22 June, 2009

European Documentaries Strong At SILVERDOCS

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

European documentaries continue their international winning streak at film festivals around the world. At the SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival (, the prestigious American event held in the Washington DC area, films from UK and Denmark were among the winners at the event, which ran from 15-22 June.

The Festival, which is co-presented by the American Film Institute and The Discovery Channel, screened over 120 films representing 58 countries and included more than 1000 filmmaker and media professional attendees at the concurrent International Documentary Conference, with its particular emphasis on youth, education and next generation media artists. Winning filmmakers received over $70,000 in combined cash and in-kind prizes.

The SILVERDOCS Sterling Award for a World Feature was won by MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN (, co-directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson. The UK documentary explores, through the lens of a 74-year-old white farmer, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s deeply controversial land seizure program, which intended to re-distribute white-owned farmland. The film made its US Premiere at SILVERDOCS, with the directors returning home with a $10,000 cash prize.

In a second European win, the SILVERDOCS Sterling Award for a Short Film was given to the Danish film 12 NOTES DOWN, directed by Andreas Koefoed. This engaging short film documents 14-year old star choir performer, Jorgis, after his voice starts changing and he decides to make an unexpected yet graceful exit from choir.

The Festival divides its documentary competition into two sections, one for specificially American films and the other for a range of international productions. In the 10-film SILVERDOCS Sterling World Feature Competition, European documentary films predominated.

In the Hungarian film ANOTHER PLANET, director Ferenc Moldovanyi offers a powerful globe-spanning tale about children who are struggling to survive as trash scavengers, soldiers and sex workers. Award-winning UK documentarian Richard Parry focuses his camera on war photographer Robert King, whose insightful images drawn from his travels to Chechyna, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Iraq bring those trouble spots to vivid life in the film BLOOD TRAIL. Another UK documentary that drew a strong response was Oscar-nominated director Jon Blair's DANCING WITH THE DEVIL, an intense and kinetic story of the drug wars in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, which world premiered at the Festival.

In the highly inventive COOKING HISTORY, Slovakian director Peter Kerekes offers an unusual perspective on the history of modern European warfare as seen through the eyes of the field cooks, bakers and kitchen staff who "catered" some of the most significant conflicts of the past century. Norwegian director Thomas Lien details the astonishing story of a man who wakes up one day on a train in China not remembering his name or how he came to be in a country halfway across the world in the film HUNTING DOWN MEMORY. A similarly engaging portrait is the focus of RENE, Czech director Helena Trestikova's intimate film that follows a career criminal for 20 years, as he evolved from a teen delinquent to a hard-core criminal. A portrait of some one long since gone is the focus of THE SOUND OF INSECTS---RECORD OF A MUMMY, Swiss director Peter Liechti's deeply poetic film about a hunter who stumbles upon body remains and a diary of a man who committed suicide from self-starvation over a two-month period.

In the non-competitive Silver Spectrum section of the Festival, European titles were among the most intriguing. In French director Samuel Collardey's THE APPRENTICE, the filmmaker spends one year in the life of a French high school student, which shows the ups-and-downs in the life of the current generation. In OUR FORBIDDEN PLACES, a French/Moroccan co-production by Leila Kilani, a series of Moroccan families confront government secrets and personal losses of family members abducted and then never again heard from in the years following Morroco's independence from France. In the French/Cameroon film SACRED PLACES, director Jean-Marie Teno uncovers the hidden charms of the unknown neighborhood of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, during that city's famed African Film Festival.

Netherlands had a strong representation in the program. In BLOODY MONDAYS AND STRAWBERRY PIES, director Coco Schrijber offers a cinematic examination of boredom, narrated by actor John Malkovich. In the deliciously comic CARMEN MEETS BORAT by director Mercedes Stalenhoef, a small community in Romania is forever changed after it hosts a crew from the famed film satire BORAT. In the expressionistic ENJOY POVERTY, visual artist and filmmaker Renzo Martens offers an aburdist look at how African countries exploit poverty as a natural resource in order to attract tourist and NGO monies.

From Scandinavia came two provocative films. In LET'S BE TOGETHER, Danish director Nanna Frank Moller offers the compelling portrait of a waif-like young man who fondness for eyeliner and fine couture make him an oddball in his small fishing community. In the Swedish documentary LONG DISTANCE LOVE, a young man and his new bridge in the Krgyzstan plains must endure a forced seperation while he goes looking for work in Moscow.

UK films were also a standout at this year's Festival. Outstanding British documentaries on tap included AFGHAN STAR, director Havana Marking's intriguing tale of an American Idol-like television talent competition set in war-torn Kabul; the rousing ONLY WHEN I DANCE, director Beade Finzi's inspiring tale of two aspiring teenage dancers and their inspirational journey from the favelas of Rio to the heighest of international ballet; THE TIMES OF THEIR LIVES by director Jocelyn Cammack offers an intimate look at two elderly women who refuse to let their advancing years hold back their enthusiasm for life as they spend their last years at an enlightened senior citizen living center. European films were also strong in the Festival's many shorts anthology programs, with the Danish film 12 NOTES DOWN winning top honors.

For European documentaries, the SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival is a springboard for recognition of their efforts by enthusiastic audiences and the many film professionals who come to the event to sample potential films for distribution pick-up or showcasing at other festivals. For more information on these and other films at this year’s exemplary SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival, visit:

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