An Interview with Sky Sitney, Artistic Director of Silverdocs

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POV’s Executive Director Simon Kilmurry interviews Sky Sitney, artistic director of the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. Silverdocs will run from June 15-22 in conjunction with the International Documentary Conference. For the full line-up and schedule, visit www.silverdocs.com.

Simon Kilmurry: Can you tell us a little about how films are chosen for the festival? With almost 2,000 submissions, I imagine it’s an exhaustive process?

Sky Sitney

Sky Sitney: The selection process is both a highly intuitive endeavor, and a strategic one. We privilege our emotional and intellectual responses to a film as the ultimate determining factor, but we must also consider many other factors when building the program. We consider every film on its own terms, but then we also step back periodically to examine how the individual films are coming together to form a larger, cohesive program. We try to strike a balance in the final lineup — a balance of themes, of tone, of premiere status (launching new works alongside a slate featuring the “best of fests”), of countries represented — both in terms of origin and interest, and of filmmakers (masters and novices alike). We don’t want to find ourselves at the end of the day with a redundancy of subject matter. Nor do we want to find ourselves with a slate that is absent of films that grapple with some of the most topical issues of our time: the global economy, the environment, etc. It’s all about striking a balance between the individual films that stand out, while keeping an eye on the program as a whole, while not letting any criteria eclipse the more important visceral, instinctual reaction to a film. Every single film that gets submitted is watched and carefully considered.

Silverdocs

Simon: What qualities make a documentary a good fit for Silverdocs?

Sky: First and foremost, we celebrate artistic excellence and a filmmaker’s unique vision. Before we concern ourselves with the topics of the films themselves, we are committed to a mastery of the form. Now, by “mastery,” I do not mean to say that every film has to have super high production values, or be hyper-slick — in fact, quite the contrary. But we do expect filmmakers to have a bold cinematic vision. Then we look at the various ways this cinematic vision is articulated. It could be a film that addresses a gripping social issue; or a film that showcases an important artist; or a film that is an art work unto itself, pushing the boundaries of what the documentary form can be. But we begin by celebrating the artist and his or her vision.


Simon: There’s a decidedly international flavor to the programming. Are you seeing more international films, and do you see differences in storytelling styles between U.S. and international doc makers?

Sky: As the festival grows in scope and stature, we happily find ourselves more and more on the international radar. We have certainly made many efforts to make this so — traveling the international film circuit, and cultivating important alliances with international cultural institutions have been top priorities. The question as to whether there are notable differences in storytelling styles is complex, and deserves a much more in depth response, but to keep it simple, I would say that I tend to see more experimentation with the documentary form in the international films. I see a less rigid adherence to traditional nonfiction aesthetics that makes for some electrifying, occasionally mystifying, but always inspiring film viewing.

Simon: Which films are you particularly excited to feature this year? Are there any themes — either in content or style — that you see emerging from this group of films?

Sky: It is difficult to single out any one film — or a selection of films — from the program, since we regard all of the films as special, and have already made a curatorial statement by virtue of selecting them out of 2,000 submissions. That said, we are thrilled to launch a number of fabulous world premieres including Jenna Rosher‘s Junior, Emmy, Peabody and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jon Blair‘s latest film, Dancing With the Devil, Landon Van Soest‘s Good Fortune, and Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater‘s Mrs. Goundos Daughter, among many others.

Simon: Now that you’ve been named artistic director (congratulations!!), how do you see the festival evolving over the next few years?

Sky: I believe that the evolution of the festival will be an organic process that is as much shaped by my role as artistic director and the vast contributions of my incredible colleagues, as by that of the documentary filmmaking community. I think that a festival should both lead and respond to what is going on in the industry. That is, we should listen carefully to the inspirations, triumphs, concerns and preoccupations that filmmakers are experiencing and serve as a platform to work through and reflect on some of these challenges and uncertainties. At the same time, we aim to be on the vanguard of these changes. What is wonderful about Silverdocs is that the festival is not merely a film program, it encompasses a concurrent International Documentary Conference run by the spectacularly talented Diana Ingraham, which offers a platform to explore all of the issues pertinent to the community of filmmakers and industry.


Simon: Which films have influenced you personally and why?

Sky: I grew up in an avant-garde film family. My father, P. Adams Sitney, was one of the founders of Anthology Film Archives in New York City, so I grew up with this wonderful experimental film theatre as a playground of sorts. I was exposed to many remarkable films, and even more remarkable filmmakers and artists throughout my childhood, and their passion for pure cinema has made a deep and long-lasting impression. I would say that these films and the artists’ sense of joy and reverence for cinema have had the greatest influence in my professional career.


Simon: Any tips for emerging filmmakers who would love to see their film in Silverdocs?

Sky: Don’t think about getting into a festival, just make the best work you can with integrity and boldness. If you do that, the rest will follow.

And if that doesn’t work, here are a few tips:

  • Check that your DVD works
  • Actually read the criteria before submitting to make sure your film is eligible
  • And bribes don’t work (although I did like that pony!)

Visit the Silverdocs website for more information about the festival.

Simon Kilmurry
Simon Kilmurry
Simon served as chief operating officer of American Documentary for six years before assuming the role of executive director in Fall 2006. Since joining AmDoc in 1999, he has played a key role in helping to set strategic direction for the organization and implementing new initiatives, including the Diverse Voices Project, POV's co-production initiative in support of emerging filmmakers; POV's Borders, PBS' Webby Award-winning online series; and True Lives, a second-run series for independent documentaries on public television. In addition, he worked to secure pioneering partnerships with both Netflix and Docurama to expand the distribution opportunities for POV filmmakers and enhance branding for POV Previously, Simon was associate director at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit literary arts and education organization and publisher, where he is now a member of the board of directors. He has also served as a board member and treasurer for Elders Share the Arts and East Harlem Block Schools, and as an informal advisor and funding panel member for other organizations including the New York City Center for Arts Education, the Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers and New York State Council on the Arts. Simon attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Columbia University Business School's Institute for Not-for-Profit Management.