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Comedy and Politics at Silverdocs Festival

By Desson Thomson
June 10, 2005

LET'S GET past the clinical term "documentary" for a moment and dive into the movie "Street Fight," where filmmaker Marshall Curry is trying to shoot footage of Sharpe James, the four-time mayor of Newark, N.J., who is running for reelection. As we learn in the exciting (and yes, documentary) movie, James's opponent is upstart Cory Booker, an energetic, eloquent city councilman with a Yale Law School degree who is running a determined campaign to unseat the incumbent. Both candidates are African American and both will play the race cards in different ways.

Since filmmaker Curry has been following the Booker campaign, he is considered persona non grata by the James gang. As soon as James (a strutting dandy who passingly resembles Homer's grandfather in "The Simpsons") catches sight of Curry's camera, he mutters something to some aides. Within seconds, uniformed goons surround Curry, pushing him out of this public event and into the street. They order him to stop filming and demand to have his film, and someone's smudgy hand grabs at the lens.

As Curry's film shows, this is just one of many jackbooted moves by James's mayoral machine to ensure incumbent victory at the cost of democratic freedom. Any businesses that so much as stick Booker placards on their property run the risk of a police shakedown. And the mayor, during a bitterly fought campaign, accuses Booker of being puppeteered by white Republican interests, of being a carpetbagger (Booker's originally from elsewhere in New Jersey), and of playing white (possibly for being so educated; it's not abundantly clear). It's a supreme irony, since Booker is the son of civil rights activists who scrimped, saved and sacrificed for him to be the well-educated mayoral candidate he has become. In essence, James is castigating Booker for being as fine an African American success as Martin Luther King Jr. could ever have dreamed of.

But in "Street Fight," the best American political documentary since 1993's "The War Room," that's politics where the rubber meets the dirty road. And Curry's film (screening Thursday at 5, which means most of you have to play hooky) is just one of 89 provocative, fascinating and unusual American and foreign documentaries at Silverdocs, the annual documentary film festival sponsored by Discovery Channel and the American Film Institute. ("Street Fight" will be broadcast July 5 on public television, part of PBS's "P.O.V." series.)

Silverdocs, held Tuesday through June 19 at the AFI's Silver Theatre (8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring), and the Roundhouse Theatre next door, will also present such special events as a bawdy panel discussion on comedy with Gilbert Gottfried and other comics, an outdoors musical night with Walter Washington and Big Sam's Funky Nation, two nighttime (and free) screenings, and free lunchtime shorts programs.

In most cases, the filmmakers and some of the subjects -- including Werner Herzog, Stanley Nelson, Stuart Samuels and members of Sweet Honey in the Rock -- will attend screenings and talk about the films afterward.

The festival opens Tuesday at 7 with a screening of Samuels's "Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream," an exhilarating, witty primer on the midnight culture, which included such edgy movies as "El Topo," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Pink Flamingos." Interviewees include John Waters, Tim Curry and David Lynch. Admission for the event is $45 and includes an after-party, which will feature transvestites, zombies and the reggae band Culture. ("Midnight Movies" rescreens June 19 at 12:45.)

Out of the 89 selections, which include 12 world and nine American premieres, 10 will be selected as finalists for the jury-chosen Sterling Award, which includes $25,000 combined cash and in-kind prizes. (Who says documentary filmmaking doesn't make money?)

These movies are also sure bets:

· Penelope Spheeris, a music video pioneer, presents "Eclectic Video Mix," in which she shows some of her classics, while also presenting the best work of video-auteurs Spike Jonze, Mike Mills and Michel Gondry. Wednesday at 9:30.

· "Bob Smith -- USA," Neil Abramson's visit with seven of the 81,000 people named Bob Smith in the United States, ranging from a Christian clown to a Smith who loves to dress up like Satan to pick up women at parties. Thursday at noon, June 17 at 9:30 p.m.

· "Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice," Stanley Nelson's warmhearted portrait of the powerful singing group, led by Bernice Johnson Reagon, which has been singing gorgeous a cappella songs since 1973. The film screens Wednesday at 7 and June 19 at 3:15. Nelson, WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi, as well as members of Sweet Honey, are scheduled to attend the Wednesday event.

· "Rosita," Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater's heartbreaking true story about a 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl who was raped and impregnated but whose unwanted pregnancy (in a grim reprise of "Citizen Ruth") became a political football between abortion rights advocates and antiabortion forces in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Wednesday at 7, Thursday at 2:45. (Preceded by a short, "Time Lost.")

· "Abel Raises Cain," Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett's portrait of Abel's truly eccentric father, Alan Abel, who lived on pranks as his livelihood. Thursday at 9:45 p.m.

· "Johnny Berlin," (preceded by "Triumph of a Heart -- the Stories Behind the Music Video"), Dominic J. DeJoseph's fascinating American-rootsy documentary about John "Berlin" Hyrnes, an amusing raconteur who is a train porter and talks about his hopes and frustrations; his laid-back, barrel-fermented voice suggests a cross between Jack Nicholson and Billy Bob Thornton's character in "Sling Blade." June 17 at 7:15.

· "Grizzly Man," Herzog's powerful documentary about the fair-haired, passionate and quite possibly crazy Timothy Treadwell, who lived and died for his beloved grizzly bears in Alaska. June 17 at 7. Herzog will attend.

· "Murderball," also opening commercially, Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's film about the machismo, smash-mouth game of the U.S. Paralympic Rugby Team, whose members play rugby in wheelchairs. June 17 at 7:15.

Thursday at 7, the swing band Radio King Orchestra will warm up an outdoor crowd at the Silver Plaza (behind the Silver Theatre) before a 9:30 screening of "Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling," Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's film about, well, whistling (also screens June 18 at 12:15); and June 17 at 7, Walter Washington and Big Sam's Funky Nation will perform outside, before the 9:30 showing of "Make It Funky!," Michael Murphy's film about the New Orleans influence on rhythm and blues. ("Funky" also screens June 18 at 3:15)

June 18 is comedy night, big time, with a 5:30 screening of "The Comedians of Comedy" (about crude-code stand-up comedians) at 5:30, and then at 8, Gottfried, Fred Willard, Judy Gold and others will participate in a bawdy panel, titled "God Save the Dirty Joke" (admission $15), at the Roundhouse Theatre. After that, at 10 in the Silver's main theater, will be a screening of "The Aristocrats," Paul Provenza's blue-language documentary about the dirtiest joke ever told

Closing the festival June 18 at 7 will be "James Dean: Forever Young," Michael J. Sheridan's documentary about the ill-fated, legendary actor. It will be followed by a gala reception with live music at the grandiloquently named Discovery Communications World Headquarters at One Discovery Place, across from the Silver. Admission for this film-and-gala event is $25. Admission for all movies is $9. For information and ticketing, visit or call 866-758-7327.

Incidentally, as an overture to Silverdocs, Saturday and Sunday at 3, you can hear the Post-Classical Ensemble perform works by Virgil Thomson (no relation); the live ensemble accompanies Pare Lorentz's brilliant late 1930s documentaries "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River," which were made for the federal Resettlement Administration. Admission is $25.

For information, visit or call 301-495-6720.

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