing with individuals who went to extreme lengths to make it in the fickle world of entertainment. Luckily, I woke up in time to realize that dreams don't always pay the bills. So, I abandoned these ideas when I joined the thousands and thousands of people (many of whom were way more talented) on the sidelines. I also understood that one needed a ton of luck to go along with talent-and even then you had to have extreme tunnel vision to be relentless in making it happen no matter the consequences. Greg Kohs' wonderful documentary deals with the Milwaukee husband and wife duo Mike and Claire Sardina (known as Lightning and Thunder) and uses a decades worth of footage to bring this fascinating story to the screen. The film focuses on Mike's (Lightning) obsession to make it "big" by performing mainly Neil Diamond material (along with those of Patsy Cline and ABBA). Not only did Mike resemble the pop icon, he also had the sound and inflections of Diamond down pat. They became local icons in Milwaukee and hit it big when they opened for Pearl Jam in front of 30,000 people. It was then that Mike thought that that was the break they needed. However, tragedy struck when Claire was loses her leg after she's hit by a car while innocently gardening in her front yard. Their career takes a downturn after this, as does their personal life, but it wasn't enough to discourage Mike and Claire's dream to succeed. Their no holds bard roller coaster ride is fully exposed by the incessant filming of the duo through all their tragedies and triumphs. If this were a fictionalized story, you probably wouldn't believe it. What made it more special was Claire's appearance at the festival (see DAY 1 above) which left special poignancy to the proceedings.

(Note: "American Teen" was shown today and my review can be read in my May 3rd post of The Maryland Film Festival)


Friday June 21, 2008

Way before "American Idol", "The Bachelor", "The Amazing Race", or even MTV's "The Real World", for U.S. reality TV viewers it basically all started with the PBS 1973 ground breaking series, "An American Family". The festival was able to obtain the rarely shown 12 part series (it is not available on DVD) and treated early risers to the entire work over 3 days. Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond (who have the doc "Hard Times At Douglass High" screening this week at the festival), shot over 300 hours of cinema verite-style footage over 8 months in 1971 while covering the lives of Bill & Pat Loud and their 5 children. TV Guide would eventually include it in their list of the " Greatest Television Shows of All Time". To conclude their series, they were allowed to return in 1983 to do a 10 year follow-up on the family that, during the original series, startled American when Pat Loud told hubby Bill that she wanted a divorced, and son Lance became the first person to announce that he was gay on national TV. No one had ever witnessed this type of film making before and many debated at the time whether the Raymond's presence was the catalyst for the events and not just an uninvolved observer of the family changes as the Louds became national media celebrities in the process. Today I got up early to catch the one hour 1983 show (*** 1/2) as well as their 2003 "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family"(****)-filmed at Lance's request when he entered a hospice in 2001. Anyone who saw the amazing 1964 British Series "Seven Up" as it followed the lives of 7 year olds every 7 years, knows the fascination of watching human beings grow and mature over the course of many years. We learn that, thirty years later, Bill had remarried, Pat was adjusting to a new career as a single person in New York, Lance had set up shop in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, joined in New York by sister Delilah, while the other children, Kevin, Grant, and Michelle were embarking on careers as young adults. And, although Lance's flamboyant lifestyle ultimately led to his death, the 2001 show also focused on a Lance that those familiar with the series never knew. He became a talented writer of the pop scene in many national magazines and the touching tribute by The Raymonds was a fitting and beautiful coda to this amazing series-especially when it was revealed at the end that, at Lances' request, his parents reunite at his funeral. Not only did they conform to his wishes, we learned that they were currently back living together! An amazing work by 2 extremely talented and influential film makers. (Note: Although, as previously mentioned, the original series is not available, "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family" is available for purchase on the film makers' web site:

Next was Danish director, Phie Ambo's take on robotic technology, the U.S. premiere of "Mechanical Love" (***). which focused on the current work of Professor Hiroshi Ishigur of Japan's Nagoya University. The fascinating film has the viewer asking questions as to what value we should be placing on inanimate objects made to look and act like real animals and humans. We witness the effect that "Paro", the robotic seal is having on an elderly German nursing home patient whose affection and love for the "pet" is probably extending her will to live. It is revealed that studies involving the elderly and those with dementia have shown improved brain activity as a result of the continual interaction with "Paro". We later learn that over 2,000 Paro's have already been sold as they are about to enter the U.S. at the cost of $3,000 per. Also, featured was the professor's work on a Germinoid, a robot made to look exactly like a human-in this case himself. You see him and his students work to bring this robot to life as he prepares for an interaction between it and his 8 year old daughter to see if she can feel it's presence, or "sonzai kan". Although the emotional connection is never made between the mechanical and the human in this instance, it raises questions as to when such connections will ultimately be made as the technology continues to improve. Although the scenes tended to go on a bit too long (I was yearning to known more information about the manufacturing process) , it did offer an interesting look into this "future is now" topic. At the conclusion of the screening, 2 Paro's were offered up to the audience to hold and to pet to get a close first-hand look and feel of the technology.

From robots to an intimate peak into polygamy with the intriguing North American premiere of "Four Wives-One Man" (*** 1/2). Award winning Swedish director Nahid Persson ("Prostitution Behind The Veil") takes her cameras into rural Iran, the country of her birth, and specifically into the household of Heda, his mother, 4 wives, and 20 children. You witness the hierarchical structure of the household as each wife conspires and unites with their marital equals as they grapple with a husband whose wandering ways is about to introduce a 5th wife into the crowded mix. Often humorous and, at times, extremely poignant, this a complex situation that few people will ever get to witness close-up.

Back to the U.S. for a wonderful portrait, and exquisitely made film, about 2 unassuming everyday folks (a postal clerk and a librarian) who just happen to be two of the most influential art collectors in history. First time director Megumi Sasaki's brilliant world premiere of "Herb And Dorothy" (****) was about the Vogels, who amassed over 4,000 works by unknown minimalist and conceptual artists while operating on only 2 rules: they could afford it and it could fit into their one-bedroom rent controlled Manhattan apartment. Needless to say there was no room for a couch! I first became fascinated with this amazing couple when I saw a "60 Minutes" feature in the early 90's when their collection became famous after donating (!) it to the National Gallery Of Art. It took 5 full size vans to take the collection out their apartment to Washington. Interestingly, the trip to DC was, at first, never considered a definitive one-way deal and the real question became, should the museum ultimately refuse the donation after they examined it, how would they be able to cram all those works of art back into their apartment? Despite the fact that their collection was worth millions, the Vogels were merely interested in the safe keeping of the collection (many of their works were covered over with cloth on the apartment walls to protect them from light damage) and they refused to donate to a museum which wasn't free to the public. In fact, they never received, or wanted, a dime from the sale of anything they possessed, but agreed to receive a stipend offered by the National Gallery-which they used, of course, to buy more art! The film has a wonderful arc in its presentation as you follow the meager existence of these 2 generous souls whose keen eye and feel for the quality of art they collected have immortalized them for all time. And the added presence of Dorothy (in her 70's) and Herb (in his 80's) for the Q & A only made the presentation more exciting. Bravo to the selecting committee for the world premier screening of this work of cinematic art!

After the exhilaration of the Vogels, I attended Silverdocs annual outdoor screening that is usually tied in with one of the themes of the festival. A nice companion to the opening night film, was legendary Albert & David Maysles ground breaking and rarely seen direct cinema style doc, "What's Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A" (***). Covering the group when they first arrived in New York in 1964 in preparation for their Ed Sullivan historic appearances and concert tour, you get a wonderful feel for the times and craziness as Beatlemania was just taking root. You get an intimate look into their personalities inside their Plaza suite and limos, and follow them as they embark on their first concert tour. The film meanders a bit and the sound quality (where the Maysles use only the camera mike) are prehistoric compared to what we are now routinely used to, but the doc is an important historic work and a wonderful "You Are There" glimpse into the lives of 4 lads from Liverpool who have since made musical history.


Thursday June 19, 2008

A fairly light day for me at the fest as I took in one film, as well as a tribute to one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet. I started it off with another medical themed documentary for the 3rd day in a row. The east coast premiere of "My Mother's Garden" (***) is another brave family-made work where filmmaker Cynthia Lester excruciatingly documents her mother who suffers from "hoarders" disease. We observe the obsessive compulsive nature of Eugenia Lester's illness as her children feverishly work to clean-up her property and treat her illness. Her situation had grown so out of control that she was in danger of legally losing her home-where entrance through the windows was virtually the only way to get inside. Cynthia enlists the aid of her 2 brothers as they try and find a way to help their mom live a more constructive and healthy life-even though her illness had negatively affected each of them as they grew up in this cluttered environment. The film points out that Eugenia's illness is shared by millions in this country-many of which cannot afford the medications necessary to help treat the condition. It's a scary look into a condition that is rarely seen in such an intimate manner.

Each year, Silverdocs celebrates a documentary filmmaker by offering a symposium named in honor of the late great documentary filmmaker, Charles Guggenheim. This year's recipient is Spike Lee. After a wonderful montage of Lee's documentary work throughout the years, we are treated to an intimate conversation between himself and moderator Lisa Kennedy, film critic of The Denver Post. His body of work in the documentary field is approaching his narrative achievements as he revealed that he will be releasing in September a documentary about a day in the life of Kobe Bryant. Also, his documentary about Michael Jordan covering his last year in Chicago should be ready for Cannes next year. During the interview, he interestingly stated that he would love to see a documentary made about Martin Luther King, but he didn't feel that he would be adequate to film it. The discussion was followed by an extended promo of his upcoming war epic, "Miracle At St. Anna", the story of four black American soldiers who are members of the US Army as part of the all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldier" Division stationed in Tuscany, Italy during World War II. Following the award ceremony, another tremendous reception was held across the street at The Discovery Channel building


Wednesday June 18, 2008

It was time to continue the theme of personal health journeys. So no better way than now to explore the question of what to do if you knew in advance that you had a genetic mutation that greatly increased your chances of contracting cancer years before it appears in your life. Director Joanna Rudnick produced & directed one of the most intense personal documents you'll ever experience. "In The Family" (*** 1/2) explores her own intimate dilemma of whether to wait or to take immediate action to have her ovaries and breasts removed in order to head off the inevitable. The mapping of the genome has opened up all kinds of research that included the finding that this particular mutation is passed from generation to generation-increasing the likelihood of obtaining both cancers from single digits to up to 85%. Joanna bravely takes us into her world, as well as others who are faced with the same questions, to painfully reveal how the decision they make affects everyone around them-not to mention their possible future generations. Also included into this mix is a no holds barred look into her intimate relationship with someone she begins dating after meeting him online. The filmmaker even touches on the economics of the situation by focusing on the company who has obtained a patent on the mutation and how that monopoly has affected many people who can't even afford to be tested. The film is scheduled to appear a part of the PBS P.O.V. series on October 1.

Next up was an intimate portrait of Dr. James Orbinski, winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize as the head of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Doctors Without Borders). Director Patrick Reed's haunting "Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma" (*** 1/2) follows the award winner as he returns years later to Somalia and Rwanda, 2 of the several war-torn countries he served during the period of their genocide while other care-takers were desperately fleeing for their lives. The filmmaker explores the dilemma Orbinski faces in dealing with his feelings of utter helplessness in the continual struggle of helping the wounded and the homeless in a world where humanitarianism is constantly being politicized. As a result, "humanitarian wars" have made many organizations think twice about going into these areas-making the existence of the MSF even more urgent and admirable.

From one doctor to another (and the two couldn't be more different!), I ended my day with the D.C. premiere of Academy Award winner, Alex Gibney's ("Taxi To The Dark Side" & "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room") dazzling bio doc "Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" (****). The late ex-Rolling Stone scribe is given a humorous, rock-&-roll sendoff in this editing tour-de-force as Thompson's precarious life is depicted in rapid fire images, photos, interviews, and sound bytes galore as Gibney takes you into the fascinating life of the guy who put gonzo journalism into our psyche. Throw in a great sound track, film clips from Terry Gilliam's adaptation of "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas", interviews, and narrations of his work by Johnny Depp (who lived for a spell in the basement of Thompson's house) and you become swept up in the chaotic universe of Thompson's life-which ended with a self inflicted gunshot in 2005. Love him or hate him, you can't help but marvel at one of the most intriguing American characters of the past 60 years. The film is fittingly due to be released on July 4th.


Tuesday June 17, 2008

I go from last night's happy upbeat theme of Cirque Du Soleil and The Beatles to the sobering, controversial topic of Lyme Disease to open my first full day of films. "Under Our Skin" (*** 1/2), wonderfully directed by Andy Abrahams, is the definitive take on chronic disease that, as the film points out, is infecting over 200,00 additional cases a year-many more than AIDS, West Nile Virus, and Avian Flu combined. Taking over 4 years and shooting over 350 hours of footage, Abrahams follows 6 patients whose life has been severely altered by the infection. To make matters worse, the medical community has disturbingly chose to classify the disease as either non-existent or even psychosomatic-even though there is clear evidence that long term use of antibiotics can successfully treat the disease. Add to this the suspense the filmmaker creates as he follows several maverick physicians who risk their license when they recognize and apply the correct treatment but are thwarted by the medical board-who, themselves, appear to be controlled by conflict of interests and the insurance companies. All this adds up to a fascinating terrifying document about a disease that should be correctly treated and recognized but is tragically being swept under the rug because of financial interests.

Next up was the fascinating topic of a dictator being tried for war crimes, the D.C. premiere of "Milosevic On Trial" (***) . Director Michael Christoffersen takes us into the inner workings of this trial, which was the first time in history that a head of state was ever put on trial by an international court. From over 2,000 hours of trial footage and 250 hours of interviews, the filmmaker gives us a fascinating look into this 4 year trial of the "butcher of the Balkans" who chose to be his own counsel (he was actually a trained lawyer). The head of the former Yugoslavia used delaying tactics that lasted over 4 years until his sudden death just months before the trial's conclusion. You get a bird's eye glimpse into the goings on as you see this cunning dictator try to convince the world that the trial was illegal and that the deaths of over 125,000 people and the displacement of 3 million others was simply not his doing.

In the early morning fog on August 7, 1974, a 24 year old Frenchman, Philippe Petit, took 45 minutes and 8 walks on a high wire (at one point lying prone!) on a wire strung between the roofs of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He was living out his dream that he first had as a pre-teen when he was in his dentist's office and saw an article about the towers even before they were built. Most people over 40 remember the event vividly as it was reported around the world. However, few people know the complete story of how the stunt was planned and finally enacted. In the D.C. premiere of James Marsh's masterful "Man On Wire" (****) (named after the remark on the police charging document), this story is now revealed. And what a story it is! Using Petit's own archival footage and effective reenactments (taking place, for the most part, while Petit and his cohorts were inside the WTC), the story is lovingly told using present day interviews from virtually everyone on the team. You see the "walks" he previously had done in France and Australia that first revealed to the planet his uncanny talent. And, you get inside the actual planning and buildup to the feat and the suspense created when they literally walked in front of a security guard on the upper floors to get to the stairwell with their equipment after hiding under a tarp for 3 hours. Told in a humorous style with an effective score throughout, this wonderful doc will have you spellbound while it relates one of the most amazing human endeavors ever accomplished. The additional poignancy of it happening on the World Trade Center only adds to the mythical nature of it all. The film has been picked up for distribution by Magnolia and is to be released later this summer. Don't miss this great film!

The themes were getting lighter (especially after the heavy start with Lyme Disease) when I wrapped up with the D.C. premiere of the musically oriented "Throw Down Your Heart" (** 1/2). Filmmaker Sasha Paladino follows his older brother, multiple Grammy award winner, banjo virtuoso, Bela Fleck as he travels to 4 regions of Africa to follow the roots of his instrument. Long thought of having its origins in southern America, Bela reveals that its basis were the unusual African string instruments still being used today. Along this journey, Bela meets and jams with locals and more renowned artists in each region he visits. As a musical document, the film is first rate as it constantly fills the air with rhythmic and melodic African sounds. You get to see and hear many of these string instruments that were the precursor of what we know as the banjo. However, the fault I had was, as a musician myself, I wanted to know more about the history of the unusual instruments being played throughout the film. There just wasn't enough historical substance presented to keep me interested. After the Q & A Bela was joined onstage for a neat mini-concert by one of the principal musicians he encountered along the way: Cheick Hamala Diabaté, a n’goni player-which was a nice way to end the day.


Monday June 16, 2008

My love for independent films is equaled only by my love of documentaries. I am truly in my glory with the opening of the 6th annual AFI Silverdocs Film Festival-one of the preeminent documentary film festivals on the planet. Started in 2003, just months after the re-opening of the luxurious AFI Silver Theater in downtown Silver Spring Maryland (just outside Washington D.C.), this phenomenal event is the perfect way to kick off a summer which more often than not offers up mostly lame Hollywood blockbusters over the next 3 months. Some of the best times I've had in a darken theater in the last 5 years have been at this Festival. So, I can't wait to experience the variety of docs that will make their way from around the world to this 3 theater complex over the next 7 days. Festival director Patricia Finneran & Director of Programming, Sky Sitney, are about to present over 100 documentaries from 63 countries (!) that will go along way in driving home this year's theme "Think for yourself". And what a fabulous way to kick off the festivities by the U.S premier of "All Together Now" (*** 1/2), which details the extraordinary journey of how Cirque Du Soleil's "Love" came to be. Long time documentarian, Adrian Wills, has put together a dazzling work that captures the essence of what it was like for this company to obtain the Beatles' rights (virtually the only entity to do so) and the nearly 1 year journey to present it on stage at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Enlisting the help of the late great George Martin and his son, they literally took 28 songs from the Beatles' catalogue and then had the audacity to remix what was considered "The Holy Grail" of music. Wills begins the story detailing that the corroboration wouldn't have come to fruition if not for the vision of George Harrison, who was friends with Cirque founder Guy Lalberte, and then obtaining the cooperation of all the principals from the Apple family. What makes the behind-the-scenes even more fascinating is how the 2 remaining Ex-Beatles, Yoko, and George Harrison's widow, Olivia keep offering their input into the project, to the continual chagrin of Cirque director Dominic Champagne. When the opening night finally arrived in 2006, you see all of the principals in the audience dead on. (I literally got chills when I saw Paul singing along with Sgt. Pepper in his seat next to Ringo.) And you laugh when Paul, on more than one occasion reveals that he was amazed just how damn great this band is and how he actually wakes up to realize that he is only one of 4 people in the universe who can claim membership in this group! Wills does an amazing editing job that not only captures the intricacies of this, what I'm sure, is an amazing show, but it also includes a ton of stock footage of the Fab 4 that is craftily interwoven into the mix. The result is a music filled love letter to the greatest band ever. It will have you yearning to get the next flight out of town to Vegas. At the least, you will want to dust off your collection to relive the music that put the "pop" in pop music!The opening night festivities included a post-film panel discussion moderated by Bill Flanagan (EVP MTV Network) and included Wills, Champagne, & Jonathan Clyde (Producer and Director of Production from Apple Corps), as well as 4 Cirque Du Soleil performers. All this was followed by a first class reception hosted by the main sponsor of the festival, The Discovery Channel, in their spiffy digs across the street. Music was even provided by Matt White singing both originals and Beatles covers. A great way to start the festival!Come back over the next 7 days for daily updates that, hopefully, will bring you here to Silver Spring to experience, literally, the world through the eyes of talented filmmakers around the globe.

"Yella" ** 1/2 (89 minutes)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The latest offering by The Cinema Sunday club, was "Yella" written and directed by Christian Petzold. This German mystery (whom the filmmaker based on Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic "Carnival of Souls") stars Nina Hoss who plays a woman being relentlessly stalked by her estranged husband (Hinnerk Schonemann). She is about to start a new life in another town
when she reluctantly agrees to hitch a ride with him to catch a train. At this point he decides to end their lives together-literally and figuratively. Without going further with plot spoilers, let me say that I had this one figured out from the start. However, despite this, the atmosphere established by filmmaker worked to keep me interested-despite the fact that several business scenes go on way too long. I marginally recommend it for the splendid acting by Ms. Hoss (who won who won a German best actress award) as she effectively conveys a fine sense of dread throughout.

"Roman de Gare (Crossed Tracks)" *** (103 minutes)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jumped over to The Charles to catch Claude Lelouche's latest. Lelouche, best known for his 1966 double Oscar winner, the brillant, "A Man & A Woman", delivers a stylishly fine mystery thriller that will have you guessing until the end. Judith Ralitzer (Audrey Dana) is a well-known novelist, who, at the start of the film is being interrogated by the police as to her possible involvement in the death of her ghost writer. From here we meet a love-scorned hairdresser (Audry Dana)who enlists the help of a stranger (Dominique Pinon) who agrees to meet the hairdresser's family and to assume the identity of Audrey's fiancee. No one is who they appears to be while the fun is in trying to figure out the motives of all the principals as their paths are continually crossed (hence the title). My only problem is that Lelouche tries to jam in too many ironic plot turns and it loses itself somewhat along the way. However, all in all, the film is worth seeing and will have you captivated for most of its 103 minutes.