'Sons of Perdition' (director Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten at left, with subjects, right) demonstrated the value of old-school narrative at Silverdocs

Storylines of Silverdocs 2010

Sara Dosa July 1, 2010

Storytelling took center stage at the U.S.'s pre-eminent documentary film festival, Silverdocs, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland. Its conference theme, "360 Degree Storytelling," could be felt in the film program as a whole. Documentaries came from all sides of the storytelling spectrum, from classic three-act pieces to non-narrative experimental docs. Sons of Perdition, an audience favorite, followed the lives of three teenage boys who fled ‘The Crick,’ the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints’ (FLDS) compound headed by the notorious Warren Jeffs. With gripping verité scenes of on-camera escapes, police encounters and exiled Mormon teen parties, Sons of Perdition depicted the struggles the boys face as they abandon their families and begin to think for themselves for the first time.  While far from formulaic, this coming-of-age drama demonstrated the power of the reigning character-driven story model for docs, with the boys on dramatic/heroic journeys in the film (and on a lower-key adventure live at the festival, where they were spotted tearing up the dance floor....).

In contrast was the quiet strength of Finnish film, Steam of Life, a doc that, as co-director Mika Hotakainen put it, is “simply about naked Finnish men.” The film explodes the stoic lumberjack stereotype by bringing the camera into the intimate space of the sauna. Here, in steamy makeshift chambers (found in woodland trailers and industrial factories alike) burly males bare all, confess their sins, sob, laugh and embrace one-another. Each sauna conversation is a discrete scene unto itself; the film is stitched together as an anthology of short stories. Punctuated with images of the vast Finnish landscape, the pace ebbs and flows much like the curling sauna steam itself.

Experimental in nature, We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, an electronic noise-rock romp through Japan’s avant-garde music scene, foregrounds the mechanical grit of industrial noise over character development; it forgoes plot for stark and stunning visuals. Post-apocalyptic landscapes—a trash-laden beach, a sculptural dump, and an aortic underground lair—juxtaposed with thrashing guitars, screeching cellos and scratchy turntables, evoke an otherworldliness not meant to fit within any discernable storyline.

The prestigious Charles Guggenheim Symposium took cinematic storytelling back to its roots with a tribute to verité master Fredrick Wiseman. After a retrospective of a few of his well-known films High School (1968), Law and Order (1969) and Basic Training (1971), Wiseman sat down for a Q&A with Davis Guggenheim, son of Charles Guggenheim, the tribute’s namesake, and director of Waiting for Superman (which screened as the Centerpiece film on Saturday, June 26).

Guggenheim asked Wiseman about his process. “You know, it’s like putting together a puzzle but without a picture of the completed puzzle on the box,” he mused. “It's a combination of instinct, judgment and luck. Or, actually, luck, instinct and judgment.”  Wiseman explained how this judgment led him to choose subject matter such as psychological wards and police stations and to pass up other opportunities in fiction film. “I was asked to direct this one screenplay about a boxer in Philadelphia,” Wiseman explained. “But it was so bad, I thought it was a joke. It turned out I gave up an opportunity to make Rocky!”

Sans Sylvester Stallone, Wiseman did just complete a boxing film: a six-minute short titled Boxing Gym. Like Hospital (1970) or Welfare (1975), Boxing Gym makes social commentary through the curated observation of an institution—in this case, a boxing ring in Austin, Texas. Wiseman portrays young boys punching the air and teenagers pumping iron as proud fathers look on. Boxing Gym is a subtle but strong tale of masculinity and family that echoes Wiseman's “signature path in the landscape of documentary film,” as award presenter Grace Guggenheim put it.

The Conference
The five-day conference titled “360 Degree Storytelling: The Power of Documentary Voices to Engage and Enrich Civil Discourse” put the festival program in a wider industry context. Presenters from the Sundance Documentary Fund, Independent Television Service (ITVS), HBO, and Kartemquin Films, offered their ideas through workshops, panels and discussions that centered on “new strategies of storytelling in a networked world,” as conference producer Diana Ingraham framed it. Dubbed as “non-fiction nirvana” by Variety, the conference provided guides for navigating a dizzying array of new media platforms.

In the “PBS Interactive Workshop: Building your Digital Toolbox” session, three filmmakers presented multimedia doc projects to open discussion about emerging technologies, such as alternative reality gaming (ARGs).  Stephen Gong, the Executive Director of the San Francisco-based Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), moderated the panel.

"What struck me was that in the projects, the film itself was only part of the larger content piece,” Gong told me. “The idea of an interactive game component both excited the filmmakers and frightened them just a bit—it’s new territory for an independent documentary filmmaker.” The PBS panel noted the ITVS-presented game, World Without Oil ( as a successful and prototypic example.

Certainly new digital strategies, such as ARGs, will remain salient in the future media landscape. Meanwhile, at the conference, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) announced their new $20 million Diversity and Innovation Fund ( Among a ten-part television series, this fund will set aside monies specifically for digital initiatives and gaming. CPB and PBS’s institutional clout, along with this hefty investment, set new industry standards for non-fiction media-makers.

Other conference highlights included The Good Pitch (, an event organized by Channel 4 BritDocs and Sundance. Here, eight filmmaking teams pitched their works-in-progress to panels of funders, media gurus and non-profits. If successful, the panel can award the filmmakers money and strategic partnerships on the spot. The idea is to link powerful stories up with the game-changing resources filmmakers need to catalyze viable social change.

This year’s Good Pitch group included Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams pitching his new project, The Interrupters, as well as the Bay Area’s Jon Else, Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen pitching Higher Ground. Higher Ground tracks Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed, on his quest to save his country—soon to be underwater due to an alarming rise in sea level. A Puma Corporate Social Responsibility rep awarded them unexpectedly with two grants. Other projects, such as Victor Buhler’s A Whole Lott More about a factory that employs disabled workers received $50,000 from two funders—the full amount asked for. The Good Pitch makes its next debut in San Francisco this fall.

Sara Dosa is the Grants & Residencies Coordinator at the San Francisco Film Society.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 1, 2011

    Essential SF: Joshua Grannell

    Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 19, 2011

    Essential SF: Irving Saraf and Allie Light

    Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.

  • Oct 18, 2011

    Clean White Lines Demos DIY Ethos

    Can three film school grads from San Francisco break out without the help of Hollywood or New York connections?