Film Institute Presents SilverDocs

Every June, just as Hollywood is rolling out its summer blockbusters, the American Film Institute offers filmgoers a smorgasbord of something more mind-blowing: reality.

AFI's SilverDocs festival, whose motto is "Life: Now Playing," has become one of the pre-eminent documentary festivals in North America since its launch in 2003.

"Others have been around longer, but in three years we've grown to last for a week with 89 films, and a conference of 400 distributors and filmmakers afterwards," said festival director Patricia Finneran.

The films - features and short subjects from 43 countries - are being exhibited at the AFI Silver Theatre in suburban Silver Spring, Md., through Sunday. The series is co-sponsored by the Discovery Channel.

The festival opens Tuesday night with "Midnight Movies: From the Margins to the Mainstream," an account of how film oddities of the 1970s like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Eraserhead" broke taboos and reached cult audiences.

"SilverDocs embraces the diversity of the documentary form," said Finneran, from "hard-hitting films that address big ideas ... to music and comedy."

In "Rosita," after a 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl is raped and gets pregnant, her parents fight to end the pregnancy against bureaucratic, medical and religious opposition.

On the other hand, there's "Johnny Berlin," a comedy about a struggling writer who's trying to hold down a job as a porter on a moving luxury train.

In "Melting Siberia," from Israel, producer Ido Haar follows his mother to Siberia in search of her father, who abandoned her when she was little.

In Britain's "Pulled from the Rubble," filmmaker Margaret Loescher introduces her father, Gil, a former basketball player who lost both legs when a suicide attacker drove into the United Nations headquarters in Iraq.

Politics and economics are treated in ways both comic and serious. Three inventors of "Home Made Money" create an alternative to the Argentine peso at a time when the country's economy was beset by frozen bank accounts and wild inflation.

In "Podul Peste Tisa," families and neighbors in Romania and Ukraine and forbidden by their governments to cross the bridge connecting their two towns.

American society gets the comic treatment in "Bob Smith-U.S.A." It presents a range of diverse personalities, from a clown preacher to an atheist, all named Bob Smith.

By Carl Hartman