to better storytelling

For a couple of years now, I’ve served as a screener for the SILVERDOCS film festival, a documentary festival presented by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel.  The AFI operates a gorgeous restored theater in Silver Spring that happens to be across the street from Discovery’s headquarters, and this serves as the backdrop to the week-long festival.  The theater screens a combination of indie films, foreign films, and older films (often in thematic series) during the rest of the year – the sort of place where you might be able to catch some Jean-Luc Godard and The Muppet Movie on the same weekend.

Being a screener means I watch 40 documentaries over an 8-week period and give the festival staff my opinions on each of them.  I get a mix of shorts (under 40 minutes) and feature length films to watch, and I am obligated to watch all of them in their entirety.  As I understand it, SILVERDOCS receives over 1000 submissions each year and selects under 10% of them for the festival – odds are, I’ll mostly screen things that don’t make that cut.  Last year, I didn’t screen anything that was shown in the festival.  This year, I screened one short and one feature that were selected.  I’ve taken a vow of secrecy and can’t tell you which ones, though.

I screen a lot of student films and a lot of foreign films.  I see a lot of  not-quite-final cuts (unfinished audio, missing stock footage, incomplete titles) and an equal, if not greater, number of “final” cuts that should see a little more time in the hands of an editor.  Sometimes I screen things that I know should be great, could be great… but don’t  deliver.  Other times, I screen things that are based on a premise that I don’t think would make a great documentary, no matter how polished the product.  And then in my 40 films, I screen a few gems.  In my reviews, I attempt to tell SILVERDOCS why that film grabbed me and why I think it would be an excellent match for the festival.  And then it’s out of my hands and I have to wait until they announce the slate.

The screening period always seems to fall during a period of real-life stress – in the late winter/early spring, which is a peak season for business travel and deadlines.  As I scramble to keep up with my screening batches and their own deadlines, watching films on planes, in the middle of the night, over every meal, sometimes I question, “Why do I do this?”  Lots of reasons, I suppose.  I get to watch 40 documentaries that are largely unreleased and unavailable to the public.  I get a special pass to the festival, allowing me to attend conference sessions, film screenings, and events for free.  And I get the bragging rights of saying that I was a screener, that I helped make SILVERDOCS what it is.  But most of all, I think it makes me a better creator.

In watching all of the films, my 40 screeners and the ones I catch at the festival, I see the whole spectrum of documentary filmmaking.  I get immense insight into the creative and technical process that goes into these films.  I see their successes and their flaws, both of which are highly informative.  I’d like to think that I learn something from all of it – better storytelling, new communication styles, and frequent reinforcement of the importance of tight editing.  If there’s one single thing that separates the cream of the crop at SILVERDOCS, it’s excellent editing.

Today marked the conclusion of SILVERDOCS 2010, with a few screenings in the coming week, and I’m both relieved and disappointed that it’ll be several months before my next screening opportunity.  I watched a number of truly outstanding documentaries this week, ones I hope will get distribution so I can share them with others.  It’s a pleasure to take part in this annual festival of documentary storytelling.


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