The festival kicks off Monday and runs through June 26, with some 108 films being shown at various locations including the AFI Silver Theatre and the Discovery HD Theater in Silver Spring. Running alongside the festival is The Silverdocs International Documentary Conference from Tuesday through June 25.
For all its eclecticism, some of Silverdocs’ films also hit upon local stories and issues, such as the tale of Silver Spring resident Gus Goldberger in the film “The Rescuers.” Directed by Michael King, “The Rescuers” follows official Winston Churchill biographer and renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert and Rwandan anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire as they explore the stories of non-Jewish diplomats who helped save thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
In the film, Goldberger travels with his brother Leo Goldberger to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he spent much of his childhood. He grew up in a family of six in a three-story flat and his father served as a cantor in the local synagogue.
Still, 1943 marked a turning point for Denmark and the Goldbergers. With a growing resistance movement and the government’s shutdown, Denmark was put under martial law. The change in power gave the Germans an opportunity to round up Denmark’s Jewish citizens and they planned to do so on Oct. 1, 1943.
George Ferdinand Duckwitz was among the Germans informed by Werner Best, who organized the Gestapo, of the plan in September. An attaché, Duckwitz tipped off Danish politicians, who in turn alerted the Jewish community.
With news of the roundup, the Goldbergers had no choice but to flee. It would be the second time they would attempt to escape the Nazis since six Gestapo officers came to the Goldberger’s door in the early morning of Aug. 29.
|From left, Sir Martin Gilbert, Stephanie Nyombayire, Gus Goldberger and Leo Goldberger.|
“He figured there was only one purpose and that would be to come after us,” Goldberger recalls.
Fortunately, the Gestapo’s noise awoke an upstairs neighbor, who upon walking downstairs demanded to know the cause of the ruckus. She told the Gestapo all the Goldbergers were away.
On Oct. 1, with roundup imminent, the Goldbergers tried to escape with another family, but their house was empty by the time the Goldbergers arrived. Twenty-four hours after that plan fell through and aided by a chance encounter of Goldberger’s father with a woman on a train who knew his work as a singer, the Goldbergers left Denmark in the hull of a fishing vessel en route to Sweden. The Goldbergers, including 9-year-old Gus, arrived in Sweden after switching to a Swedish boat mid-water and eventually settled in Gothenburg. Thanks to Duckwitz, nearly 7,000 Jews escaped.
Goldberger’s story is one of many in Michael King’s film. The Emmy-award winning documentarian came up with the film’s concept after producer Joyce D. Mandell mentioned having seen photos of some of these diplomats in an exhibit at Ellis Island. While filming, King traveled with those spared by the rescuers to places such as Rhodes, Greece. In many instances, the rescuers were breaking the policies of their own countries.
“There was no parade or marching band waiting for them or promotions,” King says. “There was a price to pay in making a choice for humanity.”
|Stephanie Nyombayire and Michael King with Prince Charles.|
“We needed a young voice that could talk to young people about the tragedies of the Holocaust. … And also make it a contemporary story, not just a historical story,” he says.
The film will be screened at Silverdocs on June 22 and 23 and is presented in partnership with the United States Institute of Peace.
“This film really embodies the real essence and mission of the USIP and showcases how powerful documentary can be in shining a light on critical issues around peace building,” festival director Sky Sitney says.
Sitney has worked with Silverdocs for the past six season, and as festival director for the last three. This year, she also has been heavily involved with the conference. With more than 60 panels, master classes, pitching forums and workshops conducted by individuals from every facet of the movie industry, Sitney says a handful of the talks can even intrigue those who are not filmmakers, but have curious minds.
“We have a doc talk that is looking at how these films are trying to intervene in various ways in the judicial process, or how they could be used almost as testimony or another form of witnessing,” Sitney says.
Silverdocs also distributes surveys each year to ask patrons what they want to see improved in future conferences. This year, Sitney says the focus of the conference has been shifted, too.
“While we are certainly not going to ignore our entry-level filmmakers, what we did hear in our surveys was that there was an absence of really great content for the mid-career filmmaker,” she explains.
One such presentation will take place at 10 a.m. June 23 in the Fenton Room of the Silver Spring Civic Building. Titled “A Behind-the-Scenes Guide to Capitol Hill for Filmmakers,” the talk will be moderated by Will Jenkins, a staff member for Virginia Senator Jim Webb. The goal of the speech is to show documentarians how they can access legislators and use their films as vehicles for change.
Director Rachel Libert hopes the film “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” will act as just that when it screens at Silverdocs on June 21 and 25.
|Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger.|
Ensminger has been appealing to legislators and speaking everywhere possible on the matter. The film shows the lengths he has gone to including participating in Congressional hearings and attending meetings with the EPA to discuss the harmful effects of chemicals such as PCE, which was found in the water in high levels, but has not yet been classified officially as a “known” carcinogen.
Despite his fortitude, Ensminger is still facing the hard truth that the organization he served for some 25 years has refused to talk with him about his findings or help the soldiers who have suffered as a result from their time at Lejeune. A sense of betrayal strikes deep for Ensminger, but the motto “Semper Fi” still guides him.
“We take care of our own. I know that’s alive and well down at the operating and union level, but I’m not dealing with them in this situation,” Ensminger says. “What is really scary for me is that the people who hold the entire rank and file of the Marine Corps to those lofty standards can’t live up to them themselves. It’s a scary damn thought.”
As shown in the film, Lejeune is not unique, and there are other sites where contamination on military bases threatens the surrounding areas and civilians, including Kirkland Airforce Base in New Mexico and even Fort Meade in Washington, D.C.
Libert first started filming Ensminger in 2007 after meeting his sister while researching another project. Since their last recording session in December, Ensminger has seen strides with allies on Capitol Hill and two pieces of legislation are currently being discussed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Still, she hopes her film shines a light on the accountability of the Department of Defense, which Ensminger says is the nation’s largest polluter.
“Ask the EPA to really hold the military to the same standards they’re holding private industry and to really enable and support the EPA to have the teeth to go against the Department of Defense,” she says.
With stories like Ensminger’s and Goldberger’s, Silverdocs seems to have captured the weight of the world on film.
Silverdocs Film Festival runs from Monday to June 26. The Silverdocs International Documentary Conference runs from Tuesday through June 25 at the Silver Spring Civic Building, One Veterans Place.
“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” screens at 4 p.m. June 21 at AFI Silver Theater 1, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, and 4:15 p.m. June 25 at AFI Silver Theater 3, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.
“The Rescuers” screens at 10:45 a.m. June 22 at the Discovery HD Theater, 1 Discovery Place, Silver Spring, and at 5:15 p.m. June 23 at the AFI Silver Theatre 2, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $11. Visit www.silverdocs.com
Photos courtesy Michale King Productions; Photo by Hope Hall; Courtesy Rachel Libert