After two weeks of covering the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, I'm glad to move on to a documentary-focused event devoted more to non-fiction storytelling than promotion of causes. This is my first year at Silverdocs (full-name: AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs), which has annually been a hub for doc enthusiasts in the D.C. area for nearly a decade. And though there is some overlap between fests (including my HRW faves Restrepo and War Don Don), right from the start Silverdocs has been a very different experience from the HRW. Here they show everything from the light and unsubstantial (opening night selection Freakonomics) to the deadly serious (HIV/AIDS doc The Other City). And in between there is room for plenty of autobiographic journeys, a rock doc, some histories and stuff that's hard to classify (such as my favorite from Tribeca, Into Eternity).

This being my first fest that's completely interested in documentary, I've discovered the fine line between the major benefit and the major problem with the niche focus. The best thing is there are so many docs to choose from. The worst thing is there are so many docs to choose from. I'm admittedly an extremely indecisive person, so planning out a schedule here was one of the hardest things I've had to do. And of course I haven't been able to stick to it.
Other immediate observations include minor gripes that come with the territory. I honestly do not need to hear either of the following two-part Q&A inquiries ever again: "have they seen the film, and what is the reaction?" and "do you keep in touch with the subjects, and what are they up to now?" Can't people just enjoy an enclosed narrative? Neither of these questions is ever asked of fiction films (well, sometimes), and I wish they could be left alone with docs, too. I think the desire for more is influenced by reality television, with which you often get another season with the characters.

I'm only a few days in, but I'd like to share some thoughts on some of the films I've seen, the panel I attended and the gratitude I have for the fest's decision to honor documentary master Frederick Wiseman. Additionally, I'll be posting some individual film reviews on Cinematical over the next week and I'll be capping up my coverage in next week's Doc Talk.


Silverdocs is kind of like a best of fest for non-fiction films, with numerous selections premiering beforehand at Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, SXSW and other events. HolyWars was surprisingly rejected from Tribeca (among other fests) and so is having its world premiere here. So far, and yes it is still early, it's the best thing I've seen, and yet I'm also quite torn on my acceptance of its documentary practices. There is a very heavy "documentarian hand," as I call it, in the way its events are steered by the filmmakers. But I can't dismiss the fact that in terms of narrative above pure, non-participatory observation, HolyWars works really well.

The film follows two fundamentalist characters, one a Midwestern Christian missionary, the other a white, Irish-born Muslim convert with ideas so radical he doesn't even fit in with some extremist Islamic communities. It's a contrived concept and setup that actually pays off, partly because the individuals are so enthralling and partly because filmmaker Stephen Marshall (writer-director of the Medium Cool near-remake This Revolution) clearly gained the full trust of these guys.

So when the doc leads to an arranged meeting between the subjects, it feels more natural than it should. In a way, it's a forced Breakfast Club-esque situation. And with past films like Double Dare I've been less approving of the "documentarian hand" with similar arrangements. Here, I'll just make the disclaimer while wholeheartedly recommending the film as a story of what happens when uncompromising idealists meet.

Secrets of the Tribe

After being blown away by both his documentary Bus 174 and his controversial Berlinale-winning drama Elite Squad, I was expecting a similar engagement with Jose Padilha's latest film, Secrets of the Tribe, wondering why it hadn't received the same attention as those prior works. Well, it's not as intense and exciting as those films, but this doc is still pretty astonishing. It also unfortunately has a limited appeal in that it's concentrated on the world of anthropologic academia and the clashes therein. Let me say to the followers of cinematic discourse and bloggery out there that the film critic world's dramas are child's play compared to that of ethnographers.

Secrets of the Tribe almost ironically puts a cultural study on scientists who've lived among and researched the Amazonian natives of the Yanomami tribe. Many of them hate each other, and the way Padilha intercuts between interviews with those who'd participate in the film results in a riveting, conflicting oral history of work involving those indigenous people, many of whom it turns out were shockingly exploited under the guises of anthropology. If you want to learn about an issue of ethics in anthropology, I don't know that there's been anything quite like this.

One scientist corrupted the Yanomami with gifts of tools and weaponry, causing violence among tribesmen, as well as allegedly using them for secret biological experimentation. Another made a name for himself -- in People magazine, for instance -- by marrying an 11-year-old girl from the tribe and bringing her back with him to the U.S. And then there's the Levi-Strauss disciple who used his opportunity with the Yanomami to set up a commune of prepubescent boy toys.

Secret of the Tribe slows down in its second half and concentrates more on the alleged experimenter, a highly outspoken and abrasive retired professor named Napoleon Chagnon, as he moves on after being blacklisted by his scientific community. While it's of potential interest to a variety of academics (and academic-minded viewers such as myself), it is also far less captivating than the sex stuff brought up in the first half. I could have gone for something a little more consistent in narrative, but I still think this film deserves more attention than it's getting. Maybe it should be mandatory viewing at colleges, at least on the doctoral level.

The Other City

I just about bawled this morning while watching this deeply tragic documentary about Washington D.C.'s HIV/AIDS epidemic. But I was at least prepared. It's that kind of documentary where you know it won't end without one of its characters dying. Not to spoil anything, but it's pretty obvious from the start which one it will be, too. Before I'd heard of Susan Koch's documentary, I had no clue about how bad the increase in HIV and AIDS throughout the U.S. is, especially in D.C., where 3% of the population has at least HIV. And I believe I'm comparatively more informed than a good deal of the country's youth. Therefore this is an important film for people to see. It's perfectly suited for HBO, though it should be shown in high school health classes nationwide. I know, here I am doing what I hate and spouting about an issue promoted through an issue doc, but this deserves it. Or, at least this shows the film successfully reached me.

Frederick Wiseman

Finally I just have to quickly address my excitement for Silverdocs' choice to honor Frederick Wiseman this year. The legend of observational documentary (who is actually quite editorially manipulative) is the subject of the 2010 Charles Guggenheim Symposium and to celebrate the fest is showing six of the filmmaker's works, selected by him. Unfortunately for myself, these films are showing after the main time frame of the fest, but fortunately for the DC-area audience that means they won't need to choose them over the new docs being shown. And believe me, if anyone has the opportunity to choose Wiseman over something else, they really should do so -- not just because they're for the most part great films but also because they're not as available as most other documentaries. They're not on DVD or any other easily accessed home video format. They sometimes appear on PBS and occasionally screen at museums and universities. So see them when you can. And congrats to Wiseman!
categories Columns, Cinematical