One has to go back to the glory days of the Maysles Brothers or the fruitful collaboration between D.A. Pennebacker and Chris Hegedus to find a more successful creative and strategic relationship in the world of documentaries as the one between Joe Berlinger and his partner Bruce Sinofsky. The two are obvious complements to one another’s strengths and insights, and between the two of them, they have produced some of the most controversial, lyrical and inspiring non-fiction of the past three decades. To add to their many accolades, the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival, which opens today, will honor the documentary duo at its Charles Guggenheim Symposium for their collective and individual contributions to the genre. The symposium, named after the late, four-time Academy Award winner Charles Guggenheim, honors filmmakers who have mastered the power of documentary and inspire audiences with powerful explorations of the human experience. The special event is one of the highlights of the Festival, which celebrates a historic 10th anniversary from June 18 to 24.
Beginning with the award-winning BROTHER’S KEEPER in 1992, the filmmakers were particularly drawn to stories of individuals whose fates were mishandled by society’s major institutions. In their debut film, they detail the murder trial of Delbert Ward, a semi-literate farmer who lived with his four elderly brothers and eventually was coerced into admitting killing one of them. The miscarriage of justice theme has been a potent one in the filmmakers’ careers and interests. The PARADISE LOST trilogy, which included the original 1996 film and two follow-ups in 2000 and 2011, chronicles the legal journey of the West Memphis Three, Arkansas teenagers who were accused and convicted of murdering two young boys in a firestorm of prosecutorial misconduct and community hubris. The final film in the series PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY, which was nominated last year for an Oscar, follows the dramatic events that eventually lead to the freedom and exoneration of the trio. The filmmakers’ collaboration includes several music films, the 2002 short feature ONE WHO DAY, about a concert tour by the rock group The Who, and METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (2004), which focuses on an international concert tour of the heavy metal group. The filmmaker pair has also been active in producing and directing documentaries for television, in particular for partner Home Box Office and PBS.
While they are being honored as a duo, each has also produced and directed their own projects. Berlinger’s documentary CRUDE (2009) explores the economic and ecological disaster in the wake of oil company Chevron’s rape of the Ecuadorean Amazon. The film, which also included a long legal battle between Berlinger and Chevron to release extra unused footage that the oil giant claims negates the charges against them, brought the involvement of legal and community groups who championed the David versus Goliath battle that the challenge represented. Sinofsky changed gears this past year with UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, the fascinating story of musician Paul Simon’s return to South Africa to explore the then-controversial decision to use South African musicians for his landmark album Graceland, despite an international embargo due to the government’s policy of apartheid. In a sense, the theme remains the same…..the exoneration of someone who has been falsely accused and their journey to correct a perception that has been enshrined into fact. His next film is a biopic of horror/sci-fi author and screenwriter Clive Barker.
The Guggenheim Symposium at AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs will include excerpts from the honorees’ body of work. Following the screening, Berlinger and Sinofsky will be joined by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez, and other special guests, for a discussion of their joint career. “Few filmmakers can compare to Berlinger and Sinofsky for their tenacious and unrelenting commitment to raw truth,” Silverdocs Festival Director Sky Sitney enthused in a prepared statement. “They use the documentary form to tear away the veil of accepted social platitudes, providing a new point of entry into the world of vulnerable musical performers, those psychologically discriminated against and the wrongfully incarcerated. These are filmmakers who persistently utilize the power of the cinematic image until change is dramatically effected in the real world.” The documentary duo now join the distinguished company of past Guggenheim honorees, including Barbara Kopple, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme in 2007, Spike Lee, Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman, and the equally dynamic duo Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. For more information on the Silverdocs festival, visit: www.silverdocs.com