Tales from the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival

This past weekend, I attended several screenings at the 9th annual Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. The festival ran from June 20th through the 26th and featured documentaries about a variety of topics. From best to worst, here is a look at some of the documentaries presented during the festival.

Catching Hell: Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) directed and wrote this well-made film about Steve Bartman, who infamously deflected a foul ball in 2003 in a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins. In game six of a series that would decide which team would play in the World Series, Bartman reached his hand out to catch a foul ball. Instead of being caught on the field, the ball landed in the stands and the Cubs, who had been winning the game, soon watched as victory fell out of their grasp. The Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, eventually lost game six and game seven to the Marlins, who went on to win the World Series.

“Catching Hell” focuses on the incident and how Bartman was treated for his role in the incident that seemingly shifted the momentum of the game. After that shift, Bartman faced death threats and a stadium full of people shouting expletives at him before security removed him. In “Catching,” Gibney looks on several other well-known incidents including the time that Red Sox player Bill Buckner let a ground ball slip through his legs during the 1986 World Series. “Catching” does a wonderful job showing Buckner’s redemption (he received a standing ovation when he threw out the first pitch for a Sox game in 2008). “Catching” is more than the story of an incident; it’s a story about redemption and how people often look for scapegoats when things don’t go their way.

Rebirth: Directed by Jim Whitaker, “Rebirth” tells the story of several people who were deeply affected by the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11. These individuals were interviewed each year for several years after 2001 as they slowly adjusted to the new realities of their lives.

Although it drags at points, “Rebirth” is a beautifully-told story about facing and overcoming grief. Particularly affecting is the story of a teen who lost his mother on 9/11. While speaking at a memorial service in her honor, a bird landed on the young man’s head. The teen notes that he knew his mother was there with him that day. “Rebirth” reminds us that the people and the things that were lost on 9/11 continue to be with us even as we overcome the pain of that day.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey: “Being Elmo” chronicles the rise of a young puppeteer named Kevin Clash, who went on to become the man behind the famous Sesame Street character. Clash was destined for greatness at a young age when he fashioned a puppet out of his father’s trench coat. His dream eventually came true when he got the opportunity to meet and work with his childhood idol, Jim Henson.

“Elmo,” narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, is an often-inspiring story about a young man who went after his dreams. Although the topic of puppets might not sound interesting, the story is. Well-made and always-captivating, “Elmo” is worth checking out.

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Life in a Day: Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, “Life” is an experimental film about events that occurred on July 24th, 2010. People around the world were asked to document what they were doing or seeing that day and upload their videos to YouTube. Over 4500 hours of film were submitted and the filmmakers selected the best clips and made them into “Life”.

The film takes place over the course of the day with many, if not all, events happening in chronological order. Viewers watch as people wake up in the morning, cook, jump out of bed, renew their wedding vows etc. The first twenty minutes of this film are great but then the novelty seems to wear thin. It’s an enjoyable look inside the life of a day but a lack of focus ultimately undermines the story.

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Hot Coffee: “Hot Coffee,” which recently aired on HBO, begins by telling the infamous story of the woman who was burned when she spilled McDonald’s coffee in her lap and successfully sued the company because of it. The filmmakers defend her actions and make the case against tort reform. Focusing on issues like judicial elections, caps to punitive damages, and mandatory arbitration, the film argues that big business is pushing for tort reform and victims are being punished because of it.

The inherent flaws in “Hot Coffee” undermine its objectives and even those who agree with the film’s ideology may have some issues with it. This is a story that asks viewers to look beyond headlines and see victims (i.e. the woman who sued McDonald’s) for who they are but the film doesn’t take the same approach in looking at the advocates of tort reform (i.e. George W. Bush and Karl Rove), who are villianized throughout it.

Where Soldiers Come From: Directed by Heather Courtney, “Where Soldiers Come From” chronicles of the lives of three National Guard members from Michigan who are ultimately sent to fight in Afghanistan. The story focuses on these men before, during and after their deployment as they deal with the harsh realities of war.

“Where” was the most disappointing film I saw because none of the soldiers in it are compelling or interesting to watch. The film also meanders and never establishes an overall flow. The scenes of the soldiers videoconferencing with their families are heartwarming but the story never comes together into a cohesive whole.

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