Silverdocs 2011 in Brief

Silverdocs closed out its ninth edition Sunday evening after seven days of documentary screenings, panels, and workshops in Silver Spring MD. The awards ceremony took place on Saturday afternoon, while audience award winners were announced today. Best World Feature went to FAMILY INSTINCT, with POSITION AMONG THE STARS recognized with a Special Mention; Best US Feature went to OUR SCHOOL (pictured), with Special Mentions to THE BULLY PROJECT and WHEN THE DRUM IS BEATING; the WGA Documentary Screenplay Award went to THE LOVING STORY; and the Cinematic Vision Award went to LIFE IN A DAY. The Feature Audience Award went to DONOR UNKNOWN.

My primary purpose at the festival – my first time there – was for its corresponding Conference. This year, Festival Director Sky Sitney turned to a number of independent industryites including me to co-curate panels, and I was pleased to present four sessions as well as to serve on a couple of additional panels organized by others. This didn’t leave a lot of time to screen films, but I had fortunately seen a large percentage of the line-up at other festivals – my write-ups for those can be found elsewhere on this blog. Of the dozen or so films premiering here or ones that I had missed elsewhere, I managed to screen about half. Among those, along with some others that I saw previously but hadn’t yet written about, are:

Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock use the case of Adrian Thomas, a man accused of injuring his infant son sufficiently to cause his death, to examine police interrogation practices and resultant false confessions. What could have been a TV investigative journalist piece is given sensitive and nuanced treatment, with extended excerpts of Thomas’ 10 hour interrogation video especially utilized effectively to demonstrate police tactics to obtain confessions at any cost when they have their suspicions of criminal activity – even if forensic evidence shows no foul play whatsoever. In addition, brief interviews with jurors from Thomas’ case point to the damning affect such taped interrogations, combined with surface judgements of appearance and demeanor, can have on an accused’s fate. The directors strategically use their own interview with Thomas, saving it for maximum impact rather than threading it through the whole film.

Another father’s alleged crime against his own children is the focus of Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr’s SXSW Lone Star Award winner. In this case, Cameron Todd Willingham was found guilty of the arson murders of his three young daughters, leading to his death by lethal injection. A false confession wasn’t the cause of injustice here – instead, faulty investigation. This compelling doc puts forth a strong argument against arson investigation practices, with fire and explosive scientific experts revealing that much of the discipline, at least at the time of the Willingham fire, was based not on science but on hunches and conclusions either not borne out by or in direct contradiction to real science. Adding the death penalty to the mix turns posthumous appeals to re-open the case of Willingham’s innocence into a political fireball, with Texas politicians seeming determined to obstruct attempts to get expert testimony into the public consciousness. What’s most telling (and infuriating) here is, like the presumptions made by Thomas’ jurors above, the willful anti-intellectual bias at play, with scientists and their expert opinions ignored or actively devalued to serve a political agenda.

Politics are also in play in Chad Freidrichs’ cogent look at public housing and its failures in St Louis. After less than two decades, the very public demolition of the once-ballyhooed titular housing project seemed to confirm the conclusion that public housing was a bad idea, responsible for urban blight, increased crime, and suburban escape. Friedrichs takes a careful look at these assumptions and through artfully employed archival footage and interviews with former residents, historians, and other academics, seeks to put these perceptions into historical context. While it may have been easy to lay the blame at the feet of the largely low-income African-American population that called Pruitt-Igoe home, they tell a different story of governmental blunders and neglect that led to the project’s sorry state, and of political, economic, and racist motivations that may just have allowed the myths behind its failure to go unchallenged.

A very different consideration of a place is found in Natalia Almada’s beautiful observational study of a cemetery in one of the most dangerous regions in Mexico. Almada constructs a very different film from her EL GENERAL, but equally thoughtful in pace and execution. Her subject is a Cualican cemetery known as El Jardin, and also known as the final resting place for the most powerful drug warlords in the area, who inhabit extravagant multi-level mausoleums tended to by their young widows and watched over by the night watchman, Martin. It’s through the radio and television broadcasts which he tunes into that Almada provides the viewer with some incidental context of the raging violence brought on by narco-trafficking – otherwise, the film is largely silent, concerned instead with a feeling of place. The mundane images she captures, both at night when Martin stands guard silently, and during the day, when he dispassionately tends to the grounds of this expanding necropolis, underscore the tragedy of the surroundings and of the unfortunate sense that his services will be needed for a long while to come.

Jeanie Finlay captures a different sort of caretaker in her portrait of Tom Butchart, the owner of a smalltown UK record shop. While larger chain stores have been decimated by digital music, Tom’s been able to keep Sound It Out Records afloat, largely due to his personal touch with customers and his encyclopedic knowledge of music in all genres, even those he claims to hate. While the economic pressures brought on by technological advancements are occasionally touched upon, Finlay smartly doesn’t dwell on the subject too much – her focus instead is on the day-to-day goings on in the store, Tom and his employees, and a handful of their customers – some pleasingly eccentric, others heartfelt in their acknowledgement of the store’s meaning in their lives. Like them, Finlay is able to find the extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.

Continuing the theme, Salomé Jashi’s film also concentrates on a specific place – the title refers to a restaurant in the west Georgian town of Chokhatauri, a small town that’s clearly seen better days, and more inhabitants. In its present state, it seems to be just shy of a ghost town, with only a handful of people visible. Most of them work at the brightly colored restaurant – though “work” would imply that there are more than one or two customers a day to serve. Though some audiences might find even its hour length to be too long, the sense of tedium neatly approximates a fraction of what is no doubt felt by its subjects. Besides, the beautiful and deliberate cinematography gives the viewer something at which to marvel.

Jasmin and Assi, the married couple who are the subjects of Gabriella Bier’s film, can’t stop thinking about their home. As a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew, they find themselves without one. Due to laws which apparently are meant to prevent the creation of unwitting terrorists, they’re not legally permitted to marry and cohabitate. That didn’t stop them from marrying, but it’s preventing them from setting up a home together. Like the Lovings of THE LOVING STORY, they decide to challenge what they view as a racist law in court, despite opposition and the stress it brings to their relationship. Filming over four years, Bier attains a natural intimacy with her subjects that makes their Romeo and Juliet story and the governmental red tape they face both personal and political at the same time, making the audience consider not only their relationship, but the possibilities of reconciliation in the Holy Land as a whole.

With acclaimed African-American dancer/choreographer Bill T Jones and the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln at its core, Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn’s A GOOD MAN can’t not address issues of race. The film documents Jones’ artistic process, as he is commissioned by the music and performance oriented Ravinia Festival to create a celebration of Lincoln’s bicentennial. As he develops his piece on the figure who Jones states was the only white man he was allowed to love unconditionally as a child, his research forces him to face some uncomfortable realities – perhaps his childhood hero wasn’t quite as accepting of racial equality as Jones assumed. It’s in how Jones tackles these contradictory impulses that the film is its most engaging, showing the audience a true creative genius at work. Hercules and Quinn’s deft approach results in a project that successfully conveys artistic vision, whether an individual audience member cares about dance or not.

The power of another kind of art to address complex ethnic divisions is tested in Patrick Reed’s affecting film. Instead of dance, THE TEAM looks at an arguably more populist form of entertainment – soap opera. Hoping to forestall the kind of ethnic violence that erupted after a contested national election in 2007, Kenyan producers developed a program centered on a soccer team, hoping the popular sport would provide an entry point to bring issues related to ethnicity to the masses. The film follows the casting, production, and reception of the program, profiling cast members with their own experiences of ethnic tension and challenges of different socio-economic status. Facing a difficult production schedule, as well as the possibility of real violence when shooting in impoverished areas, the producers take a real risk with the hope that they can affect real change. A heartbreaking development late in the film shows exactly what the stakes are.

The director of the Sundance award winning IMELDA returns to her native land for the subject of her most recent film. Ramona Diaz follows four Filipina teachers as they are recruited to teach in Baltimore MD’s public schools due to the lack of qualified US teachers. Leaving loving classrooms and family behind in the Philippines for the ability to make substantially more money, the women face culture shock from the beginning – accustomed to obedient students back home eager to learn, they often must contend with unruly, disruptive classrooms; used to the support of family and community, they must create their own support system among fellow teachers and other immigrants. Especially difficult is the situation faced by Grace, a young mother who is not recognized by the infant daughter she is forced to leave with her sister to raise in her absence. With a largely verité approach, Diaz does an exceptional job in contrasting the experiences of her subjects between their two cultures, and of showing the benefits, and the costs, of their experience.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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