20 June, 2008
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
The SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival has, in just six short years, become the premium festival for non-fiction film in the United States. With documentary films on the rise all over the globe, tackling every subject under the sun and even revealing some considerable box office muscle, this event has become ground zero for appreciating documentary works from the U.S. and overseas and track the trends for non-fiction media of the future.
With the explosion of documentary work being produced outside the United States, this year SILVERDOCS inaugurated a competition category for international documentaries, the Sterling World Feature Competition. This significant development reflects the Festival's commitment to highlighting global perspectives and recognizing the richness of documentary storytelling worldwide.
Of the ten films competing in this competition strand (with winners announced on Saturday evening at the Festival's Awards Ceremony, and reported here in a future posting), five are European productions and two are co-productions with European partners. Most of the films are North American Premieres, giving audiences, critics and industry professionals their first opportunity to see these excellent films.
In Comeback from German director Maximilian Plettau, the focus is on German boxer Jürgen Hartenstein, a 35-year-old former middleweight champion hoping to re-enter the sport. The excellent cinematographic eye of Max Plettau’s camera follows Hartenstein as he struggles to revive his career. A roadtrip across Eastern Europe is the subject of Corridor #8, Bulgarian director Boris Despodov's chronicle of his journeys across Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia on a highway that was commissioned by the European Union to connect the Black and Adriatic seas. Designed to lift the economic hopes of the working-class residents along its route, the film makes clear that one decade and millions of euros later, little progress has been made.
UK director Geoffrey Smith offers a more hopeful vision of life in the former East Europe in The English Surgeon. The film tells the inspiring story of British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who practices medicine in an idyllic English village, but spends several weeks a year in the Ukraine performing delicate surgeries. Working with the crudest of tools in a country where neurosurgery barely exists, his skills have saved innumerable lives.
Denmark boasts two films in the competition. In Mechanical Love, director Phie Ambo explores the intriguing question of how far we are prepared to go when human intimacy becomes a rare commodity. Robots promise to make ourlives easier, but for some people they can be a stand-in for human affection. This fascinating film explores the intimate and complex relationships between people and therapeutic robots. In the blistering Milosevic On Trial, director Michael Christofferson brings us into the courtroom as former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for crimes against humanity. The director captures the trial, in all its mundane and blood-chilling detail, and its defendant, a complex and deluded man who insisted on defending himself and ultimately died from a heart attack before facing any judgment.
Two European co-productions are also included in the competition section. In the Iran/Sweden co-production Four Wives-One Man, director Nahid Persson, an Iranian-born woman who now works in Sweden, has created a poignant, occasionally hilarious, glimpse into polygamous marriage. As the title suggests, this is no conventional union, with four wives, dozens of children, and one domineering mother-in-law, all competing for the attention of one man.
In anticipation of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing this summer, the Chinese/German co-production The Red Race by Chao Gan is especially timely. Against the backdrop of preparations for the mega-event and escalating international condemnation over Chinese policies from Tibet to Darfur, the film chronicles the Chinese passion and obsession for gymnastics. In training centers, there’s no time for childish games as these aspiring Olympians carry their parents’ and their country’s dreams on their tiny shoulders.
These films, with their various subjects, themes and presentation styles, is evidence to a new "golden age" of documentary film that has the capacity and potential of generating audience response and serious box office monies.