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June 17, 2006

Friday at Silverdocs

It looks like I'm going to take most of Saturday off from Silverdocs. A colleague is hosting a cookout this afternoon, so while I'm planning to catch a couple of films tonight, the extra time will give me a few minutes to catch my breath and blog about the films and panels I caught yesterday. I never would have guessed that going to three films in one day could be so exhausting. After a late start on Friday, I met up with Sarah Jo Marks of Documentary Insider and we were able to catch the end of John Pierson's "Doc Talk" panel, during which Pierson discussed his experiences in helping Michael Moore and Errol Morris find wider audiences for Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line. But Pierson was even more compelling when he discussed the experience of being the subject of a documentary, in his case Reel Paradise, which focuses on Pierson's family going to Fiji to screen films in an old theater on the island. He also described the responses of the Fijians themselves to the films that Pierson programmed, but I'll save that discussion for later when I've had a chance to see the documentary (which I'm now curious to see). Side note: while attending th Pierson panel, I met another press person who tipped me off to the University of South Carolina's "Orphan Film Symposium," which focuses on lost, unseen, or otherwise obscure films. Columbia is a short drive from my future home in Fayetteville, so it might be worth checking out in the future.

From there, I found my way to Air Guitar Nation (Silverdocs), easily the most entertaining and crowd-pleasing documentary of the festival and a fascinating addition to the "competitive doc" sub-genre, recalling films such as Hoop Dreams and Spellbound but with a heavy metal twist. Directed by Alexandra Lipsitz, Air Guitar Nation follows the story of two New York City air guitar competitors, C. Diddy and Bjorn Turoque, as they pursue their dream of competing in the International Air Guitar Champiuonship in Oulu, Finland (learn more about the US Championships here). Both C. Diddy and Bjorn are compelling characters who candidly discuss the air guitar phenomenon and their motivations for participating. In many cases, the competitors discuss the ways in which identity is a perforamnce and explain that by assuming their air guitar persona, they can escape their normal lives (as software engineers or whatever). At the same time, for C. Diddy, air guitar provides an opportunity to convey to his parents, who immigrated from Korea with the hopes that he'd become a doctor or lawyer, that his chosen career as an actor-comedian is the best choice. Air Guitar Nation manages to provide some goofy fun while also offering insight into its subject.

I had the good luck of watching Air Guitar Nation with Danielson: A Family Movie [Or Make a Joyful Noise Here] filmmaker JL Aronson, and while I can't attend the film, I'm incredibly curious to see it. Danielson focuses on the quirky faith-based, art-rock band, Danielson, and their struggles to make it in the music industry. I happened to catch Daniel Smith's solo act by accident in Atlanta, and his quirky, whiny, almost "unnatural" voice was unforgettable. Even more striking, he performed the entire concert wearing a 7-foot tree costume, and I gradually recognized the religious content of the lyrics. But because Danielson comes from an evangelical background similr to my own, I'm curious to learn more about this fascinating band and hope that I'll get a chance to see the film soon.

After Air Guitar Nation, I caught the world premiere of Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, which follows the experiences of the aptly named Jeff Smith as he runs for Congress in Missouri in Dick Gephardt's former district. Smith, an adjunct professor who studies African-American studies, enrolls a group of college kids and twentysomethings, none of whom have significant political experience, and runs a total (and seemingly tireless) grassroots campaign, knocking on doors, calling voters personally, encouraging supporters to host informal coffees, and posting yard signs wherever possible. Mr. Smith benefits from the screen presence of the candidate who is certainly an engaging and expressive public speaker. Smith runs against one of Missouri's big name families, represented by Russ Carnahan, the son of a former governor and Senator. Offering the most candid glimpse of a political campaign since The War Room, Frank Popper's Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? simply asks its title question: can a regular guy with no political experience but tremendous energy, charismatic appeal, and great ideas still get elected against the more powerful members of the party system? And I think it's a credit to the film that the answers it offers aren't always simple. Hoping to write more about both of these exciting new documentaries a little later.

Update: While surfing Technorati, I came across a good discussion of Mr. Smith. As Jake points out in teh comments over there, the film not only offers a critique of campaign politics but also asks some interesting questions about the relationship between white candidates and black voters. More on that topic and others in my longer review.

Update 2: I've written a longer review of Mr. Smith, which is available here.

Posted by chuck at June 17, 2006 11:42 AM

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i've seen the doc about john pierson going to fiji...i must say he does not come off well. none of the family does. a bunch of ugly americans in fiji. but a very interesting film to watch.

Posted by: cynthia at June 18, 2006 8:55 AM

That was my impression from the previews. I'm still not sure how I missed it in theaters. I must have been traveling the weekend it played in DC.

Posted by: Chuck at June 18, 2006 11:37 AM

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