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.