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Silverdocs rages on with hot panels and screenings

Monday - 6/25/2012, 9:00am  ET

Jason Fraley, WTOP Film Critic
Heidi Gruber & Emily Sobel, WTOP Interns

SILVER SPRING, Md. - The 10th annual AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs festival continues to take over downtown Silver Spring this week. The film festival runs through June 24 in the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center, featuring panels and documentaries from top international filmmakers and amateurs alike.

The event will draw more than 27,000 festival attendees, including some of the industry's most prominent figures. Take documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, who has twice won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, for "Why We Fight" (2005) and "The House I Live In" (2012), which screened at Silverdocs on Tuesday and Thursday.

"The audiences here at Silverdocs are extremely strong, and they're also very versed in documentary," Jarecki said. "They're very smart moviegoers."

This year's festival opened Monday night with a screening of director Ramona Diaz's featured documentary "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey." The film chronicles Filipino singer Arnel Pineda's journey from the streets to the stage. After toiling in a Journey cover band, his success on YouTube caught the eye of the actual band, and Journey recruited him as their newest frontman. The documentary's recognizable soundtrack provided a strong opener for the festival, drawing a sold-out crowd and receiving positive critical response.

Washingtonian critic Ian Buckwalter says the film will "put a smile on your face and warm fuzzies in your heart." If that's the effect you're looking for, don't miss "Don't Stop Believin'" at its final showing at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, June 24.

Other films generating buzz at this year's Silverdocs tell stories that are not so lighthearted. "The Imposter," by director Bart Layton and producer Dimitri Doganis, documents the unbelievable story of Frenchman Frédéric Bourdin, a pathological liar who poses as a missing 16-year-old boy from Texas. The film's unconventional style includes dubbing and reenactments, or what Doganis calls "representations" to show that the events are viewed through Bourdin's twisted perspective.

Audience members at Tuesday's showing of "The Imposter" described the film as "bone chilling" and "heart wrenching," but "absolutely brilliant." "The Imposter" won't screen again at Silverdocs, but it will open in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles in July and August.

The conference aspect of Silverdocs provides a forum for discussion on doc-related topics, drawing both industry members looking to network and fans eager to hear from the creators of their favorite films. Conference topics range from "Navigating the Film Festival Circuit" to "An Anatomy of a Trailer" and include panelists of expert festival participants and sponsors.

One conference featured an hour-long conversation with Jarecki, who spoke about his career as a documentarian and social change agent. He discussed his beginnings as a filmmaker, winning the Student Academy Award for his short film "Season of the Lifterbees" and moving to Hollywood with brash confidence. That's when a mentor and fellow Princeton alum gave him sobering advice, "Coming out here with that short under your arm or without it is the same thing."

Jarecki said his early struggles helped him to appreciate his adult successes.

"I used to want to be somebody," he said. "Now I just want to do something."

Today, he's doing plenty, from short films like "Move Your Money, using clips from "It's a Wonderful Life" in a critique of the banking industry, to feature-length films such as "The House I Live In," which is about the failures of the War on Drugs.

"When people come up after you make a movie, it's one of the most gratifying things you can have," Jarecki said. "At a festival like Silverdocs, you really get to hear what people think."

Another conference session, entitled "I Loved that Doc! Why Can't I Find it on TV?," discussed "the value of the relationship between independent filmmakers and public television," according to Director of American University's Center for Social Media Pat Aufderheide.

The panelists said public television plays a crucial role in expanding a documentary's audience. Julie Wyman, producer and director of the critically acclaimed documentary "Strong!," was thrilled that her film about a female weightlifting champion will air on PBS at 9 p.m. on July 26.

However, she was dismayed to learn that it's up to individual local affiliate stations to decide whether to air the film at that time. More popular programs, like the period drama "Downton Abby," often win out for prime-time slots.

"Local stations show docs whenever they can," Wyman explained. "It might be at 1:30 a.m. on a weeknight."

To see some of the films featured at Silverdocs, look out for the PBS programs "Independent Lens" and "Point of View," showing select documentaries on Thursdays. Check your local listings as those time slots are not guaranteed.

From the panels to the screenings, Silverdocs is a highly anticipated event in the D.C. area for both its entertainment factor and its positive impact on the community.

"Silverdocs maintains a strong connection to our community by engaging local educators in the festival and forming partnerships with neighborhood businesses," Gov. Martin O'Malley said.

On Wednesday, Silverdocs began one attempt to reach the community with SchoolDocs, an extension of the normal conference schedule that focuses on the use of technology, specifically documentaries, in education.

"We bill it as one of the only conferences for educators that also has the film component attached to it as well," SchoolDocs producer Matthew Boratenski said. "So you can come to a couple sessions here, go over and see a movie that applies to your subject matter or to education, and it's usually accompanied by the actual people that were involved with it."

SchoolDocs sessions continue through Friday.

If you haven't yet had a chance to experience Silverdocs, there are still events to catch this weekend.

"Detropia," one of the festival's most popular documentaries about the decline of the city of Detroit, screens at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Another fan favorite, "The Ambassador," the story of selling diplomatic titles in Third World countries, will show at 11:15 p.m. Friday.

On Sunday, catch encores of "Don't Stop Believin'" at 12:15 p.m. and "Strong!" at 6:15 p.m.

Conference sessions continue through Saturday.

The grand finale, "Big Easy Express," following the tour of bands Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show, will close out the festival at 3:15 p.m. on Sunday,

Click here for a full schedule of events.

Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking "Fraley on Film" under the "Living" tab above, following @JasonFraleyWTOP on Twitter, and checking out his blog, The Film Spectrum.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)