Contradictory times for documentaries

Silverdocs attendees grapple with how to get films shown

SILVER SPRING, Md. -- Midway through a panel at the documentary festival Silverdocs, producer Julie Goldman offered a succinct thought.

"There are a lot of good movies being made," she said Friday. "And a lot of them aren't going to get a chance to play in theaters."

It was a sound bite so telling it could have been featured in one of the many top-notch docus screening here. As events over the past few days at this AFI/Discovery Channel festival -- which serves as a kind of ground zero for the documentary zeitgeist -- point up, these are strange and contradictory times for the form.

Creatively, the documentary is exploding, with new voices and approaches emerging almost every week. Yet it was hard not to feel a sense of foreboding at and around the host AFI theater during the weekend as docus continue on what is now nearly a two-year commercial dry spell.

Silverdocs, in its sixth year and with an expanded eight-day schedule that wraps Monday, allows for a certain kind of purist enthusiasm; it's where fans even flock to see sober films like the inner-city education meditation "Hard Times at Douglass High" and debate the virtues of vintage Maysles and Wiseman films.

With a concurrent docu confab, it's also where industry heavyweights quietly brainstorm -- where Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney strides the halls planning a distribution or legal strategy, where filmmakers like Spike Lee are feted with retrospectives and where players like former Miramax powerbroker Matthew Hiltzik tout their producing projects screening in the festival.

Delicately mixing premieres and selections from the current fest circuit, Silverdocs' two savvy toppers -- the polished fest director Patricia Finneran and the excitedly passionate programming director Sky Sitney -- seek a balance between the appeal of the proven and the buzz of the new.

That creative ferment was evident everywhere this weekend on this revamped patch of suburban downtown just outside Washington.

Daring subjects were tackled in films like Phie Ambo's "Mechanical Love," a creepy look at a Japanese lab that creates androids and robotic pets, which owes as much to "Blade Runner" as to D.A. Pennebaker. Striking storytelling turned the mundane sublime in Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "The Garden," a surprisingly suspenseful look at a South Central Los Angeles community garden.

Old forms were broken down and recombined into something original in Brett Rapkin and Eric Kesten's "Holy Land Hardball," about a grandiose effort to form a pro baseball league in the Middle East, which blended a rigorous investigation into organizational ineptitude with the aspirational charm of "Hoop Dreams."

Traditional approaches, meanwhile, continue to be deployed effectively. New York Times reporter Andrew Jacobs offered a poignant aging-survivor story in "Four Seasons Lodge." Megumi Sasaki gave festgoers a quirky art-collection docu in "Herb and Dorothy." And docus' classic problem of a moving target -- in this case, a subject who died during shooting -- made Kurt Kuenne's resoundingly well-received "Dear Zachary" that much more powerful.

(It's worth noting that the trend toward first-person documentaries in the Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock vein seems to have faded, at least for now.)

The films chosen from the recent fest circuit also underscored docus' many new directions. Nanette Burstein's slick and funny high school exploration "American Teen" -- a sort of thinking person's "Laguna Beach" -- played strongly, and the re-enactment methods pioneered decades ago are on the way back if James Marsh's study of quixotic whimsy "Man on Wire" is any indication.

"What's interesting to me is how many more influences there now are in documentaries," Sitney said. "Stylistically, it's completely opening up."

Yet for all the creative energy, the air at the fest at times hung heavy with commercial questions.

Docu-friendly distributors like ThinkFilm are struggling, screens are crowded and audience appetite is low. There's a general feeling of anxiety over whether it's possible to ever get back to the period a few years when movies like "Super Size Me" and "March of the Penguins" proved docus could yield not just solid storytelling but also big business.

There's hope that the digital media will provide some salvation. But that hope is tempered with the awareness that the problem is complicated.

"There's a lot of doom and gloom, and right now no one knows the exact answer," Finneran said. "I happen to think it will be solved, and I don't think there will be only one answer."

In offering tips on how to market effectively, documentarian Sandi Dubowski, whose "Trembling Before God" was a surprise hit five years ago, had his own pithy take. "You have to be lucky the distributor you sign with is going to be around in a few years," he said.