We spent the past four days at AFIDocs (formerly, Silverdocs), a documentary film festival. While I loved, loved, loved the festival last year, I had major misgivings about this year. Last year, the festival was held in the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, where five theaters were within five minutes of each other and countless independently owned (and some chain) restaurants waited to cater to the crowds, along with a Doubletree hotel that hosted visitors and treated them to special discounts.
This year, one of the festival’s key sponsors pulled out two months before the event. A mad scramble was had, and the event was seriously reconfigured. While some screenings were still held in Silver Spring, the vast majority of the movies were shown in downtown D.C. venues. Those spaces were spread out — a fast walker would need about 15 minutes to get between the furthest two downtown spots, and sidewalk- and street-traffic could easily add another 15 minutes to the time. The cluster of restaurants was gone (although there are *plenty* of good restaurants downtown!) and there was no sponsoring hotel, much less one with cheap event rates.
Oh – and they eliminated their online ticket purchases (at least, for ticket packages), and they scrapped their online scheduler (which helped to calculate which of each film’s two showings made sense, given venues that were already sold out.)
So, I didn’t have high hopes for this year’s festival. But I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised! The downtown auditoriums generally worked quite well for the screenings. (The seats in the Goethe Institut site were too loose, so that the entire row rocked every time someone shifted in his seat, but otherwise…) We checked out several new-to-us restaurants and enjoyed a couple of old favorites. We found convenient places to hang out during the inevitable gaps between some films — we both got a lot of reading done, along with movie-watching!
And the films were quite varied! None of them was an utter failure; even the lowest-ranked (by us; we don’t know the official winner of the Audience Award yet) was still entertaining, or educational, or beautiful, or all three. We saw:
WHITE BLACK BOY — An albino Tanzanian boy is plucked from his family’s village and sent to an English-only boarding school, so that he can be kept safe from hunters who would kill him to harvest his body parts for witchcraft.
TEENAGE — The evolution of youth culture and youth rights, from 1895 – 1945, focusing on the U.S., England, and Germany.
THE KILL TEAM — The trial of an American soldier (and fellow infantrymen) accused of murdering innocent Afghanis during the war.
EXPEDITION TO THE END OF THE EARTH — A journey to typically ice-locked fjords in the north of Greenland, when those fjords become accessible due to icecap meltoff.
RENT A FAMILY, INC — A Japanese man’s business, renting himself out as a supposed family member to people who need a husband, father, etc. (and a look at his own dysfunctional family).
LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM — A boy born with progeria (early aging), and his parents’ search for a drug treatment.
LOST FOR LIFE — Juveniles sentenced to life without parole.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS — Impossible to describe, “rock documentary” about the indie band, The National, which ends up being an autobiography of the lead singer’s brother (the documentarian), in a very funny, very sweet picture of a guy who doesn’t know how to grow up.
MUSCLE SHOALS — Recording studios in Alabama.
ANITA — Anita Hill, during and after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
My favorite was the utterly quirky MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS. The best cinematography was either EXPEDITION or WHITE BLACK BOY. The movies you’re most likely to see come Oscar season are THE KILL TEAM, LOST FOR LIFE, and ANITA. And LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM was everything you’d expect it to be from the subject matter, and then some — Sam is a funny, sweet, inspiring boy who you just *want* to spend more time with.
All in all, a great way to spend the long weekend.