Friday, June 17, 2011

Film for Thought: Silverdocs Features Local and World Stories

Learning something about the world is among the risks of attending the Silverdocs documentary film festival. From the shifting Iranian political climate during the 2009 presidential elections in “The Green Wave” to the unique Dublin hair salon in “Blue Rinse,” there is no shortage of films that go beyond the scope of the United States.

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.
Goldberger’s father heard the noise and instructed Goldberger and his two siblings to hide under his bed. His mother and youngest brother were away in the countryside.

“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.
King also found Stephanie Nyombayire. The young activist lost 100 members of her family during the Rwandan genocide and King felt her prescence in the film was necessary in showing a link between past and present.

“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.
The 76-minute documentary shows the plight of former Marine drill instructor and Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger as he investigates a long history of contaminated drinking water at the Marine training base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Ensminger and his family moved from Lejeune in late 1975. Ten years later, Ensminger lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia. Only years later in 1997, while watching the news, a story broke on the contamination, and Ensimger saw the first signs of an answer to his child’s untimely death. Since then, Ensminger has collected a substantial amount of evidence indicating several guilty parties in the contamination case through official Marine documents and outside sources who worked at the camp. With a number of child-related deaths and high rates of illnesses including an amazingly large number of male breast cancer victims with those connected to Lejeune, Ensminger believes his cause goes past a case of paranoia.

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

Photos courtesy Michale King Productions; Photo by Hope Hall; Courtesy Rachel Libert

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Asanga Domask shakes up Strathmore with Sri Lankan styles

If all the world is a stage, then Sri Lankans are its choreographers. Through the centuries, folk dances have captured even the smallest aspects of life on the Southeast Asian island and are still performed today.

This weekend at the Music Center at Strathmore, CityDance Ensemble will present "Nruthya Pooja: An Evening of Traditional and Folk Dance of Sri Lanka by Asanga Domask." Choreographed by Asanga Domask, a Sri Lankan native and CityDance's director of administration, the two sold-out shows will feature Domask as well as CityDance's pre-professional group and members of Domask's Sri Lankan Traditional and Folk Dance program.

The show is a blend of folk dances and traditional dances that are rooted in Sri Lankan cultural beliefs and customs.

A pooja, which is an offering in some manner — in this case, dance — that opens a celebration or religious event, will start the evening.

"The pooja in the concert, in the dance aspect, is it's a blessed dance to get permission from gods, from teachers, from the audience," Domask says.

Domask's pooja, which she will perform solo, is in a style of traditional dance called Kandyan. Dating back to the 4th century B.C., Kandyan is believed to have been danced for seven days and seven nights in order to rid an ancient Sri Lankan king of a nightmare that made him ill.

Vannama is one form in the Kandyan style the dancers used to remove the nightmare. These vannamas imitate the behavior of animals. This weekend, Domask will perform the usuka vannama, the eagle's dance, and six of her 23 dancers will perform the the mayura vannama, the peacock's dance.

The colors of the dancers' costumes — which were handmade in Sri Lanka — reflect the animals they are invoking.

"For example, the peacock has to be blue and green and red and orange because that's kind of the colors of the peacock," Domask says.

The attire consists of a jacket, ornate jewelry, an exposed midriff and a long skirt-like bottom.

The other traditional dance Domask will perform is of a low country style called pahatharata. The dance pays tribute to the wife of a demon who brings protection from evil spirits and disease.

Domask's young students will perform folk dances that celebrate day-to-day activities such as fetching water, harvesting rice paddies in the fields and children at play. Among these performers is Domask's niece Ana Harmsen, who began taking classes last year.

A former ballet student, Harmsen was interested in learning more about her cultural background.

"I really enjoy it because I love the songs and the drumming and the movements," the 11-year-old says.

She feels her aunt, who recommended her program, has taught her well.

"She's done it for a long time, too, so it's really good to learn the movements exactly as they were. She's very patient," Harmsen says.

Dance is an essential part of the educational system in Sri Lanka and Domask has been taking lessons since first grade.

In Sri Lankan culture, it is customary to perform these dances with a drum or other live musical accompaniment. Recorded music rarely accompanies shows.

Domask says every movement has a corresponding word so that performers can sing the steps, in essence creating their own music when a drum is not available.

Kandyan dance consists of 12 basic foot movements called "paa saraba," and 12 foot and arm movements called "goda saraba" that, similar to techniques found in African and Indian dance, are used as a foundation.

"It's like in ballet," Domask says. "You have to learn certain movements before you do a high jump or leap."

Outside of school, Domask studied these dances with Sri Lankan masters until she came to the U.S. in 1993 to attend school at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. As an economics major, she intended to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a banker. Still, she could not resist her roots, and earned a master's in dance from American University in 2006.

Much of Domask's work with CityDance is business oriented and this is the first performance Domask has helmed since joining the organization in 2005. A sense of urgency convinced her to propose the show to Paul Gordon Emerson, CityDance's artistic director and founder.

"Over the years, most of our ancient dance masters of Sri Lanka have passed away, and only a few are there to fill the gap. So I think it's important to train young dancers so we keep these cultural traditions alive," Domask says.

Emerson says producing work like Domask's has been one of the core values of CityDance since it began in 1996. When he started the company, Emerson left behind a career on Capitol Hill. In addition to having worked on more than 20 federal campaigns as well as liaison to the House Armed Services Committee, Emerson served as legislative director to the late House of Representatives member and U.S. Ambassador to Italy Thomas M. Foglietta.

With support from the State Department, Emerson's outreach now exists in movement, and he and his staff are constantly in motion. Since December, his professional company has worked in Israel, Italy and Algeria. This May, Emerson worked on a performance piece with a dance company in Kazakhstan, and CityDance will visit Peru and China in the summer.

"As somebody who believes in the framework of cultural engagement, especially as it applies to international relations," Emerson says, "there are days when I feel like I've been able to accomplish more by being out on the road as a dancer and a choreographer and a head of a company than I was ever able to accomplish as a foreign policy aide."

With Domask's performance, Emerson says the school is fortunate to be able to bring a foreign tradition to American audiences. He has tried his hand at some of Domask's basic traditional techniques, which he says can look deceptively easy.

"After we both stopped laughing so hard that it hurt, she came to the conclusion that it wasn't a style that I was going to acquire anytime soon," Emerson says.

"What I would suggest to any audience member who comes, if you think what you're seeing ... can be picked up in a few hours, think again," he adds, "because this woman has trained her entire life to do this kind of work."

CityDance Ensemble presents "Nruthya Pooja: An Evening of Traditional and Folk Dance of Sri Lanka by Asanga Domask" at The Music Center at Strathmore, Education Wing, Studio 405, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Both weekend performances are sold out. Call 301-581-5100 or visit

Link to the Gazette

Photos by Paul Gordon Emerson; Courtesy CityDance Ensemble