US festival promises hip documentaries

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The Independent Culture

One of the largest US festivals for documentary cinema - screening more than 100 films from 52 countries - will open in a renovated 1938 theater this month near the Capitol.

The Silverdocs film festival, which runs June 20-26 in the Washington bedroom community of Silver Spring, Maryland, is dedicated to the idea that documentary films can be fun.

"Watching documentaries is not old-fashioned anymore," said Festival director Sky Sitney.

"It used to be sort of like eating spinach, it's good for you, but it's not fun. I think Silverdocs turns that on its head."

The festival, now in its ninth year, includes 108 films selected "from more high quality submissions than ever before," said Sitney.

Among the filmmakers of note are Marshall Curry, whose 2005 film "Street Fight" was an Academy Award nominee for best documentary.

Curry's new film, "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," is about the unraveling of the radical ecological group the FBI at one point called "America's number one domestic terrorist threat."

Among the festival's other "green" screenings are "Revenge of the Electric Car," whose director, Chris Paine, tells the tale of electric vehicles produced at Nissan and General Motors factories, as well as a Silicon Valley start up.

The Canadian film "Wiebo's War" is a portrait of an environmental militant from Alberta at war against the western prairie province's oil producers.

Several films deal with the theme of urban violence, including one by director Steve James, of "Hoop Dreams" fame, whose "The Interrupters" follows three fomer gang members trying to protect their Chicago neighborhoods from the violence they once employed themselves.

Director Alex Gibney, who took apart the Enron financial debacle in a 2006 film, returns with a look at baseball spectator Steve Bartman, who endured the scorn of thousands of Chicago Cubs fans after he disrupted a possible catch in the sixth game of the National League Championship Series.

The move was later seen as the turning point in the Cubs' ultimate defeat.

Whitney Dow, who documented the 1998 racially-motivated murder and mutilation of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, turns to Haiti with "When the Drum Is Beating," the story of the ultra-popular band "Septentrional."

Britain's James Marsh, who won an Oscar in 2008 for "Man on Wire" detailing the exploits of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, returns with "Project Nim," a film about a landmark experiment in the 1970s that sought to prove that a chimpanzee raised like a human could eventually communicate like one.

The festival also includes a sneak preview of "Age of Champions" by Christopher Rufo, which takes a look at the extraordinary activities of many older people, including a group of grandmothers who play basketball, a 100-year-old tennis player and 80-something swimmers and other athletes.

Then there's "Bakhmaro," a film about a restaurant in a provincial Georgian town that remains open - although no one ever comes.

The festival will also screen the entire six hours of the 2010 Chinese film "Karamay."

Director Xu Xin tells the story of a 1984 fire that killed 300 people during a performance in which officials asked the children in the audience to remain seated so the adults could save themselves.