Silverdocs Film Festival – Nine Years On

Sundance is all the way out West. And I’ve only been lucky enough to attend Austin’s cool South by Southwest once. But having a film festival almost literally in my backyard is a hoot. And for a lover of documentaries, to know that the movies people are going to be talking about all year are cycling through town, all at once, is a small miracle.

Age of Champions is more than anything why I went to the Festival this year. After all, working for AARP, I have to keep up with all things ancient, and the athletes in this film, all tough competitors in the world of senior sports, top out at 102. (Although that fellow sadly passed away before he could see the film open).

The inspirational stories of, yes, trash talking grandmas on the basketball court, and a pair of 90+ swimming brothers from here in DC, left the audience standing and cheering. I won’t be surprised if that film wins the audience award, for which the director and producer shamelessly appealed.

But the real brilliance at the festival was in a new film by Steve James, who stood the documentary world on its ear  with Hoop Dreams in 1994. What was special about that film? It was to many eyes a new kind of documentary, with all the excitement, pacing, character development, and emotional pull of a fiction feature, and yet it was about real people and their lives.

James has struck documentary gold again, with The Interrupters, about a group of hardened Chicago gang members who are dedicated to ending gang violence and retribution and have had great success in stopping the kind of tit for tat murder that is the currency of Chicago gang life. The film is based on the reporting of Alex Kotlowitz, who first wrote the story for the New York Times Magazine.

The film is riveting for its nearly 2 1/2 hour running time, and introduces an incredibly vibrant and stunning character, Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of the city’s “most notorious gang leaders,” according to the filmmakers and who was herself a feared gang enforcer.

I’ll have to make time to write about some of the other great films I saw last week – a doc about the world’s most creative restaurant, a final meditation from photographer Tim Hetherington, killed this spring in Libya, a sad and sweet music movie about the group Swell Season, whose name gives the film its bittersweet title, and The Revenge of the Electric Car, from the same filmmaker who documented its murder. My eyes hurt. But they hurt good.

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