What do Elmo, the New York Times, McDonald's coffee, transsexual tennis star Renee Richards, the interracial couple whose case overturned anti-miscegenation laws, a chimp using sign language, electric cars, the real horse whisperer, a former luxury hotel in Mozambique and Al Franken have in common? They were all featured in one of the 108 films from 52 countries shown during the five days of the AFI/Discovery Silverdocs documentary conference and festival that wrapped up on Sunday in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The annual documentary fest attracted over 27,000 film-goers, filmmakers, TV executives, funders and distributors to what's become a must stop on the documentary circuit for professionals and a unique opportunity for the public to see films that probably won't show up at their neighborhood multiplex or even on television.
Films like: The Loving Story that traces interracial couple, Mildred and Richard Loving's fight to overturn Virginia's laws barring their marriage; Hot Coffee that delves into the larger ramifications of corporate denial of liability by focusing on the much derided lawsuit against McDonald's for the burns inflicted from a spilled cup of their coffee; Renee, the turbulent and troubled life of Yale grad and doctor Richard Raskin who became Renee Richards after a sex change operation and created a storm of controversy when she had the audacity to compete in the U.S. Open as a women; and Project Nim, the tragic fallout of the misguided attempt to raise a chimpanzee like a human child and teach it sign language, then abandoning it once the experiment had run its course, have all found a home on HBO. Or in the case of the Richard's doc on ESPN Classic.
Others like Page One: Inside the New York Times the fascinating journey into the heart of the New York Times led by the Times' media critic David Carr, whose engaging in-your-face manner is reminiscent of actor Bruce Weitz's, Detective Mick Belker from Hill Street Blues, will be making the theatrical rounds.
But one category -- the shorts, those films under forty minutes -- are unlikely to find a theatrical release of TV outlet. So the only way to see films like, the 26-minute-long Barber of Birmingham, a moving story about the "foot-soldiers" in the civil rights movement, including one who went from cutting hair to organizing for the right to vote and lived to see an African American become President, is to attend festivals such as Silverdocs.
Aside from the splendid, thoughtful and diverse line up of moving films that Silverdocs offers, it's also a place for professional filmmakers and first timers to delve into tech topics from how to use the latest digital cameras or get up to speed on editing and directing documentaries. There are also sessions with mainstream funders like the National Endowments for the Humanities, the Arts and the Ford Foundation as well as with newer players in the money game. There were presentations by representatives from organizations such as: Chicken and Egg Pictures, who focus on nurturing women filmmakers; Cinereach, supporting both fiction and non-fictions films at all stages of production; the Fledgling Fund that really likes to come in late in the process and help filmmakers with "outreach and engagement" so their films build an audience and make a difference; The San Francisco Film Society that is committed to doling out over $300,000 to docs makers from around the country in the next three years; and the Tribecca Film Institute that grants filmmakers up to $1,000,000 a year through several different programs.
Silverdocs also offers a chance to meet the filmmakers and the people featured in the films. The man behind the Sesame Street character Elmo was on hand to talk about the touching and entertaining film, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey and how he created this most memorable character. Senator Al Franken turned up to honor veteran filmmakers D. A. Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus who produced a film about Franken being sued by Fox over his use of their motto "Fair and Balanced" on the cover of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.
The suit was "the best thing that ever happened to me," said Franken. The film and the attendant publicity was "like Bill O'Reilly walking up to you (him) and handing you a check for a million dollars," he said. That didn't mean Franken would let the couple follow him as he ran for the Senate. He explained that his very close race against Republican Norm Coleman might have turned out differently if "301 people (his margin of victory) had said, 'we don't like that' I would have lost." He regrets having to make that decision, "it would have been a great documentary," said Franken. Who envisioned how the drama of the protracted recount would have given it a nail biting third act?
There were no hard feelings in evidence as Franken introduced the filmmaking couple by contrasting them with Aaron Spelling, the creator of Charlie's Angels, the Mod Squad and Beverly Hills 90210. "Aaron Spelling created over 2000 hours of television but none of it will ever stand," said Franken. In contrast, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who produced the bio of Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back, the inside view of the Clinton Presidential campaign, The War Room and Monterey Pop, a film about the iconic Monterey Pop Music Festival featuring Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who, the Byrds and Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire -- literally and figuratively, "their work stands the test of time," said Franken.
Making work that stands the test of time isn't easy and finding a way to share your work with an audience also isn't easy. But it's worth taking the time to see the variety of documentaries at festivals like Silverdocs. You'll be glad you did.
All photos courtesy of AFI/Discovery Silverdocs Festival. Used by permission of the Festival.
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