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2011 SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival


WOW!-the first word that comes to mind in describing the ninth edition of this wonderful film festival. Artistic Director Skye Sitney and her talented staff have done it again-and actually have outdone themselves. Lovers of the documentary film genre who have not yet attended SILVERDOCS are missing a golden opportunity to view films firsthand that, for the most part, will thoroughly entertain and instruct. Moreover, the majority of screenings offer audiences a golden chance to interact with the filmmakers and, in some cases, the subjects of the doc, for provocative Q and As, with post-screening discussions often spilling out into the lobby. With over 2200 submissions, the festival programmers have chosen 108 films from 58 countries that are sure to whet the appetite of anyone who wants to explore a myriad of subjects of life on the planet. I screened 28 films from such diverse subjects as music, art, crime and punishment, war, love, music, animal experiments, sperm donors, sports, litigation, the automobile industry, human mysteries, the food/restaurant industry, child bullying, sex slavery, a horse whisperer, and Sesame Street. And this was only after viewing 25% of the selection of top-notch quality documentaries offered, several of which are sure to make their way to theaters near you. It is highly likely that one or more will make the list of Academy Award nominees. With the completion this past year of the beautiful Silver Spring Civic Building around the corner from the AFI Silver Theater, the festival has finally secured a permanent home base of operations. And, the Opening Night Party there was a huge success-helped in large part by an updated version of a photo booth machine that kept festival goers entertained with their own prints as the collage of photos rotationally appeared on the lobby walls. This stellar festival, held each year in mid-June, should be a must-see on any serious film buff's list as the quality of choices and activities will assuredly not disappoint.

TOP 10
(1) "Being Elmo"
(2) "Project Nim"
(3) "Donor Unknown"
(4) "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles"
(5) "The Rescuers"
(6) "Scenes of a Crime"
(7) "Give Up Tomorrow"
(8) "Semper Fi: Always Faithful"
(9) "The Bully Project"
(10) "Hot Coffee"

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Monday June 20, 2011
DAY 1-Opening Night

"The Swell Season" (*** -90 minutes)
The ninth annual was greeted with glorious weather in Silver Spring Maryland. And to kick off this amazing festival was an up-close utterly raw peek into the musical and personal relationship of the two musicians who are the driving force behind the recently formed pop group, "The Swell Season". 35 year-old Glen Hansard and 18 year-old Marketa Irglova appeared in John Carney's 2006 indie masterpiece, "Once" and their beautiful song from that film, "Falling Slowly" won the duo an Academy Award in 2007. That film chronicled the fictionalized romance between the two musicians who meet while he is doing his thing as a struggling street musician. Life soon imitated art when a real life romance blossomed between the two who together formed an amazing pop group that toured after receiving their AA honor. Directors Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and Nick August-Perna followed the group for two years and managed to capture the essence of their music-as well as the intimate painful moments of Glenn and Marketa's, what was to be, doomed relationship. Filmed in glorious HD black and white, the music sequences are superb while the film successfully manages to quietly, but powerfully, draw the viewer inside the world of two people who made magnificent music together-both on and off the screen and stage. The film opens nationwide on October 7.

Marketa Irglova and Glenn Hansard

(l to r on the Red Carpet) "The Swell Season" directors
Chris Dapkins and Nick August-Perna,
SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney, and
Bob Boilen, NPR Host of "All Things Considered"

(l to r on the Red Carpet) David Leavy (Discovery
Communications Executive Vice President of Communications
and Corporate Affairs)
, Ike Leggett (Montgomery County Executive),
Nick Augusta-Perna and Chris Dapkins ("The Swell Season" Directors),
Bob Gazzale (
President and CEO of The American Film Institute),
Sky Sitney (SILVERDOCS Artistic Director), Bob Boilen (NPR Host of "All
Things Considered"), and Laura Michalschyshyn (TV and film executive
who is President of Planet Green/Discovery Health/Fit TV
at Discovery Communications)


The Opening Night audience awaits the screening of "The
Swell Season"


Bob Gazzalle, President and CEO of The American Film Institute 
opens the 13th SILVERDOCS Film Festival

SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney introduces the
opening night film


(l to r) Directors Chris Dapkins and Nick Augusta-Perna with
moderator NBR Host Bob Boilen after the screening


The lobby of The Silver Spring Civic Building, which hosts
the Opening Night after-party


"The Swell Season" Directors interviewed at the after-party

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June 21, 2011-DAY 2

"The Ballad of Genesis & Lady Jaye" (** 1/2-72 minutes)
Slight experimental film of the unusual relationship between industrial rocker Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (of the pre-punk group Throbbing Gristle and post-punk Psychic TV) and his partner Lady Jaye who was a young dominatrix when they met in 1993. Director Marie Losier creates a home movie quality to the visuals that provide a peek into the world of this particular music genre. A kind of strange love story, the film tries to explain the motives of these two performance artists who eventually married and then attempted to physically look like each other through plastic surgery. The narration by Genesis over clips of the two on and off the stage helps to explain the psyche of their deep personal relationship that ended with Lady Jaye's untimely death in 2007. Besides the home movies, archival footage, band footage, and interviews, the director covers the life of Genesis before Lady Jaye enters the picture-from his unhappy childhood growing up in Britain, to his 1970s art scandals, to his association with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But it is this bizarre love story that is at the main center of it all that, like watching a train wreck, makes it hard not to watch.


Genesis

"The Price of Sex" (*** 1/2-72 minutes)
The title indicates perhaps a light-hearted look at the world's oldest profession. Instead, photojournalist/film maker Mimi Chakorova gives a powerful exposé into the world of sex trafficking in a film that will stay with you long after the lights go up. Although this is a worldwide tragedy, Mimi, who grew up in Bulgaria before emigrating to the U.S. in the '80s, concentrates on Eastern Europe where, with the fall of communism, mass poverty allowed naive woman to be snatched up and sold as sex slaves. It took her seven years to compile the various stories that shockingly reveal how these women are so violently brutalized that, even if they escape, they are emotionally, as well as physically, permanently scarred for life. She also obtains footage in Dubai and Ankara (which actually bans pre-marital sex but not prostitution), filming the red-light districts where doing so is dangerous for anyone with a camera. (All of her equipment was stolen from a Dubai hotel room at one point.) Mimi boldly puts herself in harm's way by interviewing customers (who happen to be cops) and pimps-even posing as a prostitute in Ankara in order to fully document this unconscionable human rights tragedy. And, it was surprising to learn that woman, not men, are the primary recruiters of the soon-to-be sex slaves. My main problem with the doc is a minor one: Mimi's voiceover narration, although earnest, sounds too monotone and unprofessional. However, her dedication to educate the masses to this issue is truly remarkable and, hopefully, successful in helping to end this activity that brings devastation to the lives of many women around the world.

One of the women sold into sex slavery

Director Mimi Chakorova

"Semper Fi: Always Faithful" (****-75 minutes)
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1985 while the family was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina-the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. When it was discovered that the cause might have been due to toxic waste contamination at the base, he undertook a 14-year journey that ultimately brought him to the halls of Congress where it was finally revealed that The Corps was covering up one of the largest water contamination in our nation's history for over 30 years. His main purpose was not to expose the military, but to get acknowledgment from the organization to which he devoted his life and service. He joined forces with another veteran, Michael Partain who had contracted a rare male breast cancer and together they attempted to right a terrible wrong. What makes this situation so appalling is the military's reluctance to contact all the residents of the base during the contamination period, stating to Congress how difficult it would be to do so. Directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon have constructed a true-to-life horror story that gets scarier with each passing frame. Winner of the Documentary Editing Award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, this is yet another powerful expose of another government cover-up and how one man CAN make a difference.

Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger

(from l to r) co-director Tony Hardmon, Jerry Ensminger,
Michael Partain, and co-director Rachel Libert


"Being Elmo" A Puppeteer's Journey" (****-76 minutes)
Winner of the 2011 Sundance Documentary Audience Award earlier this year, this delightful heart-warming story of African-American Baltimore native Kevin Clash not only could easily be nominated for next year's Academy Awards, but here's an early prediction that it will win it. The talent behind (inside and under) the beloved Sesame Street character, Elmo, Kevin knew his life calling early on and pursued it to the hilt. He began by putting on puppet shows for his Turner Station neighborhood friends, and then later he received a huge break on a local television show that led to working with the infamous Captain Kangaroo. This ultimately landed him the Muppet gig at the top of the puppet food chain. So curious was Kevin to learn how the Muppets' "skin" appeared seamless that he took a side trip away from his high school's field trip in New York to seek out Muppet builder Kevin Love, who later introduced young Kevin to Jim Henson. One of the more interesting tidbits is the fact Elmo was rescued off the scrap heap when its original human voice (the late Richard Hunt, who gave Elmo a deep caveman inflection) hated the character and asked Kevin in 1984 if he wanted to give it a try. The rest was history. The editing by Justin Weinstein, screenplay by co-director Phil Shane, and score by Joel Goodman are all top-notch that will surely help to put the documentary in strong contention for an Academy Award. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will be amazed at Kevin's incredible journey that began with his backyard puppet shows and now continues with his key role perpetuating the brilliance and joy that Jim Henson's Muppets bring to the world. The film was bought by ITVS and Independent Lens and will hit the theaters on October 21. This one is not to be missed!



Elmo and his pal Kevin Clash

Kevin Clash and Elmo (back row center) with his siblings,
parents, and daughter Shannon (far right)
on the red carpet prior to the screening

Kevin, Elmo, and Shannon

(from l to r) producer Corinne LaPook, editors Justin Weinstein
& Philip Shane, director Constance Marks, and Kevin Clash
at the Q and A


Elmo hugs his fans after the screening

"Buck" (***1/2-88 minutes)
Director Cindy Meehl's wonderfully quiet portrait of Buck Brannaman, the inspiration behind the bestselling novel by Nicholas Evans, and Robert Redford's 1998 film adaptation "The Horse Whisperer", won the Special Jury Documentary prize at Sundance. You will walk away with a great appreciation and respect for a man who didn't let a childhood marred by a physically abusive father prevent him from becoming a successful family man who had a way with horses, and who has touched many folks along the way. The film follows Buck, his wife and daughter, as they travel from ranch to ranch instructing owners on the proper techniques to use for "breaking" troublesome horses. His philosophy for success: warmth and compassion instead of brute force-the former of which he rarely experienced as a youth. Clips are shown of him and his brother Bill as children being marketed on TV and touring the rodeo circuit as "Buckshot and Smokie, The Idaho Cowboys" doing rope tricks-all the while being beaten and bruised by their stage dad. After Buck's high school coach sees the bruises, the authorities were called and the two brothers were subsequently placed in a foster home. It becomes clear that Buck's teaching methods and philosophy stemmed from what he experienced and learned from his past. Accompanied with a beautiful soundtrack, you will leave this film feeling nothing but joy in your heart for a man who overcame adversity to, as he puts it, help horses deal with people problems. "Buck" began its limited nationwide release on June 17.


Buck Brannaman training wild horses

(from l to r) co-producer and creative advisor Andrea Meditch,
editor Toby Shimin, co-producer Julie Goldman, & director
Cindy Meehl at the BUCK Q and A

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June22, 2011-DAY 3

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" (****-82 minutes)
Would you pay over $300 to have 22 pieces of sushi, and only sushi? There are many folks around the world who gladly fork up (excuse the expression) this expense to dine at the 10-seat "Sukiyabashi Jiro" restaurant. The restaurant has earned the rare prestigious 3-star Michelin rating and its owner is 85-year-old Jiro Ono who, along with his two sons, has created this culinary eatery gem. American film maker David Gelb provides a fascinating exposé of Jiro and what it takes to receive that rating which, as Japanese food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto points out, will likely disappear upon Yiro's retirement or demise-no matter the effort and talent of his sons to carry on his legacy. A beautiful profile of a man who creates food as art as meticulously as any classical artist, and a fascinating peak into the unique process that helps create and maintain the restaurant's 3-star rating. Gelb includes a soundtrack that utilizes several selections by the renowned 20th century American composer Philip Glass and is the perfect complement to the visuals. The film was bought by Magnola Pictures and a spring 2012 release is planned.


Jiro (foreground) preparing his sushi

Director David Gelb

"The Bully Project" (****-94 minutes)
When the Columbine school massacre occurred on April 20 1999, the aftermath included reports that the two young assassins had grown up as victims of bullying. They decided to end the lives of thirteen of their classmates-before turning their guns on themselves. It is unconscionable that it has taken over twelve years for a film such as this to finally address what is unfortunately becoming almost a daily occurrence across this country. Besides the everyday threats of violence by others (metal scanners at school entrances are as common as recess) it seems young people are now killing themselves, and others, in record numbers in order to end years of abuse at the hands of their fellow students. Director Lee Hirsch ("Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony"), who revealed during the Q and A that, growing up, he was also a recipient of bullying, has meticulously created this moving look into this outrageous, and totally preventable, phenomena. He follows five families in five states across The Bible Belt throughout one school year that focuses responsibility, not only on the perpetrators, but also includes parents, administrators, and teachers. One particularly disturbing segment includes school administrators being confronted by the parents of their bullied child after Hirsch manages to film the abuse on a school bus. The school administrators' reaction and their lack of action are almost as scary as the bullying that would eventually lead to tragic results. Moving and powerful, the film was picked by the prestigious Weinstein Company for a nationwide release on March 9, 2012.  


Alex Libby-one of the subjects of the film

(l to r) Director Lee Hirsch (l); Anurima Bhargava,
Chief of Educational Opportunities Section in Civil Rights
Division of the Department of Justice; Lisa Thomas,
American Federation of Teachers; Michel Martin,
NPR Host Tell Me More at the post-screening panel


Director Lee Hirsch

(l tor r) Teryn Long, Troy Long, Tina Long and David Long
featured in THE BULLY PROJECT at the film’s
post-screening panel supported by The Fledgling Fund
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Thursday June 23, 2011-DAY 4

"Sound It Out" (*** 1/2-82 minutes)
The east coast premier of director Jeanie Finlay's documentary focuses on what is lately becoming a dying breed all over the planet: the local independent record shop. Despite vinyl making somewhat of a comeback the last several years, especially with audiophiles and collectors, these quaint neighborhood establishments are slowly becoming a distant memory. Finlay takes us to the last one of these stores struggling to exist located in Stockton, a poor section of northern England, and gives us, not only a fascinating peak into the inner workings of the shop and its owner, but also the often strange somewhat eccentric clientele that frequents it. A shop that is barely existing economically, it takes someone who has a passion for his job to keep the shop existing. And that exactly describes "Sound It Out" owner Tom Butchart and his employees whose vast knowledge of the music business can help locate the most obscure recording. On occasion, the tiny shop even provides just enough space for local and regional struggling musicians to set-up and entertain clientele breezing through the racks of vinyl. Soon, the meager space is filled with curious listeners who just happen to be walking by the store. An amusing nostalgic trip that will especially delight and flood the memory banks of those who have amassed a ton of music over the years. The film opens nationwide September 16.

Tom Buthchart and his record shop

"Where Soldiers Come From" (*** 1/2-91 minutes)
Director Heather Courtney introduces three close buddies from a small northern Michigan town, Hancock, who want to make something of their lives. Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin have little career options other than military service so, after graduating high school in 2007 they decide to support each other and enlist in The National Guard. Courney follows each through boot camp and then takes her cameras to film them during a 9-month stint in Afghanistan where they search for IED's. You'll be reminded of "The Hurt Locker" as you ride along where an unexpected attack/explosion can occur at any instant. Courtney's intimate profile shows what devastating effects their deployment can have, not only for the principals, but also their families, friends, and acquaintances-whose scenes back at home are edited between the Afghanistan footage of the boys desperately trying to survive their tour of duty. The good news is that each survives their stint. The not so good news is the lingering effect war has on their emotional and physical well. A fascinating look into the effects of war seen from the viewpoint of those brave soldiers on the front-line and those who anxiously await their return. PBS will air the P.O.V. produced film to coincide with a September 9 limited nationwide release.



(from l to r) Bodi, Dominic, and Cole back from Afghanistan

(l to r) Cole, Dominic, and Bodi, with director Heather Courtney

"Give Up Tomorrow" (****-95 minutes)
SILVERDOCS screened a film last year, "Presumed Guilty", which focused on the corrupt Mexican criminal justice system that wrongly convicted a Mexican street merchant of murder. Michael Collin's film about a clearly innocent Filipino student, Paco Larranaga (along with 6 others), falsely accused and sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two sisters, makes that Mexican case seem like a parking ticket trial. Paco's case eventually involved the U.N., Amnesty International, and even the country of Spain who are feverishly trying to free Paco, who has now been imprisoned for over a decade. Two Cebuana sisters, Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, disappeared on July 16, 1977. When a blindfolded, battered, and handcuffed body of a young woman was found in a ravine two days later, the police, who first declared it wasn't one of the sisters, reversed field and said the corpse was Marijoy based on fingerprints. Paco had one minor fighting incident as a teenager and was currently attending a culinary school in Cebu, 300 miles from where the girls were abducted. Despite the testimony of 35 witnesses (students and teachers), including photographs of him there the night the girls were taken attesting to his presence in Cebu, Paco was convicted along with six others. This doesn't even scratch the surface of the injustice he faced over the next twelve years. Winner of this year's Tribeca Special Jury, Best Director Prize., this beautifully edited, riveting, comprehensive true-to-life nightmare should help generate even more worldwide support from everyone who screens it. The PBS P.O.V. film will air on PBS sometime in 2012.

Paco Larranaga

(l to r) campaigner for Amnesty International Brian Evans,
director Michael Collins, and producer
Martyr Syjuco

"The Rescuers" (****-91 minutes)
Stephen Spielberg's "Schindler's List" was about one man, a non-Jew, who tried to make a difference in saving hundreds from Hitler's concentration camps. In "The Rescuers", Emmy winning director, Michael King introduces us to thirteen foreign diplomats who were instrumental in saving tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The production values are beautifully rendered as the film journeys to fifteen countries undertaken by noted Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert and anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire, a survivor of the 1990s Rwandan Civil War. Weaving interviews with survivors and descendants of the diplomats, together they trace the history of these courageous government officials who risked their livelihood and lives to save others. Most people will know the story of Swede Raoul Wallenberg. However, most of the other rescuers will probably be obscure to most viewers. Reenactments by the film maker make the stories even more powerful when combined with the interviews, and help to keep the stories moving at a brisk pace. Included is an amazing original score by Paul van Brugge. The film will have you ponder, as did Gilbert, "the mystery of goodness" and why people of prominence, and who had everything to lose, would risk everything to try and help a persecuted group who were far removed from their own political and social class. This is not just another Holocaust film as it uncovers little known details behind the incredibly brave actions of others who took action to save their fellow man from unconscionable evil.

 


Historian Sir Martin Gilbert and anti-genocideactivist
Stephanie Nyombayire
(l to r) Director Michael King, Producer Joyce D. Mandel,
Program officer for U.S. Institute of Peach (USIP),
Lawrence Woocher, and panel moderator David
Sullivan, Research Director of The Enough Project

The Guggenheim Symposium honors Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker
This year's 11th annual award, named in honor of the late great filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, goes to Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker whose documentary work together over 50 years covered many aspects of American life. The two influential filmmakers have covered such diverse subjects as Bill Clinton inaugural presidential campaign (1993's "The War Room"); the dot com phenomena (2001's "Startup.Com"); Al Franken's transformation as he leaves a career of comedy for politics (2006's "Al Franken: God Spoke"); 16 French pastry chefs competing in the ultimate French pastry competition-the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2009's Kings of Pastry"); and pop music when a young Bob Dylan was profiled in 1967's "Don't Look Back" and the landmark 1968 film "Monterey Pop"-which covered the first and only 1967 Monterrey International Pop Festival which paved way for that 3-day festival in upstate New York 2 years later. Concluding the symposium was a glimpse of their latest project restoring lost footage from a never-before-seen documentary on the late Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
 
(from l to r on the Red Carpet) Discovery's executive vice president for
corporate affair
David Leavy, Festival Director Sky Sitney,
former NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Host Liane Hansen,
filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus,
filmmaker, producer, and daughter of Charles Guggenheim
Grace Guggenheim; AFI Silver Theater Director
Ray Barry 
Senator Al Franken gives salutary remarks
at the start of the symposium
(l to r)Filmmaker D A Pennebaker, moderator former NPR
Weekend Edition Sunday Host Liane Hansen
, and;
filmmaker Chris Hehegedus

 

The two honorees received the 2011 Guggenheim
Symposium award from Grace Guggenheim, right
(l to r) Al Franken, D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus,
Skye Sitney, and Grace Guggenheim pose for photos
at the conclusion of the symposium
(l to r) Al Franken, D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus,
Skye Sitney, and Grace Guggenheim pose for photos
at the conclusion of the symposium
"Renee" (*** 1/2-78 minutes)
In 1976, 6'3" Renee Richards burst onto the professional woman's tennis tour. A year earlier, known as Richard Raskin, an American Ophthalmologist, she had undergone sex reassignment operation. Eric Drath has created a fascinating documentary that details the complex gender issues Renee has dealt with throughout her life. A natural athlete while growing up (Richards was once scouted by the New York Yankees) the film chronicles when, as a young man, he decided to change his identity, then stopped the process when he fell in love with a beautiful woman. After they subsequently married and had a son, the couple divorced after 5 years, and he then decided to complete the gender transformation. A portion of the film deals with Renee's, now adult, troubled son, as well as his off and on relationship with his mom/dad. I would have liked to have been given deeper insight into these relationships, as well as the relationship between Renee and her sister, who, to this day, refuses to accept the transformation. Despite that, Renee's gender struggles and her life off the court will surprise many who know her only as a controversial sports figure when she tried to compete in the 1977 U.S. Open. The documentary will have you asking more questions about the overall psychological makeup and motivations of the subject, however, you won't be bored . The ESPN produced film will air on that channel in the fall.
Renee Richards still playing in retirement
Renee conducts the post-screening Q and A
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Friday June 24, 2011-DAY 5


"Fire in Babylon" (***-82 minutes)
Filmmaker Steven Riley mixes politics, culture, and sports by concentrating on the rise of the West Indian cricket team that challenged colonialism with the emergence of one of the most successful sports teams in history. Considered a laughing stock for years in the international cricket community, the West Indies Team during the 70's and 80's, under the leadership of its captain, Clive Lloyd and superstar Viv Richards, turned the cricket world on its ear by finally ending the continual dominance of the powerful Australian team. Their 15-year undefeated run, to this day has been unequaled in any sport. Riley includes topical commentary, song and music by noted Caribbean artists (including Bob Marley) to help put the team's exploits in proper context with the cultural climate that existed in the world during this period. My main complaint is that, even though an understanding of the rules of the game is unnecessary to appreciate the story, a brief history of the game that began in Tudor England in the 16th Century, would have put all of this in proper and more meaningful perspective for those of us who have minimal knowledge of the game. The film is in limited release as of June 24.




The West Indian team celebrates a win 
Director Stevan Riley (l) with AFI Silver Head Programmer
Todd Hitchcock at the Q and A 


"Incendiary: The Willingham Case" (*** 1/2-101 minutes)
The East Coast premier of yet another documentary focusing on the Texas justice system gone awry. This time around, we are presented with the details of the case involving the conviction and execution (and this is no spoiler) of Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of setting a house fire in 1991 that killed his three children. It seems that the arson investigation was based on incomplete science and inaccuracies that were disproved by a later independent investigation using current up-to-date forensic science. No problem, right? Well, despite the expert analysis of the evidence, unfortunately, public opinions of a dude who was considered a lout, as well political interference and motivations (the footage involving ex-Governor Rick Perry's defiance in granting a stay of execution will definitely have you feeling incendiary yourself) did not help a lick in keeping Willingham from that fatal injection in 2004. Directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. present a thorough examination of the evidence and, although they leave open the slim possibility that he may have actually set the fire, you will walk out of the theater feeling equal amounts of outrage and disgust that yet another innocent man may have been needlessly executed. Another blow for proponents of capital punishment, the doc has a limited release beginning June 24.



Barry Scheck (l) defending Todd Willingham (center) during his trial

Directors Steve Mims (l) and Joe Bailey, Jr.

"Scenes of a Crime" (****-88 minutes)
As if the previous film did not make me feel queasy enough, along comes the East Coast premier of one of the most devastating docs you will ever see dealing with another wrongly convicted man. Using portions of the actual 10-hour police interrogation tapes, directors Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock intercut the footage with expert analysis of the process describing how easily someone could wrongly confess to a crime he/she never committed. A 4-month old baby was brought into a Troy, NY hospital in 2008 and incorrectly diagnosed with a skull injury. After being transferred to another hospital, the baby died. Subsequent blood analysis pinpointed the cause of death due to a bacterial infection-and not due to head trauma. While all of this was happening, Adrian Thomas, an out of work father of six, was being unmercifully grilled by two of New York's finest-all the while convincingly professing his innocence. As time unfolds, the detectives' persistence and techniques result in a false confession that will have chilling consequences down the road.  Blue's and  Grover's film is riveting and truly unforgettable. The winner of the Grand Jury Award at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this interrogation will have you shaking your head in disbelief and anger as the incredible facts of the story unfolds on the screen.

The Troy New York police station interrogation room

Adrian Thomas (center)at his trial, flanked by his attorneys 
 
Directors Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" (****-88 minutes)
In the 1990's, embedded linoleum tiles started appearing on various streets of Baltimore that read: "Toynbee idea in movie 2001. Resurrect dead on planet Jupiter." I even remember the local media here covering this odd and mysterious occurrence. An explanation was never forthcoming-until now. Jon Foy's fascinating film plays like an eerie mystery novel-except this story is nonfiction. It seems hundreds of these tiles have also been appearing for years on the streets of Philadelphia, D.C., New York (including at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel!), and even in Brazil. Who could have been placing these tiles in the middle of busy thoroughfares without detection? And what do the phrases mean?? Three Philadelphians, led by a local artist Justin Duerr, became so entranced and obsessed with these questions that they turned into amateur sleuths in order to unravel the mystery. The discovery of each clue leads to even more fascinating revelations that will be certain to get you involved-even if you never previously heard of the Toynbee Tiles. Foy does a remarkable job in film construction in his first effort and wears many hats as director, cinematographer, editor, and composer (he's produced a brilliant score to complement the visuals). This is one of the most entertaining and compelling docs I've ever seen, and richly deserving of this year's Sundance Best Documentary Directing prize. A limited release begins on September 2. 


Justin Duerr

An embedded corner of one of the Toynbee tiles


"Hot Coffee" (****-88 minutes)
In 1994, a New Mexico elderly lady spilled McDonald's hot coffee on her legs because of a faulty lid. When Stella Liebeck sued McDonald's after being severely burned, the case became an instant cause célèbre that proceeded to be ridiculed and slammed by the media and late night talk shows. Before the screening, attorney-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladorff asked the audience if they thought the lawsuit was frivolous. Nearly 3/4's raised their hand. After the screening, when the question was posed once again, no one's hand was raised. And for good reason. It seems that at least 700 complaints were on McDonald's files regarding the problem involving extremely hot beverages and the resulting injuries. Moreover, photos of the devastating burns Stella endured convinced everyone in the audience that the lawsuit was more than justified. After presenting that case, the film then enters the world of tort reform where big business is being let off the responsibility hook by limiting the amount plaintiffs can sue. Several examples are presented that will have folks rethink their position on these reform laws being passed in many states that, in the end, prevent victims from getting what they truly deserve because of gross negligence. A real eye-opener, Susan's first effort is a stellar reminder to all of us on the power of the media, how it can falsely sway public opinion, and the necessity for each of us to seek out the truth. The HBO-produced documentary began its run on the cable channel on June 24 and is currently available on DVD
.
 


The subject of the tort case
"Dragonslayer" (**-74 minutes)
Meet Orange County skateboarder/druggie/slacker/single dad(!) Josh "Screech" Sandoval whose exploits and lifestyle are exhibited in all its fury by director Tristan Patterson. Using the gimmicky device of counting down chapters from 10 to 1, along with meaningless titles, each meandering unconnected segment is comprised of snapshots of Screech's nomadic existence over the course of a year-whether it's practicing his craft in empty neighborhood swimming pools, performing in skating events, getting high (which is quite often), falling in love-whatever. All of this inane activity is further punctuated with frequent bursts of loud annoying metal "music". Although this is more a character study on the lifestyle of one of the sport's minor players, the filmmaker does record some interesting skating footage by having Sandoval utilize a flip camera during the skating sequences. It's hard to fathom how the film won the grand jury and cinematography prize at this year's South by Southwest Festival, as well as the best international feature at Toronto's Hot Docs festival. The doc did not resonate, since the human subject at the center of the film had little, if any, social redeeming qualities that would have made it more palpable. At its conclusion, it had me wondering, "What's the point?", as well as feeling that I desperately needed a shower.



Josh "Screech" Sandoval plying his skills in an abandoned swimming pool

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Saturday June 25, 2011-DAY 6-Awards and Closing Night



SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney opens 
the award ceremony

The Festival's Prestigious Sterling Awards:
-Best World Feature: "FAMILY INSTINCT" with a Special Jury Mention to "POSITION AMONG THE STARS"
-Best US Feature: "OUR SCHOOL" with A Special Jury Mention to "The Bully Project" and "WHEN THE DRUM IS BEATING"
-Best Short Film: "GUANAPE SUR" with An Honorable Mention to "Still Here"

Additional Distinguished Awards:
-The WGA Documentary Screenplay Award: "THE LOVING STORY"
-The Cinematic Vision Award: "LIFE IN A DAY"

(Audience Award Winners Announced Sunday June 26: "DONOR UNKNOWN "-Audience Award Feature and "MR. HAPPY MAN"-Audience Award Short)

"Donor Unknown" (****-78 minutes)
With the proliferation of sperm donor labs comes the inevitable consequence of many children being born from the same "dad". In most cases, these "fathers" remain, for the most part, anonymous. However, with the easing of record access rules and the Internet, more and more children of these circumstances are able to act on their curiosity of locating the person who contributed half of their chromosomes. Meet JoEllen Marsh, a 20-year-old from Pennsylvania with 2 mothers (immediately coming to mind was last year's "The Kids Are Alright") who took it upon herself to not only try and identify Donor #150, but used the resources available to her to locate 12 (!) of her half-siblings. Director Jerry Rothwell could have taken this journey in two different directions: either waiting until the last reel to reveal the father, or to introduce "the dude" early on, eliminating the suspense for both the children and the audience (as in the narrative film just mentioned). I believe Rothwell chose the proper path by letting us in on the character that used the donation process to make a living for eight years by donating an average of four times a week. Meet mass donor #150, Jerry, who, in his younger days, was a Chippendale hunk. It would be easy to put his desirable characteristics on his application (including "dancer"). The catch: Jerry has since become a slacker, a beach bum living in a trailer on Malibu parking lots, caring for his pet bird. Along the way we visit the donor labs and the process that males must undertake (this part of the film is a hoot for those of us who have never visited these locations). Rothwell scoots back and forth from JoEllen and two of her half-siblings as they prepare for the big meeting, to Jerry and his nomadic lifestyle-all the while as we anticipate the surprise these kids are in for when they travel across country to finally meet their "father". The film is a total joy as it raises questions as to what constitutes a family and the consequences of creating progeny in the modern age. The film premiered on the PBS series "Independent Lens" in October.



JoEllen and her biological father, Jerry

Director Jerry Rothwell

"Age of Champions" (****-70 minutes)
Another film dealing with older folks trying to live out their days being active instead of being sedentary while counting down the days. Young@Heart (2008) depicted seniors in a chorus tackling rock songs that showed how their love of music continued to help make their life both meaningful and fulfilling. Here, it is the competition of sports that provides the same outlet to a group of amazing folks competing in the 2009 Senior Olympics. The World Premier of Christopher Rufo's ultimate feel-good film is, excuse the pun, one for the ages. Rufo concentrates on a basketball team of grandmas, a 100-year-old tennis player, a pole-vaulter and his attempt to upend his feisty rival, and a pair of swimming brothers from D.C., one of which recently diagnosed with cancer, actually delayed his chemo treatments in order to compete at the event. Interspersed with the actual competition are up-close profiles that will have you cheering for these amazing athletes for reasons other than their athletic prowess. You will also realize that, in the end, winning or losing really does not matter-whether you are a teenager or a centenarian. What does matter is the desire and the ability to compete at any age that makes the human condition unique and life worth living.

(l to r) John and Bradford Tatum - 88 and 90 years old, competing at the 
2009Senior Olympics


(l to r) senior Olympic swimmer Bradford Tatum, Tigerettes senior
basketball players Nikki Leader and Kitty Sparacello, 
senior Olympic swimmer John Bradford, producer Keith Ochwat, 
and director Christopher Fufo


Tigerettes Nikki Leader and Kitty Sparacello in the lobby after the World 
Premier

"The Revenge of the Electric Car" (*** 1/2-90 minutes)-Closing Night Film

The Closing Night Film is director Chris Paine's continuation of his 2006's "Who Killed the Electric Car", which described the auto industry's apparently successful attempt to rid the planet of the alternative vehicle that would have revolutionized our lives as well as the planet. As we are slowly reemerging from the greatest recession in history, the electric car appears to be making a comeback. Paine profiles four individuals who are in a race to manufacture and market the vehicle. We see GM head honcho, Bob Lutz, do a complete turnabout after single handily destroying the EV1 prototype (to the utter dismay of Danny DeVito) in the first film. We meet Nissan's legendary CEO Carlos Ghosn gambling his business' fortune on The Leaf. PayPal millionaire Elon Musk creates his $100K version and names it the Tesla-all the while facing bankruptcy. And probably the most interesting of the four: Greg "Gadget" Abbotts who creates vehicles in a warehouse by converting gas guzzlers into electric versions for an affordable price-despite a devastating fire that wiped out his first prototype. All these stories are accompanied with slick editing backed by a terrific soundtrack, and given an effective narrative by Tim Robbins. Keep in mind that it is not necessary to have seen the first film as Paine supplies sufficient background and a summary of the pertinent points to bring you up to speed. A fall theatrical release is being planned.



Greg "Gadget" Abbott with one of his converted vehicles
(l to r) car maker Greg "Gadget" Abbott; Sierra Club Director of Green
Transportation, Anna Mesnikoff; panel moderator Ray Wert, 
Editor-in-Chief of the  political website Jalopnik; senior reporter 
for NPR's Marketplace, Nancy Marshall-Genzer; director Chris Paine  
after the post-screening panel discussion

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Sunday June 26, 2011-DAY 7


"Never Make It Home" (*** 1/2-93 minutes)
The world premier of G.J. Echternkamp's touching inspirational film about the final tour of guitarist/lead singer/free spirit Kirk Rundstrom with his band "Split Lip Rayfield" is ultimately life affirming. In 2005, Echternkamp started filming the Kansas-based band for a music video. Unexpectedly, eight months into filming, Rundstrom was diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live. Despite being a family man, Kirk decided to spend the rest of his days doing what he loved best: playing music (described by one of the musicians as "all-acoustic, scorched-earth slamgrass"). The final tour actually becomes a source of exaltation and, instead of wallowing in despair, Rundstrom remained upbeat to the end-all the while entertaining the legions of fans that adored him and his group until his death in February 2007. Echternkamp's camera captures poignant interviews that never become maudlin as we journey inside the unique tour-never knowing if each performance would be the final one. The wonderfully mixed music only adds to the total enjoyment of this profile of a musician who cherished every day as if it was his last. And although we know how it all turns out, the director made the correct decision not to depict the final note of the last song of the farewell concert-allowing the music, visuals, and Rundstrom's memory to linger in the minds of the audience.
 
Musician Kirk Rumstrom in his glory

"Project Nim" (****-93 Minutes)
Director James Marsh won the Academy Award for his brilliant documentary "Man on Wire" in 2008, and he should garner equal accolades with this fascinating account of the experiments that began in the early 70's involving Nim the chimpanzee. The project was the brainchild of Columbia University professor Herbert Terrence who theorized that primates, raised in a human environment practically from birth, could be taught to communicate words and even grammatical sentences with humans via sign language. Using the same dramatization techniques he employed in his award-winning documentary of the amazing high wire exploits of Philip Pettit, Marsh has also included home movies and news footage to tell the incredibly heartbreaking life history of Nim Chimpsky. Heartbreaking because, after Terrence first places Nim in the care of a soft-parenting ex-student (and lover), along with her husband and seven kids, Nim's care is subsequently handled by an estate funded by the University, and then back to the stark research institute where he was born and separated from his mother. Interviews with all of Nim's caretakers and the detailed history of Nim's journey ends up turning a dry science project into a complex convoluted human soap opera in which Nim becomes the ultimate victim in the end. The film opened on a limited basis on July 8.
 

 
Researcher  Herbert Terrence and Nim

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Monday June 27, 2011-DAY 8


"The Redemption of General Butt Naked" (*** 1/2-84 minutes)
Despite the somewhat humorous title, directors Eric Strauss's and Daniele Anastasion's documentary is anything but. Liberia's 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 was brutal, and one of the leaders at the forefront of this brutality was Joshua Milton Blahyi, known during this period as General Butt Naked-a man who believed that being naked in battle guaranteed his invincibility. Responsible for maiming and killing thousands (which he admitted to before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission), this wartime monster turned charismatic repenter/evangelical Christian preacher now seeks out those whom he directly and indirectly harmed. Over the course of five years, the filmmakers were able to locate folks that became part of this amazing story. We see Blahyi in action as he repeatedly tracks down the people and families that were affected by his atrocities in order to beg for their forgiveness. Is he truly sincere or is he merely trying to escape retaliation for his actions? These are just a few of the questions that will haunt the viewer, as there is no easy pat answer to this complex character. Strauss and Anastasion, to their credit, remain neutral and let the visuals tell the incredible story that leaves open the possibility that, despite Blahyi's apparent remorse, he will surely be looking over his shoulder for many days to come. A fascinating story that is stranger than fiction.
 


 
The General preaching to his constituents


"The Interrupters" (***-144 minutes)
Director Steve James, whose 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams" about Chicago inner-city high school basketball players is considered in some circles one of the greatest docs ever made, returns to the Windy City to examine a group of ex-gang members' intent on stopping the incessant youth violence in the inner city. Together with bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (whose article about the subject first appeared in the New York Times Magazine), James follows a couple ex-gangers, part of the organization named CeaseFire, whose purpose is to stop, or interrupt, the violence before it happens. James filmed several subjects for a full year (the doc is divided into four seasonal segments) and culled over 300 hours down to 144 minutes to help explain how interaction coupled with common sense could be just the answer to warding off the needless violence that pervades Chicago and too many of our urban landscapes. The fact that each of the individuals from CeaseFire have past histories that closely mirror the inner city youths makes their preaching more effective to their target audience. Although the captivating "Hoop Dreams" benefited from its unusual lengthy running time (clocking in at 171 minutes), this one, unfortunately, is in definite need of some serious editing as the material tends to be repetitious and, after a while, mind-numbing in its pronouncements. Despite that, this ambitious documentary is an important work that should serve as a major educational tool for urban areas desperately trying to figure out a counter attack and solution to this major problem. (NOTE: After SILVERDOCS, it was reported that James has reedited the doc down to 125 minutes for the theatrical run which began in limited distribution on July 29.)

 

 
The Interrupters trying to stop the violence before it begins
by speaking to youths on the streets of Chicago

"The Loving Story" (*** 1/2 -77 minutes)
Another wonderful HBO presentation. This one details the case of the interracial marriage of (white) Richard and (white/Native American) Mildred Loving. When they married in D.C. in 1958, they promptly returned to their home in Virginia's Caroline County where they were arrested for violating the state's anti-miscegenation laws. The Lovings received a suspended sentence only if they agreed to leave Virginia. However, returning and taking up residence in Washington D.C. did not prevent them from sneaking back home for extended periods-since both had families firmly rooted in Old Dominion. A letter to attorney-general Robert Kennedy set in motion their fight to legally return to their rural Virginia home that they were forced to vacate. This fight eventually landed in front of The Supreme Court in 1967 where their two very young and inexperienced ACLU attorneys, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, presented their case. The result was the overturning of the miscegenation laws, not only in Virginia, but also in 16 other states. Producer/director Nancy Buirski (who founded the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) has presented a beautiful film chock full of wonderful white and white archival footage and photographs to tell this story that was a landmark case during the tumultuous civil rights era. What makes it even more special is the care she took to carefully edit the story to show the Lovings as two people who were deeply in love and became caught up in a cause each would have gladly avoided if left to their own volition. A film that mirrors the current struggles of gays and lesbians to wed, surprisingly this is the first documentary dealing with interracial marriage; and it is amazing to realize that it's only been 44 years since these racial laws have been overturned in many Southern states. The film is scheduled to air on HBO early in 2012.
 
 
Richard and Mildred Loving 

"Life in a Day" (*** -90 minutes)
In this day and age of YouTube and instant videos, why not give a multitude of folks on the planet a video camera to record a snippet of their life on a single day? Director Kevin McDonald ("The Last King of Scotland") obtained over 4,500 hours of video recorded on July 24, 2010 from over 80,000 people in 21 languages from 192 countries. Then, Editor Joe Walker ("Hunger") whittled it down to 90 minutes to produce a film that is just what the title says-a mostly fascinating cinematic time capsule of life in the 21st century. YouTube and Ridley Scott corroborated on this project that has humor, action, and pathos-along with the depiction of mundane existence that each of us on Planet Earth experiences from time to time. There is some cohesiveness than the random placement of videos. Various sections are devoted to the videographers answering questions from folks holding placards such as, "What's in your pocket?" or "What do you love?" that merge with the depiction of the day that starts with the full moon at midnight through the last seconds of 7/24/10. An effective, non-obtrusive soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams and Matthew Herbert backgrounds the visuals. And Joe Walker's incredibly impressive editing should be required viewing and analysis in film schools across the country. My only gripe is that, even at the relatively short running time of 90 minutes, the film tends to drag and lose occasional focus. However, the overall concept works and will, undoubtedly, have the viewer realizing just how wonderful and varied life is around the globe. The National Geographic Film will be in limited release in theaters on July 24, 2011, on the one-year anniversary of the shoot.

 
 
 
A couple of the over 80,000 participants around the world
who were filmed on July 24, 2011

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