Silverdocs opened to a packed crowd Monday night. Eager fans waited on standby while industry types and aspiring filmmakers networked in the AFI Silver’s lobby. Everyone was abuzz about Freakonomics, the new documentary based on the bestselling book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. After brief introductory remarks by representatives of AFI and the Discovery Channel, Levitt and Dubner appeared on screen, expressing regret they could not attend. They’re in South Africa trying to see if they can apply their theory on cheating to the World Cup. I have my doubts (compared to sumo, cheating requires more systemic complicity), but then again, I’m not nearly smart enough to conjure analysis like Levitt’s.
I’m an economist in my day job, and coupled with a policy background, it follows a movie like Freakonomics unearths the best/worst of my inner nerdery. When filmmakers discussed an experiment, I immediately thought, “What about the control group? This is bullshit,” only to have my concerns assuaged moments later. The most surprising thing about Freakonomics is its consistently high quality. Five different directors tackled four different chapters of the book, and producer Chad Troutwine’s masterstroke was to let the directors choose which chapter to cover. This enabled the directors to cater Levitt’s ideas to their styles, so the movie engages differently despite a common source.
Take Morgan Spurlock, for example. I’ve expressed my doubts about him before, but his segment “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” fits his approach perfectly. Spurlock has never been one for in-depth analysis. He’s more interested in anecdotal, slice-of-life evidence, so his look at first names is amusing and curiosity-piquing. Alex Gibney, on the other hand, has always taken a hard look at institution corruption, so he takes the notion of cheating in sumo and applies it to Japan’s crime policy as well as the American financial sector.
Eugene Jarecki is best known for Why We Fight, a documentary on the military-industrial complex, so it makes sense his segment “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” looks at a larger narrative of American crime. The notion that Roe vs. Wade brought down the crime rate is certainly controversial, so Jarecki makes the wise choice of distancing himself from Levitt’s work (the narrator begins often with “Levitt argues…”). Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made the crowd favorite “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed.” Grady and Ewing have an easy rapport with children, and their interviews with bribed students in Chicago suburbs are a highlight. This is even true when they talk with Kevin, who is the kind of idiot kid who prefers tattooing himself over homework.
The eager crowd enjoyed the movie, and many stuck around the theater for a Q&A with Gibney, Ewing, and Grady. Others headed to the lobby for more schmoozing and complimentary champagne. I had my fill and headed home, but the friendly atmosphere is my favorite thing about Silverdocs. In a short time, I chatted with PR assistants, directors, professors, theater owners, students, yoga instructors, and a member of The McLaughlin Group. As my visits to Silver Spring continue, I look forward to pleasant conversation in addition to fascinating nonfiction film.
Be sure to check out my updates as Silverdocs is in full force!