Since Monday evening, the buzz around the AFI in Silver Spring, MD has been electric. Maybe it’s because you can brush shoulders with the filmmakers in the lobby, bring tasty beers into the theater, or ask the directors and producers about their films right after the screening. I have spent more hours than I care to share around the AFI this week, and everywhere you turn their are people talking about the films, trying to get into the films, or waiting to watch even more films. It’s a great festival that brings out some of the finest filmmakers in the world, and it makes you wonder how good the movies are that they didn’t select (there were 2200 submissions, and less than 100 films made it in).
Alfred Hitchcock once said “In fiction films, the director is God. In documentaries, God is the director.” At the heart of this statement is the truth about all filmmaking, which is that people know when you fake it. Often the line between fiction and reality is blurred, as with Fargo, which begins with an title card announcing “this is a true story”, when in fact the entire fable is a creation of the Brothers Coen. Side note: for many years, people travelling through the Brainerd area actually searched for a buried treasure, hoping a fictional criminal buried a real stash of cash. Most of the time, however, seeing real people and real stories trumps anything conjured up by a man sitting behind a typewriter. This point really hit home for me watching Semper Fi, during which the two stars of the film came up on stage to a standing ovation and more than a few tears.
The story of Semper Fi is equal parts maddening and heartbreaking, as many good docs are. Camp Lejeune, the film announces, contained toxic drinking water during an almost 40 year period, causing (to this day) numerous tragic (and preventable) deaths among military servicemen and their families. The most remarkable detail of this story is that a branch of the U.S. military, according to the film’s directors and stars, actually knew about and were responsible for the contamination and did nothing to stop, stem, or tide the problem. From the Marine base in North Carolina to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the story of Semper Fi darts across the landscape of a nation defined by the variety of it’s inhabitants. Some, like our protagonist, fight relentlessly, without acclaim or award, for justice and truth. And some, (who the film tastefully avoids) can’t be bothered with terms or rules or equality. It is this maddening struggle that fuels, tragically, the story of this powerful and devastating film.
It can’t be stated enough the power of documentaries to bring about change. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a film triumphantly proclaim victory, however small, in the face of adversity. Docs, not features, have the power to transform, to inspire, or to lead any number of people to do the right thing. Criticize Michael Moore all you want, but he is trying to expose perceived inconsistencies or injustices with his filmmaking. Say what you will about Errol Morris, but he is trying to present a story, however heavy handed, that deserves its day in the spotlight. Whether it’s an intimate portrait of a once great family moved to poverty (The Maysles Grey Gardens) or a stunning indictment of underhanded journalistic techniques abroad (Control Room), documentaries explore the reality of the human condition, however upsetting. Unless you invented the electric car, there is always something you can learn about the subject, and that quest for knowledge is a most admirable endeavor. “There are eight million stories in (New York) city,” Jules Dassin’s narrator famously states in the end of The Naked City. And that’s just New York.
On Friday I will bring you the next part of SilverDocs coverage, including a brief chat with the director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and a few final thoughts before I depart for the weekend. Keep it real folks…