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By Elias Savada | June 11, 2008

In Silver Spring, Maryland, this June 16-23, it’s not necessarily the heat and humidity that will be driving the crowds indoors, although the weather can be quite oppressive here in the National Capital Area in the peak summer months. No, the driving force getting people off the streets will be the 108 films representing 63 countries unreeling at SILVERDOCS, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. Yeah, sure, you can catch a movie anywhere, anytime, in any multiplex. Superheroes, comedies, animation, chick flicks abound. But for a single week (expanded this sixth year from what had previously been five days) you can be among the thousands who can discover the newest and possibly most exciting works celebrate the documentary art form. Many of the films will be shown here for the first time; a handful will actually make it into a commercial run or be shown on television later. Some follow successful screenings at the Sundance, Slamdance, and Tribeca Film Festivals. But why wait when you can enjoy these films for the first time, with many of the filmmakers in attendance, all very happy to answer your questions following any screening.

The event is held at the three-screen AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the Round House Theatre next door, and the Discovery HD Theater a half-block away. The area, part of a successful rebuilding of downtown Silver Spring has been anchored by the lovely community restoration of the historic 1938 Silver Theatre and the nearby Discovery Channel headquarters, which relocated from Bethesda, Maryland, three miles due west.

It’s impossible to handicap the race for the prizes (among the seven competitions are U.S. Feature, World Feature, and Best Music Documentary). I would have bet on Big Brown to garner the Triple Crown, so I’d just try to catch as many of the horses, er, films, in the race. Each one has its own particular charm, strong story, or celebratory power. Some shows are already sold out, but you might be able to wrangle a standby ticket. S.R.O. shows include opening night’s “All Together Now,” the U.S. premiere of Adrian Wills’ film about The Beatles’s collaboration with Cirque Du Soleil, and closing night’s “Theatre of War” a behind-the-scenes look at a 2006 performance of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” featuring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

In between are 28 features in the Silver Spectrum (formerly World View) section (“American Teen,” “The Betrayal,” “Bi the Way,” “Bird’s Nest: Herzog and De Meuron in China,” “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father,” “Docu-Club ‘In the Works’ presents Stages,” “Dust,” “Kicking It,” “Letter to Anna,” “Lost Holiday,” “Lucio,” “Man on Wire,” “My Mother’s Garden,” “My Winnipeg,” “On the Way to Paradise,” “Order of Myths,” “Pindorama: The True Story of the Seven Dwarves,” “A Powerful Noise,” “Seaview,” “Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains,” “Sync or Swim,” “The Third Coast International Audio Festival,” “This Way Up,” “Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma,” “Under Our Skin,” “Up the Yangtze,” “War Child” and “Yidishe Mama.” “American Teen,” the only one of these I have seen, was at Sundance and its story of four teens in a small Indiana town was quite real, even if I wondered if this was a documentary because its story was so tightly told. It’s slated for release in late July. “Bird’s Nest” and “Dust” will arrive later this year through Icarus Films. “Kicking It,” an ESPN production directed by Susan Koch, will be released (theatrically and on DVD) by Liberation Entertainment. James Marsh’s “Man on Wire,” about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high wire routine between NYC’s World Trade Center’s twin towers, is a Discovery Films production and release. “My Winnipeg” by Canadian director Guy Maddin (in person at the festival) is slated for distribution via IFC Films. “Order of Myths” opens in NYC on July 25th, presumably with other cities following. Zeitgeist Films opened “Up the Yangtze” in NYC in late April and in LA in May.

Wait, there’s more:

There are five features in the 1968 and Beyond sidebar (“Gimme Shelter,” “Generation 68,” “In the Year of the Pig,” “Law and Order” and “Robert Kennedy Remembered”), as well as a retrospective of Spike Lee’s documentary films (“When the Levees Broke,” “4 Little Girls” and the short “We Wuz Robbed”). Lee will also be honored at this year’s Guggenheim Symposium, named for the four-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. This Symposium (Thursday, June 19) honors “a filmmaker whose work captures current events, frames history, and inspires audiences.”


In the Sterling competition you’ll be able to see “Bulletproof Salesman,” “Chevolution,” “Comeback,” “Corridor #8,” “The English Surgeon,” “Four Seasons Lodge,” “Four Wives—One Man,” “The Garden,” “Hard Times at Douglass High,” “Head Wind,” “Herb & Dorothy,” “In the Family,” “The Infinite Border,” “Kassim the Dream,” “Mechanical Love” (about robots and human intimacy), “Milosevic on Trial,” “My Life Inside,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “The Red Race” and “Trouble the Water.”


Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” his first documentary since “Grizzly Man” (shown at the 2005 SILVERDOCS), which examines the stark life of scientists on Antarctica. Discovery will release this. And Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s latest “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” which enters limited U.S. release on Independence Day. Gibney will be attending. From the people who brought us “Wordplay” comes “I.O.U.S.A,” a film by Patrick Creadon (also in attendance) about the National Debt!

There are lots of short subjects, too. Some precede the main features, but there are also five shorts programs (free at noon each day).

SILVERDOCS is not only bigger and better this year, it’s LOUDER. There is an 840-minute retrospective of 1973’s “An American Family” tv series. This was a groundbreaking show that today’s “American Idol” crowd are clueless about, but here, in its entirety, is the first reality tv series featuring the Loud family. Come see what your parents’ watched for true entertainment.

What else?

There is also a five-day International Documentary Conference going on at the same time. Aside from the filmmakers presenting their films at SILVERDOCS, this program offers other filmmakers and industry talent who provide fresh perspectives on the artistic and business aspects of making documentaries.

I’d love to tell you which films you must see, but you’ll just have to rough it with the thousands of others turning their film guide ragged as they circle the film, event, discussion, or meal (if you have time) to catch. Choose wisely. As this year’s festival credo suggests: Think for yourself.

So right after Father’s Day (when previous SILVERDOCS editions would close—this year moved because of conflicts with the AFI Life Achievement Award), join the crowds flocking to downtown Silver Spring—just a few blocks from Washington’s popular Metro subway system—as this neighborhood continues its half-decade resurgence, with new eateries, entertainment, and other local delights. Parking is very accessible and if you deposit your car in the Wayne Street Garage, you can get out free after 8 PM. That’s right, Free Parking. And just as SILVERDOCS announces its winners, you can take a break because our Major League Nationals will be back in for 9-day home stand at their brand new stadium. You will have to put up with the heat, though.

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