“Freakonomics” – Bringing people together

One thing that’s super cool about going to Silverdocs is NOT being the only person in the audience watching a documentary in a movie theater.  We had tickets to FREAKONOMICS – the premiere film at Silverdocs on Tuesday – and the audience was packed.  There were interviews and cameras, and lights flashing! It was like a Hollywood premiere…for a documentary film!  (And with all the cameras flashing everywhere – Thank goodness I put on make-up! )

We got there early to find a decent seat,  sat next to our neighbors and started up a conversation.

“What brought you here?” I asked the gentleman on my left.  “Oh, we know Sally.  She’s in this film!” he said.   I wasn’t quite sure who Sally was and racked my mental databanks for her – the authors of FREAKONOMICS were both Stevens, pretty sure none of the filmmakers were Sally.  Hm.   I asked a couple of follow up questions, but wasn’t clear.  Instead we talked about other things – how the area has changed, what other films we planned to watch, what we knew about the movie. Meanwhile, audience filled in around us, with cameras filming folks everywhere.

Once the movie started – after a few speeches welcoming all of us to the festival, we settled in.  FREAKONOMICS was kind of a series of shorts – with different famous doc filmmakers taking a different segment of the book.  I found out who “Sally” was during the last segment.

The last segment is about an experiment to try to get kids to graduate from high school by paying them for their grades in 9th grade. It takes place in a school in Chicago – and we meet two young students who are currently not making passing grades – and follow to see if they are motivated by the experiment.  Directed by local filmmakers Rachel Grady and  Heidi Ewing of Jesus Camp and Boys of Baraka fame, this was my favorite segment by far.  You wanted so much for the characters to pass!  Especially the one young man who had a tendency to joke more than apply himself – but he was so smart!  He had so much he could do with his life!  You kind of wanted to go in and give him a push!  And Sally?  It was her experiment!  She was the one filling the best role – trying to find key ways to motivate students to achieve everything they could in life.  Smiling and doling out cash in front of the students, and behind the scenes staring at charts of progress and wondering if it will have an effect – that’s Sally.  She seemed like an excellent person to know!

Cheers to Sally – and to all the audience that make attending Silverdocs great! There are more premiers over the next couple of days so get dressed up and join the glitz and glamour in downtown Silver Spring.

—Katy B. Jones

“Watch a doc, grab a drink.”

To Read More:

Steven Levitt – the Author of Freakonomics and his take on the documentary

NYT article about the movie “Freakonomics”


He Cared Enought to Show Up…You Should Too

One of the challenges of throwing an international film festival is getting your international guests into town in time for their appearances. Tuesday night at SILVERDOCS we were expecting Jerome Aglibert, a producer of WE DON’T CARE ABOUT MUSIC ANYWAY, to be around to introduce the film. By showtime at 7:45, he wasn’t in the building, and we hadn’t heard from him. It turns out that he was still making his way to the theater after a flight from Paris. Not long after the film began rolling, he arrived in Silver Spring to pick up his festival pass and get a bite to eat, and then he made his way to the Discovery HD theater. After the film was over, he capably handled a 20-minute Q&A session as if he hadn’t spent the last few hours on a trans-Atlantic flight. WE DON’T CARE ABOUT MUSIC ANYWAY — directed by Aglibert’s friends Cédric Dupire & Gaspard Kuentz — screens again Friday, June 25 at 11 p.m. Get more information here.

— Joe Warminsky, Member, Silverdocs 2010 Screening Committee

Good Pitch Recap

I was able to catch some of the Good Pitch session yesterday. My conclusion? What a great opportunity for the presenting films!!

For anyone not familiar with Good Pitch, it is a partnership between Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. It travels around to various film festivals and gives documentary film makers an opportunity to present their projects to a variety of potential stakeholders: NGOs, foundations, media, etc.

At SilverDocs yesterday, eight teams were given the floor. The proposals included a film about a man who has been in solitary confinement for more than 30 years, a film about shit (seriously), and the story of three shack dwellers trying to save their community in post-Apartheid South Africa.

The approximately five hour session went like this: the filmmakers presented their film, showed a trailer and then Jess Search from the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation (fantastically) moderated the subsequent discussion, during which the invited potential stakeholders spoke about how they could possibly get involved and their thoughts about the project.

It seemed like a lot of the invited panelists were quite familiar with the projects prior to Good Pitch, which is a testament to the filmmakers who have obviously put a lot of work into getting word out about their film.

Although I am not a filmmaker, I can see how Good Pitch would be a great resource to anyone in the audience who is working on a film. The contacts in the room are great and it is a wonderful opportunity to see what others are doing and how they are doing it. Definitely a good thing for the documentary film community.

And here is my attempt to capture Good Pitch (I had promised you photos, after all). Sad, I know. But it’s all my little phone can do. @africaten called it “Arty”

Good Pitch

— Preeti Balakrishnan

SilverDocs Conference – Day 1

I have really been looking forward to the conference. I think it’s such a great offering and the line-up is fabulous! Today, I managed to check out three sessions:

It Is a Small World After All: Bringing International Programming to the US
“The Way We Get By” Funding Case Study
Extreme Approaches to Reaching New Audiences

Some key takeaways? Filmmakers today need to be creative about finding funding and distribution. I think Gita Pullapilly, producer of THE WAY WE GET BY said it best when she explained that her trick was to think of her film like a small business. This mindset really forced her and director Aron Gaudet to prioritize and to make goals. Their other secret? Rather than go right for the national release, use small wins (like reaching a niche audience) to propel greater awareness regarding your film.

The “Small World” panel was a great resource for filmmakers who are working on projects in other countries. The filmmakers on the panel talked about their tricks to get funding – travel grants, the Fulbright, the expat community in the country where you’re filming. It was also great to hear from folks from Al Jazeera, MHz Networks, and Sundance who were encouraging the international content.

“Extreme Approaches” was extremely fascinating. I walked into this session a little late, but here’s what I got: The two filmmakers of A Powerful Noise arranged for a one-night-only screening through Fathom Events (have you ever seen the commercials for the Metropolitan Opera screenings at the theater? That’s Fathom’s signature event). The one-night-only screening got a lot of national buzz. This event, along with their close ties to organizations like CARE and The One Campaign resulted in a number of other partnerships with companies like Wal-Mart and Starbucks. Through these partnerships, the film has generated a lot of awareness about international women’s issues.

Awareness was, naturally, a key goal for both A POWERFUL NOISE and THE WAY WE GET BY. In today’s web-oriented world, both films’ websites have played a big role in spreading the word about the film. I encourage you to take a look at both films’ websites. Also, I look forward to the full launch of THE WAY WE GET BY’s new accompanying site the “Returning Home Project.” The filmmakers are hoping its up by August 3rd (when their film will be re-broadcast on POV).

I, unfortunately, didn’t get any photos today. I will definitely do that tomorrow. Looking forward to the Good Pitch and the other exciting conference sessions SilverDocs has in store!

— Preeti Balakrishnan

I Want to Be Centrifuged

The wonderful thing about documentary film is that you get to see the characters within their physical and social landscape; to see how they interact with their surroundings.  Sometimes it is a place that they know extremely well, like the back of their hand.  Other times it is a new and unfamiliar location; the classic fish-out-of-water story.  A good film will do the same for the viewer, showing the new and unknown as well as showing well-known people and places from an unfamiliar angle.

Christian Frei’s new film, SPACE TOURISTS (World Cinema Directing award at Sundance 2010), is a very good documentary film.  It covers the recent development of commercial space travel as well as the slowly decaying remains of the Cold War military monopoly on space.  In the film, we meet Anousheh Ansari, founder of the X-Prize, a $10 million prize for the first non-governmental organization to build a reusable, manned spacecraft.  Anousheh paid the Russians $20 million to let her travel to the International Space Station on their rocket.  We also meet the Kazakh sheepherders who wait expectantly for the booster engines to come crashing down to earth.  When it lands, which occasionally is on somebody’s house, the Kazakhs harvest the metal and sell it for scrap.

Other (local) reviewers have complained that the only appealing part of the movie is Anousheh Ansari’s storyline, following her preparatory training and adventures on the space station.  It is, predominantly, the usual stuff:  tests of physical fitness on earth and floating bubbles of water in space; however, Frei manages to get some exclusive shots of her in the final moments before launch.  While the footage of Ansari, and her pictures of earth, are fascinating, they have no punch without the complimentary stories in the film.  Taken as a whole, the film explores the context in which space travel occurs.  The other segments establish the conditions that allow Ansari to be a “space tourist,” and fulfill her dream of going into orbit.

Along with the Kazakh scavengers, we meet a Norwegian photojournalist whose pictures of the Soviet Union’s crumbling space program infrastructure weave throughout the film.  The dilapidated and mostly empty buildings in the former Soviet “space city” of Baikonur (located in Kazakhstan but owned by the Russians) is where cosmonauts are trained and rockets are launched.  Seeing the run-down condition of the town is all you need to realize why the Russians are so willing to sell the third seat in the Soyuz capsule.

Finally, we meet Dumitru Popescu, a Romanian engineer who has competed for several X-Prizes himself.  Where Ansari uses her millions to buy her dream, Dumitru builds the test ships that one day, hopefully, will allow him to achieve his dream of going into space.  He says, “I could do this in a much easier way… to make business, to make money! And I could buy a ticket to go into space… but it’s not fun!” As Anousheh says, “How do you put a price on a dream?”


SPACE TOURISTS is screening Tue, June 22, 5:00pm, and Thu, June 24, 1:30pm.  See the trailer and read an interview with the director about the difficulties of filming the Kazakh sheepherders.

— Matthew Radcliff is the organizer of the WIFV Documentary Roundtable and a member of the Silverdocs Screening Committee.  He has no desire to travel into space, although he wants to try one of those centrifuges used to train astronauts to withstand the g-force of liftoff.

A Digital Toolbox for Filmmakers

Some of you may know that PBS was soliciting proposals from filmmakers for a feedback session at SilverDocs International Conference. I had a chance to speak to Eric Freeland, from PBS Interactive, and got some more details about the session: PBS Interactive Workshop: Building Your Digital Toolbox.

The digital world is still a mystery to many filmmakers. At this session, PBS’ digital “gurus” will listen to presentations and offer feedback that will help “expand reach and outreach.”

According to Freeland, the session will focus on four areas of development:
– audience
– content
– social media & marketing
– platform

Didn’t know about this opportunity? No worries. Even if your project wasn’t one of the chosen three, there will be an open Q & A and you are bound to learn a thing or two during as the filmmakers present their projects and receive feedback. The digital world is a great opportunity to generate buzz about your film and to promote the film’s message. And this event is a great opportunity to learn about best practices!

The session, which will be moderated by Stephen Gong from the Center for Asian American Media, features a great lineup of panelists:

Lauren Aguirre, executive editor, NOVA Online
Kevin Dando, director, PBS Digital Marketing and Communications
Mary Hope Garcia; senior manager, PBS Interactive
Jen Kaczor, senior producer, ITVS Interactive
Catherine Quayle, Web editor-in-chief, Need To Know
Theresa Riley, director, POV Interactive

You can register in person from now through the end of the Conference. There are a variety of pass options.

Silverdocs Opens to a Packed Crowd!

I just returned from a spectacular opening night at the AFI Silver theater for the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Film Festival.

Attending the opening just reminded me what a beautiful venue AFI – and local residents- have in the Silver.  The architecture is retro but unlike other refurbished theaters, the seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of leg room, and they have a stellar sound system.

FREAKONOMICS was the main event.  And besides the slow start – the night was a success.

Without giving too much away – I will say FREAKONOMICS stayed true to the book.  First, the authors were directly involved in the movie.   Also, like the book, the movie is divided into easily digestible segments directed by a variety of recognizable filmmakers.

The  powerhouse lineup includes:

Seth Gordon: Directed THE KING OF KONG in 2007 and he’s also A TV director for Parks and RecreationThe Office.

Alex Gibney: Won the Oscar for his 2007 documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE.

Morgan Spurlock:  Known for his 2004 Oscar nominated documentary SUPER SIZE ME.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: Nominated for an Oscar for their 2007 doc  JESUS CAMP.

Eugene Jarecki: Known for his 2005 doc called WHY WE FIGHT.

The film  highlighted the most memorable moments from the book including the explanation of “what’s in a name”, “causes of drop in violence” and “incentives for students”.  My favorite segment-hands down-was called “Incentives”.  The segment brought a “face” to the story of an economic experiment at a Chicago  high school.  The University of Chicago paid students for good grades and tracked the number of students who improve their scores. I found myself laughing out loud with the entire audience during this final segment – ending the film on a good note.  The characters were beyond endearing and their story was supported by hard facts and good camera work. As it happens the two directors (Ewing & Grady) and many of their local “cheer leaders” attended the event.   I am sure those two could “feel the love” in the building.

You can’t ask for more than a great feature and full and animated crowd for an opening night film festival.

I am sure Silverdocs is going to be exciting and educating all week.  JOIN THE FUN – GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!. Tickets are going fast.

Cheers & Beers —

— Becky Beamer, Writer, Doc & a Drink