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AFI SILVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 2

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.