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That's a Wrap: Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, June 15-22, 2009

That's a Wrap: Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, June 15-22, 2009

by Chris Neilson In the interests of full disclosure before recounting the particulars of the seventh annual iteration of the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival I'll note that I played a very small part in the orchestration of the festival. I was one of forty-six volunteer screeners. In that capacity, I screened forty of the 1,983 documentaries submitted to the festival for consideration before the submissions were ultimately considered by the ten-member final selection committee. Lest anyone think my role bigger than it was, I'll note that despite my very enthusiastic recommendation for one film in particular, none of the submissions I screened were ultimately selected for the festival.

With that disclosure out of the way, allow me to tell you that Silverdocs 2009 was outstanding. Despite the economic recession which has impacted the film festival circuit generally, Silverdocs appeared bigger and better than ever. Co-produced by the American Film Institute (AFI) and the Discovery Channel, and held in Silver Spring, Maryland at the historic AFI Silver Theater and the adjacent Discovery Communications World Headquarters, Silverdocs is the largest documentary film festival in the United States. This year, 122 documentaries from 58 counties were screened. Over 25,000 ticket buyers were joined by more than 1200 filmmakers and industry professionals for eight days of documentaries and conferences. As many as five screens running from 10 AM to late into the night allowed each of the documentaries in competition to be shown at least twice, thus providing festival goers the opportunity to catch the encore screening of those films that had generated the most buzz earlier in the week.

Top festival honors went to October Country (Sterling US Feature Award), Mugabe and the White African (Sterling World Feature Award), and 12 Notes Down (Sterling Short Award and Short Audience Award. Other prize winners included Rise Up (Music Documentary Award), Old Partner (Cinematic Vision Award, Good Fortune (Witness Award), Off and Running (Writers Guild of America Documentary Screenplay Award), ), The Cove (Feature Audience Award), and Cinema Chimp (ACE Grant).

Beyond the films in competition, the festival included a diverse slate of special programming including a retrospective of the works of "Direct Cinema" pioneer Albert Maysles who was honored at the festival's Guggenheim Symposium, and the world premieres of AJ Schnack's Convention documenting the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver and of Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer's The Nine Lives of Marion Barry recounting the political career and personal failings of the controversial former DC mayor and present DC city councilperson.

Concurrently and co-located with Silverdocs was the sixth International Documentary Conference providing filmmakers and industry professionals opportunities to collegially interact and learn from one another. Conference programming emphasized transformative technology and "storytelling in an 'always on' world." The opportunity for eight filmmaking teams selected from 300 applications to pitch their films to industry insiders was a conference highlight.

Thanks to the efforts of a large cadre of professional staff and an army of volunteers under the direction of festival artistic director Sky Sitney, Silverdocs appeared to run nearly flawlessly. Despite technical difficulties which briefly interrupted a handful of screenings, the overall technical quality was beyond reproach. And, with the exception of the closing night centerpiece, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, which started late and appeared to be oversold, nearly every film began on time, while also managing to accommodate many of those festival goers waiting in the last minute standby line.

Beyond the many fine films recognized with prizes, a few others also stood out, most notably Best Worst Movie (dir. Michael Paul Stephenson), the outrageously hilarious documentary about the cult phenomenon emerging around the Citizen Kane of bad movies Trolls 2, and Mine (dir. Geralyn Pezanoski), a deeply-moving examination of the efforts of Hurricane Katrina evacuees to be reunited with companion dogs they were forced to leave behind once the rescued dogs were distributed across the country for adoption to new families reluctant to return them.

Here's hoping for an equally outstanding Silverdocs 2010, and I hope to see you there.


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