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Silver Spring, Maryland is a strange place to hold a film festival. And really, Maryland in general doesn’t seem like a great choice for the epicenter of anything cinema related. We’ve produced John Waters, Kathy Lee Gifford and Mo’Nique. If anything, Maryland should expect to be banned from film altogether.

Yet rising from the mire of Maryland’s sordid on-screen history is the AFI Silver theatre in downtown Silver Spring. I don’t want to gush too much but the place is a godsend for anyone in the area who doesn’t want to choose between Obsession and The Proposal for the next four months. On a typical Friday night, AFI Silver will pack a crowd for features like “Beautiful Dynamite: The Works of Cyd Charisse” or “Signore & Signore: The Leading Ladies of Italian Cinema.” Even when the feature is a mainstream movie, it is often tied in with some type of event, like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire being played along with Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. All right, that’s enough gushing.

Since 2003, AFI Silver has hosted Silverdocs; an eight-day documentary film festival that showcases up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world. The organizers of Silverdocs go through great pains to select a massive variety of films, which in turn causes great pain in trying to decide what to see. Damn near everything on the schedule this year looked good and nothing disappointed. Since it would take far too long to come up with a write-up for every great film I’ve seen this past week, I’m narrowing it down to my top three.

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Episode III – Enjoy Poverty
Directed by Renzo Martens
90 Minutes

In all great satire, there’s that wink to the camera where the performer let’s you know this is all an act. From Monty Python to Sacha Baron Cohen, the jokes depend on the audience being let in on the angle from the beginning. Otherwise the actors would just come off ignorant, boorish and offensive. It’d be professional suicide not to give that wink. It’s required.

So to say that Dutch filmmaker Renzo Martens doesn’t give a shit about the conventions of filmmaking is still far too short of an understatement in describing the risks he takes with Enjoy Poverty. First off, he spent two years wandering around the war-torn Congo, visiting the most destitute villages and living amongst the most desperate plantation workers. But this is not another heart-wrenching look at the humanitarian crisis in Africa; in fact it’s the opposite. It’s a scathing commentary on how the white man is robbing the Congo of its most profitable export: images of poverty.

Martens fits the part perfectly; a handsome, blond filmmaker who walks amongst the Western journalists who swarm every time there’s a body full of bullets in the street. Acting like an Aryan prophet, Martens informs a group of Congolese party photographers that foreign journalists make $1000 a month photographing raped women, malnourished children and corpses, so if these men ever want to start a successful business, they better abandon celebratory photography and find some naked, starving bush people. I won’t tell you how this experiment ends.

Martens travels from village to village acting like a Western jackass and, with a garish neon sign, he announces that if the Congolese people continue to tolerate Western presence (including UNICEF), they better ENJOY POVERTY because nothing will ever get better.

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The Sound of Insects – Record of a Mummy
Directed by Peter Liechti
87 Minutes

In an age where primetime TV usually features at least one mutilated dead body resulting from a horrific crime, it’s pretty tough to be disturbing anymore. Horror movies tear co-eds to shreds in elaborate torture devices while the nightly news reports on the most fucked up events of the day. How is a low budget documentary supposed to out do that?

The answer of course is patience. Director Peter Liechti exploits nearly every primal fear we have as humans, without showing one scene of carnage or panic. There is no villain, there are no weapons, and the only character is nameless and faceless. Oh, and of course it’s all true.

A body is found frozen to mummification in a makeshift tent far from civilization. In between the corpse’s legs is a journal. No name is given and very little clues are provided as to who this body belonged to. The only thing the diary provides is a day-to-day account of what this man was feeling as he consciously starved himself to suicide in isolation.

The full journal is read emotionlessly by an unseen narrator as images of remote forests and vapid civilization are juxtaposed. The visuals are pretty concurrent with stereotypical art film, but it is the reading of the journal that is endlessly discomforting. The entries begin by documenting bowel movements and eventually digress to Dante-like hallucinations.

The only explanation the man gives for starving himself is that he is determined to experience every stage of death. With no food and little water, the man lasts 62 days alone, scared of the dark, and second guessing himself until he is too weak to walk. The Sound of Insects is not a movie that is even remotely enjoyable to watch, but in our culture littered with bodies, this one has a voice that will not be forgotten when the credits roll.

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RIP: A Remix Manifesto
Directed by Brett Gaylor
89 Minutes

And hey, what the hell, how about an indie popcorn flick? Sure there were plenty of other great super depressing, poignantly uplifting, life realizing documentaries, but why not end on a high note. Here is the whole premise of RIP: it’s okay to ignore the copyright laws because everything is derivative of something else anyway. Armed with a three point manifesto, director Brett Gaylor provides the usual comparisons of classic rockers ripping off traditional blues, then turning around and suing the shit out of anyone who samples the ideas that really weren’t theirs in the first place.

Challenging copyright laws isn’t new territory for artists. RIP is different for two reasons. #1 Gaylor puts his money where his mouth is, breaking thousands of copyright laws with this film to prove his point. And #2 Remix panders to its ultra liberal audience with razor sharp precision. Painting copyright laws as tools of The Man, the packed audience booed every time a lawyer came on to defend intellectual property and broke into Baptist-like excitement every time another lawyer came on to say copyright laws are obsolete. If you didn’t care one way or another, listening to the audience was really half the show.

At the center of the film was Greg Gillis – better known as Girl Talk – who the director claimed many times as his favorite artist. In one of the more memorable scenes Gillis takes a copyright clerk through a quick run of what he does, using three seconds of an Elvis Costello song to make a dance loop. The overwhelmed copyright clerk, clearly impressed, responds, “I don’t even know how many laws you just broke.” And the crowd went wild.

Gaylor added enough clips of wild Girl Talk shows and a nice segment about Radiohead to keep the audience roped into the whole copyright argument. The pathos hit a crescendo when Gaylor featured interviews with a few of those unfortunates who had been prosecuted for illegally downloading music. A hush fell over the audience as we all were well aware everyone in the room was just as guilty as the people on screen.

While there is no doubt Gaylor is extremely passionate about copyright absurdity, he benefited greatly from approaching the subject with humor. His manifesto wouldn’t hold up in a court of law and I imagine he’ll be getting a phone call from Disney about the guy who drew Mickey eating out Minnie, but by the end of the movie everyone had been laughing long enough to at least give a shit about copyright laws for an hour and a half.

by Brian Loeper

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