8th AFI SILVERDOCS Film Festival

Below are quick daily updates. Expanded coverage, including information and photos from the Q&A's, will be provided after the conclusion of the festival.

Monday June 28, 2010-Day 7-Final Day

AFI Silver-Theater #1

AFI Silver-Theater #2

AFI Silver-Theater #3

"Men Who Swim" (***-58 minutes)-Swedish film maker Dylan Williams is turning 40 and decides to combat his impending mid-life crisis by, what else, forming a men's synchronized swimming team. The level is then raised when the team decides to compete for the unofficial All Male World Championship in Milan. Light and humorous, the audience award winner is a candid fun look at guys who ferverently try to prove that life, indeed, begins after 40.

"The Woman With the 5 Elephants" (** 1/2-93 minutes)-Interminably slow deliberate film about an 85 year old translator who just completed translating Russian novelist Dostoyevsky's 5 classic novels (elephants) into German. We accompany her as she returns for the first time to her Nazi-occupied Ukranian homeland after a 60 year hiatus. Interspersed is her commentary on her life and work as a translator as well as her philosophy of language. How this doc won the World Feature Award is completely baffling to me as the tedious task of watching this film would rival reading "Crime and Punishment" in a single sitting.

"Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You Mommy)" (****-76 minutes)-And finally, a film that deserves the accolade of winning a major award. The winner of the U.S Feature Award, this heart warming story is a winner on many levels as it covers the trials and tribulations of transracial international adoption. A Long Island Jewish family is about to adopt an 8 year old from China. They had already adopted a Chinese girl when she was merely 14 months old. This time they must deal with language and cultural differences. Will the resulting culture clash be a success? We are along for the emotional roller coaster trip that all parties experienced during the 18 months of filming. A beautiful film on multiple levels. The film can be seen on PBS' P.O.V. series on August 31st.

Sunday June 27, 2010-Day 6-Audience Awards

The Audience Award for a feature goes to MEN WHO SWIM directed by Dylan Williams.
The Audience Award for a short went to BYE BYE NOW directed by Aideen O'Sullivan and Ross Whitaker.

"A Film Unfinished" (*** 1/2 87 minutes)-Yet another holocaust themed film that deals with the discovery of Nazi archive propaganda films that were recorded in 1942 inside the Warsaw Ghetto a couple of months before it was emptied. What is most powerful is the fact that we see the process they used to actually stage scenes in order to deceive the world as to what truly happening inside the walls. The commentary of several of the survivors who witness the actual filming give pertinent testimony while viewing the silent haunting reels.

Saturday June 26, 2010-Day 5-Awards & Closing Night

WO AI MI MOMMY (I LOVE YOU MOMMY) Wins Sterling US Feature Award
Special Jury Mentions went to THE KIDS GROW UP and MY PERESTROIKA
THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS Wins Sterling World Feature Award
Special Jury Mention went to STEAM OF LIFE
Wins Sterling Short Award
Special Jury Mentions went to BETWEEN DREAMS and THE POODLE TRAINER
MARWENCOL Wins The Cinematic Vision Award
The WITNESS Award Goes to BUDRUS
Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award to A FILM UNFINISHED
(Note: This is a partial list. The audience awards will be announced on Sunday afternoon.)

"The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan" (*** 77 minutes)-A Vietnam vet disappears during the war and his family undertakes the journey 40 years later to determine his whereabouts. A thorough investigation that is both personal and methodical about the last missing foot soldier from the Vietnam War.

"The Tillman Story" (**** 94 minutes)-
Superb film about the circumstances behind the death of the NFL player who decided to give up a lucrative career to fight for his country in the Afghanistan war-only to be killed a year later by friendly fire. A wonderful profile in courage and the efforts of his family to uncover yet another cover up by the U.S. military and the upper echelons of our government. Beautifully rendered and magnificently edited, this doc will bring about equal amounts of tears and outrage.

Friday June 25, 2010-Day 4

"The Devilles" (***56 minutes)-Fascinating look at a very unusual married suburbanite couple. She's a burlesque entertainer and he fronts an L.A. punk rock band and both have been married for 26 years. Kind of a documentary verite that gives an intimate look at what ultimately keeps people together and the effort it takes to have a successful relationship.

"Restrepo" (****-93 minutes)-This year's Sundance Documentary Award winner is a stunning realistic work, filmed over the course of a year, that will put you in the middle of the conflict in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. Think "The Hurt Locker" with real bullets. An amazing achievement that will surely be nominated at this year's Oscars.

"Monica and David" (*** 1/2-68 minutes)-Another interesting profile of an unusual couple who married despite their possessing the intellectual disability condition of Down Syndrome. A marvelous heartwarming doc that will have you laughing & crying while bringing home the point that love will conquer all no matter the circumstances.

"Marwencol" (*** 1/2-83 minutes)-Unique documentary about New York native Mark Hogancamp who, after recovering from a savage beating, using doll-like figures, reconstructed a miniature WWII village and characters that looks amazingly real. A fascinating look into one man's psyche and how a tragic event totally changed how a man deals with life to find a new purpose.

Thursday June 24, 2010-Day 3

"As Lilith" (***-78 minutes)-Lilith, an Israeli resident, has decided to cremate her 14 year old daughter who had just committed suicide. As a result, she must fight the main religious organization, Zaka, as well as her community's staunch religious beliefs on the decision which fundamentally goes against the practice. Touching and powerful.

"La Isla-Archives of a Tragedy" (** 1/2-83 minutes)-Deals with the discovery of the Guatemalan police archives that details the atrocities that have occurred during years of oppression. An important discovery in the name of human rights but the film is tedious in its presentation.

"Barbershop Punk" (***-83 minutes)-An important film dealing with one man's discovery that his service provider, Comcast, was determining what he could or could not download. A comprehensive well done film dealing with censorship that is important to all of us in the INTERNET age.

2010 Guggenheim Symposium honoring Frederick Wiseman (****)-Wonderful event that will be detailed after the festival ends which honored one of the best and most influential name in documentary film making. Wonderfully moderated by the Davis Guggenheim, the son of Charles Guggenheim for which the honor is named.

Wednesday June 23, 2010-Day 2

Well, it appears seeing 5 films and arising after 3 hours sleep to get ready for day 3 finally caught up to me! Here is a quick look at the films I screened today with my rating. Full reviews after the fest-after some much needed sleep-so be sure to come back later for full reviews and pictorial coverage:

"The Invention Of Dr. Nakamats" (***-57 minutes)-Fun profile on the the guy who invented the floppy disc-and has over 3000 other inventions!

"Bill Cunningham-New York" (****90 minutes) ==>
Fantastic profile of one of the greatest & one of the most intriguing fashion photographers on the planet. Phenomenal doc that is the strongest film I've screened so far!

"South of The Border" (**-78 minutes) ==>
Director Oliver Stone interviews 7 South American heads of state. The weakest film I've screened so far. Michael Moore would be proud.

"Waiting For Superman" (*** 1/2-102 minutes)-Davis Guggenheim's thorough look at the U.S. education system.

"Ride, Rise, Roar" *** 1/2-78 minutes)-Another musical doc on the great David Byrne (late of The Talking Heads) that is a fine compliment to one of the greatest concert films ever made Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense".

Tuesday June 22, 2010-Day 1

Let the marathon begin! First up is a scathing report on anthropology: "Secrets of the Tribe" (** 1/2-96 minutes) . Director Jose Pabila's first doc in 2003 was the critically acclaimed "Bus 174". Here he presents a comprehensive look at the influence anthropologists may have had studying the indigenous population of the Yonomami Tribe nestled deep in the Amazon and, until the 1960's, was untouched by modern civilization. Much evidence is presented that raises moral and ethical questions as various scientists began living amongst the tribe to better understand their culture. An interesting subject that ultimately becomes tedious due to the inordinate amount of time spent with the talking heads throughout the running time. Also, it takes forever setting up the unconscionable goings-on-which included the coverage of a French anthropologist who turned out to be a resident pedophile. To its credit the film doesn't make judgments-leaving it up to the audience to decide the final verdict-that is, if they are still awake by the end.

We go from the jungles of South America studying a native culture to outer space (which sort of brings back memories of my all time favorite film "2001-A Space Odyssey"). Director Christian Frei's first film was the 2002 Oscar nominated "War Photographer". "Space Tourists" (****-98 minutes) is his fourth film and it is an absolute stunner! The film mainly covers the 2006 Soviet program that allows citizens to put up 20 million to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (now it's up to 30 mil-in case you were thinking about signing up). In 2006 Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari finally fulfilled her lifelong dream of traveling into space and we are along for her glorious ride. The price of the ticket covers half of what it costs for the Soviets to launch into space and, therefore, is a cost effective way to keep the program going for the economically distressed country. The film also covers the folks who track the 4 booster rockets that land in mostly barren regions of Russia to salvage the valuable metals. Another section of the film deals with the X Prize program that offers 10 million to the first person who successfully puts a rocket in space. (Virgin president Sir Richard Branson won the prize in 2008) and now offers 30 million to anyone who lands a vehicle on the moon (it's still available). The documentary is superbly edited and the beautiful photography is breathtaking. The music by Jan Garbarek, Edward Artemyev, & Steve Reich is a wonderful complement to the visuals and story. You'll want to put up the money to venture to the ISS after experiencing one of the finest documentaries I've ever seen. Winner of this year's Sundance World Documentary Directing Award, "Space Tourists" has a second screening at SILVERDOCS, tomorrow 6/24 at 1:30 PM. Try and see if you plan to be there.

Next up is another outstanding film, "Presumed Guilty" (****-89 minutes), an absolutely devastating look at the Mexican judicial system. What seems like an extended "60 Minute" segment, the doc covers the trial of Tono Zuniga who was cleary targeted by the police and falsely accused of murder in 2005. Directors Roberto Hernandez & Geoffrey Smith were granted rare approval to record Tono's second appellate "trial". The outrageous accusations and blind justice up and down the Mexican legal system will have you enraged by the time the lights come up. An extraordinary look into the legal system of a country that is right beyond our borders.

The final film deals with a side topic of the recent conviction of convicted polygamist and child molester Jeff Wells, head of the Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints FDLS). "Sons of Perdition (*** 1/2-89 minutes) is an intimate look into 3 of the teenagers of FDLS members who saw the sect for what it was and decided to leave their families behind. Facing a lifetime of banishment, their decision was incredibly courageous as they face an uncertain future alone in a world they barely knew. Morman directors Tyler Measom & Jennilyn's first film is well crafted as they follow the trails and tribulation of the 3 lads as they try to find their identity, not to mention a place to live, as they attempt to understand their place away from their families. This is a very moving, but ultimately uplifting look at three extremely brave kids who recognized & escaped from the insanity of the cult.

Monday June 21, 2010-Opening Night

You couldn't ask for better weather to accompany this wonderful annual festival-considered to be one of the best showcases on the planet for documentary films. And to start things off in grand fashion is a movie that tries to accomplish the impossible: how do you entertain an audience on the subject of economics? First you take a best selling non-fiction book that combines pop culture and economics, you get 6 of the most success and accomplished documentary film maker to contribute, and using a barrage of cinematic techniques, VOILA! you have an entertaining and mostly successful take on human behavior, statistics, & analysis.

"Freakonomics" (***-85 minutes) was a 2003 New York Times article turned into a novel by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner that has now sold over 4 million copies. The daunting task of converting, what essentially, is a series of articles dealing with non-traditional theories of economics into a feature film is a hit or miss affair-but mostly hits.

The hits: Oscar winner Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side", "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") does an eye-opening segment about how corruption has invaded even the sanctimonious realm of Sumo wrestling. Also, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing ("Jesus Camp") covers the world of education and how the incentive of money will stimulate 9th graders to achieve better grades-as opposed to just good parenting.
The near miss: Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") does a piece offering the economic theories as to why crime rates sharply dropped in the early '90s.
The total miss: Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") does an expose on the socioeconomic pattern of naming children that goes on way too long to make its point.

Putting it all together is Seth Gordon ("The King of Kong") who creatively melds the pieces while interspersing commentary by the authors. All sorts of techniques and styles are on display to keep it all successfully rolling along at a swift pace. If successful, you can be sure a sequel will be in the offering.

The Magnolia film will be distributed nationwide this October.

Panel discussion after the film with (l to r) "Freakonomics" producer
Chad Troutwine, directors Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, & Alex Gibney,
and moderator Alvin D. Hall

"Splice" ** 1/2 (107 minutes)

Tuesday June 1, 2010

Having obtained my college degree in biology, I've always had a particular interest in science. So, it naturally followed that, hearing the positive buzz of a film about a genetic experiment gone (possibly) wrong interested me to no end. With cloning prominently in the news over the last decade, I thought, YES!, here is a film that will cover all of my cinematic bases: an independent film with quality Hollywood talent about a scientific experiment that could happen in reality. The bottom line for me? Mucho disappointment!

Director Vincenzo Natali made a well received interesting fantasy/sci-fi film, "Cube", in 1998 and recently struck pay dirt with 2007's "Paris, Je T'aime". Here, he's written, along with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Douglas Taylor, a story that never seems to know what it wants to be. What ends up on the screen is a little bit of everything-and ultimately nothing. Does it want to be a horror film, or a commentary on family dynamics? Does it want to comment about corporate vs. individual greed or give us a glimpse on what can go wrong when man tries to become God? Is it a plea for expanded scientific research in genetics or an allegory on human existence? This one is all over the map and the result is a hodge podge that never quite finds a focus.

Geneticists Clive (Academy Award winner Adrien Brody) & his girlfriend Elsa (talented writer/ director/actor Sarah Polley, "Away From Her" ) are unsatisfied working for their genetic research firm (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development or NERD for short), and decide to go rogue with their own genetic experiment to create a hybrid being using human DNA. The resulting creature (they name Dren which is "cleverly" created by spelling backward their employer's acronym) grows up quickly (can you say days?) and is hidden from everyone, at first in the firm's basement, and then in an abandoned barn owned by Elsa's family.

Initially, Dren appears to bond more with Elsa than Clive, who seems intent on ending the experiment as soon as possible. But in an interesting twist, the roles and lines established early on become more and more vague and the action in the last third brings moral and ethical questions into the mix that really come out of left field.

The real gem of this film is the astounding acting done by Delphine Chaneac as the adult Dren which gives this one a half star higher than the 2 star rating it deserves. And, the special effects are top notch, especially for an independent film, making Dren totally believable in every part of her quickly evolving life cycle. However, I found myself chuckling throughout at the dialogue and acting by the 2 main characters who were never quite believable in their roles as scientists.

An interesting concept but a near miss in conception (excuse the pun).

Clive (Adrien Brody) & Elsa (Sarah Polley)


"Combine Demolition Derby" (***-77 minutes)

Anyone who is familiar with this blog will know of my particular love for the documentary film genre. Local documentary film maker & educator Fil Sibley has lovingly put together a fun doc. For anyone who thought demolition derbies were only for cars, this is the perfect video to open your eyes! FSP Media Communications was there in Carroll County, MD to record the first ever Carroll County, Maryland 4H Fair Combine Demolition Derby and will provide you with a front row seat to the hilarious goings-on. You’ll go behind the scenes with the crew of “Lucille” as they feverishly prepare their enormous 1964 combine (which has been stored unused for 20 years in a shed!) for the crash-ups to come. Eleven teams (including The Pink Elephant, The Tin Man, & Haney The Holstein teams) competed in the multiple heats, including the pre-event Parade of Combines-which is a hoot in itself! Director Fil Sibley used 6 cameras to record the fun and also provides behind the scenes interviews with the participants. FSP will take you to the fair & the derby without ever having to leave your living room!! Great fun!!! If you'd like to purchase "Combine Demolition Derby", contact Fil at fspmedia@comcast.net. He has produced other films, including profiles of female race car drivers Sarah Fisher & Geneva "Gee Wiz" Williams, & various travelogues around the world. Additional information on these can be found at fspmedia.com.