Hollywood, it often seems, has only a few stories to tell. Documentary makers,
however, regularly show us that the world is much richer than can be expressed by the latest remake or the newest flick whose title ends with a III.
The Washington City Paper’s critics were able to preview only 18 of the 70-some nonfiction films in the second annual Silverdocs festival, but they found many of them compelling: Loser, the Thief, in which an ex-con takes a new approach to larceny; Other Peoples’ Pictures, an account of family-snapshot collectors; The Future of Food, an investigation of genetically engineered seeds; Jandek on Corwood, the biography of a reclusive underground musician; Control Room, which observes Al-Jazeera at war; Mademoiselle and the Doctor, the life story of a woman who wants to choose her own death; The Loss of Nameless Things, the clear-eyed tale of a playwright’s misfortune; Dirty Work, which follows three men doing jobs most people wouldn’t; Original Child Bomb, a visually compelling account of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors; and Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, another look at the strange case of the heiress who adopted the politics of her radical kidnappers.
Although the winner of last year’s best-in-fest award, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, was until recently still lingering in area theaters, most of these movies are unlikely to come around again. In fact, only a few of the docs in this installment of Silverdocs have been seen before locally. Among the must-see reprises is Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, an electric 1976 account of a Kentucky coal miners’ strike. (It screens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 19, as part of a $25 symposium honoring the filmmaker.) Kopple could no doubt teach many of the filmmakers represented here—not to mention the ones in Hollywood—a few things about storytelling. But most of the directors in Silverdocs, at least, need no assistance in finding a fascinating topic. —Mark Jenkins
Silverdocs runs Tuesday, June 15, to Sunday, June 20. Screenings are $8.50 and take place
at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, unless
otherwise noted. For more information, call (301) 495-6776 or visit www.silverdocs.com.
Deadline was inspired by, but is not limited to, Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s 2002 decision to commute the death sentences of all 167 prisoners awaiting execution in his state. Directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson open and close with Ryan, but in between they also talk to wronged prisoners, concerned attorneys, and a chastened ex-warden. (“Americans don’t have the right to ask their prison officials to execute innocent people,” he says.) Other asides include a brief account of how the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily banned capital punishment, the rise of Richard Nixon as the first national “law and order” candidate, and the case of at least one unjustly convicted man who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Illinois. The result is always interesting but more than a little diffuse. In Chevigny and Johnson’s hands, the remarkable story of a small-town Republican pharmacist-turned-governor who came to see the death penalty as capricious and racist is overwhelmed by footnotes. —Mark Jenkins
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
Loser, the Thief
Loser has a week before he’s back in the cooler. The lifetime thief is also an alcoholic whose family refuses to speak to him, neither of which is much of a surprise. What is surprising, though, is how entertaining a subject he makes in Monika Gorska’s Loser, the Thief. Like Steve Buscemi—albeit more disheveled, much older, and Polish—Loser gains our sympathy with his sad-sack demeanor and rubbery facial expressions. Each of the seven days covered by the 44-minute film begins with Loser’s mind lubricated by cheap liquor and his face by lather, as our antihero gives himself a shave. Then we follow him to, say, a hardware store, where he methodically filches a set of wire cutters to sever the security cord that had been preventing him from stealing a power saw. The catch is what happens next: Having successfully stolen the saw or items from a vendor’s stand or whatever, Loser immediately returns the booty and offers advice for sounder security. Then he goes and drinks with his buddies in an alley and delivers one of his most lucid—if least convincing—treatises, on the benefits of having never had a job. Gimmicky? Maybe, but Loser is still one of the more likable criminals you’ll encounter in a lifetime. —Chris Hagan
At 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
Other Peoples’ Pictures
Set primarily among the dealers’ tables in New York’s Chelsea Flea Market, Other People’s Pictures focuses on nine near-obsessive collectors in search of old family photographs and their vastly different motivations: Lisa, for example, searches for shots of fellow strong-willed women; Dan hunts for photos of his Hawaiian homeland; Leslie searches for beefcake and other images that hint at repressed homosexuality. Filmmakers Lorca Shepperd and Cabot Philbrick also spend some time in collectors’ homes: After his family’s album was destroyed years ago, one photo hunter assembles a new one that simply helps him remember his childhood; another, who lost many ancestors during the Holocaust, hunts for snapshots of Nazis engaged in everyday activities, in appreciation of the disconnect between “their normal lives and their day jobs.” Color-drenched square Kodacolors, mutilated pics, and even the unexpectedly hilarious photos that accidentally include the shooter’s shadow all figure here, illustrating one collector’s time-honored philosophy: “It boils down to, ‘Does it grab you?’ That’s the value of the picture to me.” By smoothly juggling its likable subjects and photographs for just under an hour, Other People’s Pictures offers a quick but satisfying peek at life—just like the best old snapshots do. —Matthew Summers-Sparks
At 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
The Future of Food
Don’t let the title fool you: Deborah Koons Garcia’s The Future of Food isn’t about the next culinary fad or what to expect on an upcoming episode of Iron Chef America. Instead, Garcia’s examination of one of our most basic human needs begins where food begins—the seed—and then traces the consequences of genetically modified organisms on a strained global agricultural system. The result is a frighteningly apocalyptic tale of agribusiness conglomerates yoking Mother Nature to maximize profits. Garcia profiles farmers who have been sued because their crops have been inadvertently cross-pollinated by someone else’s GMOs, follows scientists on research trips, interviews agriculture experts from all over North America, questions our culture’s infatuation with biotechnology, and explains why GMO legislation in the United States doesn’t even begin to compare with that in the rest of the world. (Hint: The government’s in on it.) Garcia doesn’t hide her agenda, and she pulls few punches, skillfully and convincingly building her witnesses into a stirring chorus. Her depiction of underfunded scientists, poor family farmers, and impotent industry watchdogs trying to fight the bullying of Goliath corporations is so stark that it’s hard not to feel a little gloomy about the future. Indeed, by the end of The Future of Food, even a golden field of wheat looks ominous.
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith
At the beginning of In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick’s Journey of Faith, its title character insists that she used to be “a good nun.” Having recognized God’s calling to ministry from the time she was little, Gramick entered the convent right after high school and devoted her life to the Catholic Church—an allegiance that still remains, even though the very institution she’d committed herself to serving has tried to stop her from doing so. Gramick’s troubles, she says, started when she met a homosexual man and took to heart his question: “What is the Catholic Church doing for my gay brothers and sisters?” Barbara Rick’s documentary follows Gramick as she works with New Ways Ministry, a Maryland-based group that Gramick co-founded to give support to homosexual Catholics, and takes her appeal for tolerance across the country and to the Vatican. The church’s institutional bigotry seems all the more irrational when discussed by Gramick, who handles her overwhelming opposition with humor, an even temper, and—something that’s occasionally lacking among members of religious orders—logic. (She points out, for example, that though the Bible does condemn homosexuality, it also condones slavery.) What comes through most strongly in the film, however, is Gramick’s warmth and resolve as she butts heads with her peers and continues to deliver her message: “Lesbians and gay people have a rightful place in the church, just like everyone else.” —Tricia Olszewski
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst
Perhaps the most baffling of ’70s New Left cadres, the Symbionese Liberation Army topped one inexplicable act—killing Oakland’s school superintendent—with another: kidnapping Berkeley student and William Randolph Hearst granddaughter Patricia Hearst. Robert Stone’s documentary retraces the SLA’s steps, with an emphasis on the 19 months that Hearst spent with her kidnappers, during which she became gun-slinging revolutionary “Tania.” This story has been told before—notably by Paul Schrader’s 1988 Patty Hearst—and the logical way to expand on it would be with what-were-they-thinking testimony from the principals. But Hearst isn’t talking, of course, and neither are the six SLA members who were massacred by the LAPD in Compton in 1974. That leaves mostly Russ Little, an early SLA member who was already in prison by the time Hearst was kidnapped—and who rejects the group as a “militaristic fantasy.” Though such heartfelt but self-evident commentary doesn’t exactly expand understanding of the SLA, Guerrilla does serve as a taut, well-structured introduction to the subject. —MJ
At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, June 16,
and 4:30 p.m. Friday, June 18.
The richer of two recent documentaries that cover Al-Jazeera covering the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Jehane Noujaim’s film covers a bit more ground than Ben Anthony’s. Both Control Room and Al-Jazeera Exclusive, however, found the Arabic news network to be an exemplar of Western journalistic values, staffed largely by people who speak English with an American accent. Sameer Khader, a senior Al-Jazeera producer, even tells Noujaim that he hopes to send his children to college in the United States, with the intention that they never return to live in “the Arab nightmare.” Unsurprisingly, Al-Jazeera staffers are shown to “spin” the news in ways that can be called anti-American. But their assumptions and conclusions seem no wilder than those of the mainstream American press, which buys the Jessica Lynch fairy tale and accepts one piece of video that depicts Iraqi children chanting praise of Bush. (At Al-Jazeera, where the reporters speak Arabic, they say the kids are yelling, “God damn Bush.”) U.S. Army press officer Lt. Josh Rushing embodies the genial side of American imperial power in this nuanced film, but the ghost in the propaganda machine is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who pops up to deliver such ironic warnings as “We’re dealing with people who are perfectly capable of lying.” —MJ
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 16. $15.
Jandek on Corwood
The editors of obscure ’zines and ponytailed college-radio types who constitute the bulk of the talking heads in Jandek on Corwood at first seem as if they don’t have anything to say about their subject. The phrase “completely out of tune” crops up often, and one commentator even calls the Rhode Island musician’s catalog “a 34-volume suicide note.” This isn’t critical sledgehammering, however—it’s fascination. To anyone seeking enlightenment from (or about) the subject of Chad Freidrichs’ 89-minute film, rock critic Amy Frushour Kelly cautions that Jandek’s music—rhythmless, atonal stabs of acoustic guitar likely recorded at the foot of a bed—“isn’t necessarily designed to appeal to anybody else in the whole world” and that “if we get it, it’s pure luck.” Jandek, who’s never performed live in 25 years and was only once the subject of an interview, seems to inspire by mystique alone. We’re encouraged to experience his output “as an atmosphere more than as a song” by Roctober editor Jake Austen, and Freidrichs’ evocative cinematography—poetic still shots of objects framed in a candlelit room, for instance—seems designed with that end in mind. The cumulative message is that a lone voice, even one that could just be talking to the walls, sometimes resonates more than public opinion. —CH
At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 16.
Let’s Rock Again
On what turned out to be his last tour, Joe Strummer looks more like a small-time busker than a punk messiah. The man who co-wrote “Lost in the Supermarket” is seen autographing T-shirts, paying unannounced visits to radio stations, and handing out leaflets on the Atlantic City boardwalk—all in the hope of attracting a few more listeners and assisting his label to “break even” on the second album he recorded with the Mescaleros, an energetic young combo that no one ever mistook for the Clash. “The past is like treacle—it’s going to get stuck to your feet,” shrugs the amiable, unassuming singer-guitarist, dismissing the import of his former band and its former politics. Directed by longtime Strummer pal Dick Rude, this lively, poignant 2001–2002 tour diary was shot mostly in the United States and Japan, with Strummer’s folkie and world-beat tendencies in the ascendant. Just because he extols Captain Beefheart, Nina Simone, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, however, don’t think Strummer didn’t die a punk: The knockout number is a cover of the Stooges’ “1969.” —MJ
At 2:30 p.m. Thursday, June 17, and 9 p.m.
Friday, June 18. The Friday screening is free; for location, call (301) 495-6776.
Mademoiselle and the Doctor
Healthy and spry, intelligent and unsentimental, 79-year-old Lisette Nigot is an anomaly among would-be assisted-suicide cases. She has simply had her fill: “My entire life, I’ve aimed for a high quality of living,” she explains. “Now I want a high quality of dying.” As she prepares to end her life, euthanasia advocate Dr. Philip Nitschke fights for her—and everyone’s—ability to do so. Nitschke’s devotion to his controversial doctrine is as well-captured by Mademoiselle and the Doctor producer and director Janine Hosking as the voices of those who oppose him. Although assisted suicide has been illegal in his home territory of Northern Australia since 1997, Nitschke holds informational meetings for elderly citizens who are considering ending their lives and works to develop an at-home assisted-suicide apparatus. It’s apt that Hosking allows her independent-minded protagonists to essentially follow their own courses until near the movie’s end, when Nitschke visits Nigot for a final discussion. Without explicitly endorsing Nigot’s or her doctor’s actions, Hosking nonetheless makes Mlle Nigot a thoroughly compelling character. —MSS
At 3:15 p.m. Thursday, June 17.
Original Child Bomb
Original Child Bomb uses archival footage, animation, audio interviews, shots of contemporary Japan, and restaged scenes to present a powerful and occasionally heavy-handed meditation on atomic weapons. The film opens with Hiroshima on the glowing, sunny morning before the blast: Commuters wait for trains, shoppers populate the market…then a large plane passes. After Little Boy explodes, director Carey Schonegevel depicts the destruction with rough animation, which gives way to an Army photographer developing gruesome photos of victims of the bomb and its successor, Fat Man. Despite the panache of Original Child Bomb’s animated sequences, many of its most powerful images are these unadorned shots of unnamed Japanese, which supplement text from the 1962 poem by Thomas Merton that inspired the 57-minute film. Though weighty, subsequent concerns—including accusations that the U.S. Army used American citizens in experiments with radiation and predictions of an impending nuclear explosion—are evoked with little of the verve of the film’s first half. By the end, Original Child Bomb’s message is clear: Nuclear weapons have made the world more dangerous. If that’s not exactly a new observation, it is, for a while at least, made in a way we’ve never seen before. —MSS
At 7:45 p.m. Thursday, June 17.
Crazy Legs Conti:
Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating
After slurping down 34 dozen raw oysters in just a few reckless hours, 20-something burnout Jason “Crazy Legs” Conti had a revelation: He wanted to be one of the “finest gustatory gladiators in the world.” Competitive eating was a smart move for the tall, thin Boston native, because as this year-in-the-lifer demonstrates, when he’s not shoveling mollusks, whole sticks of butter, and hot dogs into his elastic craw, he’s a remarkably dull dude with the shittiest set of white-guy dreads since Adam Duritz’s. Completely ignoring the history of, and the sociological implications behind, stuffing your gut for sport, directors Danielle Franco and Chris Kenneally instead settle for a lazy, foodstuffed Jackass, as the rookie glutton travels the country gobbling his way up the ranks of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. (Seeing as how gluttony doesn’t pay, Conti supports his travels by donating sperm and posing nude for art schools.) Although one friend fears that Conti has a “death wish”—and his divorced parents hint about how food was the only thing that kept the pre-split family happy—the filmmakers never probe into why Conti likes to get bloody rutting around in endless oyster shells. This 75-minute gross-out ultimately leaves you feeling empty—but definitely not hungry. —Sean Daly
At 9:45 p.m. Thursday, June 17.
Out of the Shadow
“Angry and fed up” with the mental-health system, filmmaker Susan Smiley decided to document the challenges that she faced trying to help her mother, Millie, battle paranoid schizophrenia. Chief among these were privacy laws that forced Smiley and her younger sister, Tina, to seek guardianship of their mother just so they could stay informed of her condition and Millie’s own inability to recognize her illness for what it is. Smiley weaves recent interviews with her mother, sister, and other relatives with old family footage, which occasionally shows the young Millie, blond and gorgeous, playing happily with her babies—but more often finds her staring blankly at the camera. Out of the Shadow succeeds in portraying the frustration of loving someone who’s mentally ill, capturing both the times Millie is rational, warm, and funny as well as her chilling episodes of hostility and delusion. Sadly, the stability that is sought for Millie is curiously absent from her treatment, a blur of institutions—47 in 20 years—and doctors that leads Tina to utter the film’s de facto conclusion: “This woman will never be free until she’s gone.” —TO
At 2:30 p.m. Friday, June 18.
The Loss of Nameless Things
In 1978, 28-year-old Oakley Hall III seemed destined to become the next great American playwright. The son of artists, he grew up with literary greats such as Richard Fariña and Thomas Pynchon hanging around the house, studied with John Cheever at Boston University, and founded the Lexington Conservatory Theatre in upstate New York. But the talented, magnetic enfant terrible’s hard living finally caught up with him one night when he fell off a bridge, smashed his body to bits, and suffered irreparable brain damage. Even more tragic, Hall remembers only about one tenth of his life before the accident. Bill Rose’s first feature-length film, The Loss of Nameless Things, pieces together Hall’s pre-accident existence, relying on the natural storytelling abilities of Hall’s friends, family, and colleagues, many of whom are either actors or writers. What they say evokes a range of emotions: dread as the golden boy hurtles toward the inevitable; pity at the current Hall; satisfaction as, some 25 years later, a small Northern California theater company stages the play that Hall had finished right before his fall. Rose spends most of his time on Hall’s self-destruction, but The Loss of Nameless Things isn’t meant to be a cautionary tale. Instead, Rose simply presents life as it happened. By the time we finally hear from Hall himself, we mourn the loss of his old self not because he was once a genius but because it’s something that happens to everybody. —HH
At 4:45 p.m. Friday, June 18.
A gross-out version of Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Dirty Work intercuts the lives of an embalmer, a septic-tank pumper, and a bull-semen collector. In their quest to learn how you can be happy with such disgusting jobs, directors David Sampliner and Tim Nackashi find the obvious answer: Collecting bull semen is disgusting only if you don’t love collecting bull semen. As Russ the semen man lists the daily rigors of his life—getting sprayed in the face, the occasional attack by aroused beasts, rectal massage—99.999 percent of people will recoil. The other 0.001 percent will grow up to collect bull semen—and they will whistle while they work. Russ is, in fact, living out his childhood dream. So is Bernard, the “restorative artist,” who compares himself to a pro basketball player because he gets paid for doing what he loves. Even the tank-pumper, Darrell, gets to work alongside his beloved wife and finds solace in his ability to accomplish something that most people can’t. In focusing on the joys of labor, Sampliner and Nackashi offer a repudiation to mindless, unhappy office drones everywhere. Cheery, well-made, and sometimes truly revolting, Dirty Work is a fitting tribute to those who don’t flinch when the path they’re compelled to follow is filled with nasty fluids. —Josh Levin
At 5 p.m. Friday, June 18.
The Beauty Academy of Kabul
The troubles of Afghan women, it turns out, can all be solved by a proper cut ’n’ style. At least that’s what the women behind Beauty Without Borders believe in The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Liz Mermin’s film about Western hairdressers and spa owners who open a training school in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The women, including a few Afghan stylists who return to their native country for the first time in more than 20 years, take their project very seriously, and Mermin shows them talking to their students, some still in burkas, not only about hair and makeup but also about living in a male-dominated society: “If a woman not obey her husband,” one woman explains in halting English, “she look like a whore.” It’s touching to watch the initially hesitant students open up as they’re treated as, well, humans, learning skills and being asked to think and express their opinions for perhaps the first time in their lives. But sometimes the humanitarians’ belief that their mission is more than skin-deep goes a little too far: When visiting an Afghan woman’s crude hair salon, one of the American stylists gushes, “She’s healing a country, one by one.” —TO
At 7:15 p.m. Friday, June 18.
Dwarfs bowling in slow motion to the accompaniment of a creepy Philip Glass–esque soundtrack would no doubt get major laffs on Conan O’Brien. But as the kickoff scene to the exceptional Big Enough, director Jan Krawitz’s then-and-now sequel to her 1984 film Little People, it’s hardly chuckle-inducing. Especially when it segues into vintage footage of Mark, seen in elementary school some 20 years ago, playing with his Trapper Keeper and crawling onto the school bus as taller kids wait behind him. “There are some advantages to being little,” the 10-year-old chirps. “When you play hide-and-seek, it’s a lot easier to hide.” Then jump to the present day, as Mark and his wife, also a dwarf, ask someone at a gas station to scan their credit card at the way-out-of-reach pump. Krawitz is a no-frills filmmaker, but she doesn’t need to be flashy: Her subjects are forthcoming and funny, always willing to share how hard it is to live in a world not scaled for them. Karla, for example, remembers getting through “her teens and her early 20s without going out,” but she seems fully adjusted to such adult concerns as finding love, starting a family, and facing social prejudice: “If I don’t like someone,” she says, “I try to imagine them short.” —SD
At 2 p.m. Saturday, June 19.
Venus of Mars
In another context, it might be a classic there-goes-the-neighborhood moment: a 6-foot-tall stunner, all black clothes, flowing hair, and heavy eyeliner, riding a stand-up lawn mower somewhere in small-town Minnesota. The mower’s operator, transgendered All the Pretty Horses singer Venus (né Steve Grandell), isn’t on a drunken joyride but simply taking care of some chores around the home she shares with her wife of 21 years, English professor Lynette Reini-Grandell. Venus of Mars covers the “dark glam” band as it performs in venues both welcoming—mostly in New York—and scary as hell, particularly a bar in Hilltop, Minn., of which drummer Jendeen remarks, “Maybe this is an enlightened group of metalheads.” (Audience comments such as “I can’t stand queers” unsurprisingly reveal otherwise.) But Emily Goldberg’s documentary is mostly Venus’ somewhat incredible story of the love and acceptance she’s found from friends and family, particularly from Lynette and from Venus’ tiny, gray-haired mother, who warmly hosts the band and smiles when she says, “This is the baby that I had!” Goldberg occasionally goes Behind the Music–overboard in shaping the narrative, whose many touching, insightful moments—such as when a black highway patrolman cheerfully helps the band when its van breaks down, saying, “Twenty years ago, I was an oddity”—need no embellishment. —TO
At 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 19.CP