AFI DOCS: Some final thoughts: Erica Ginsberg

Since my previous blog called Reserving Judgment on AFI DOCS got people talking (even referenced in a Washington Post article about festival director Sky Sitney), I wanted to close the loop and share a few final thoughts on this year's festival now that I've had a few weeks to think about it.


For those who missed this year's festival, it went through a major transformation as Silverdocs was rebranded AFI DOCS Presented by Audi, the festival was reduced from a week to four days, it expanded its locations from its former core around the AFI Silver in downtown Silver Spring to a number of museum and cultural center venues in Washington DC, and it focused on connecting many of its films and filmmakers to the political power players of our nation's capital.

Change is hard (as I noted in the previous blog) and there were definitely concerns that all these changes might impact participation in the festival, both by local filmmakers and film fans.  Yes there were changes and yes I do know quite a few filmmakers who chose not to go to this year's festival.  Some had issues with the more expansive locations (and the unfortunate fact that Metro track work effectively closed the Red Line over the weekend, making public transportation between Silver Spring and Washington DC challenging).  However, most chose not to attend because the main attraction had been the Documentary Film Conference which did not take place this year.  For many filmmakers, the opportunity to gain professional development from the conference and the small campus-like feel of downtown Silver Spring where you could easily run into other filmmakers and industry is what made it worthwhile to take time out of their busy work schedules to devote to the festival.

That said, the festival did not appear to be hurting for attendance, particularly at the evening and weekend screenings.  In fact, it looked like there were a number of new faces at the festival -- likely a contingent of Washington DC and Northern Virginia residents who would be less likely to come out to Silver Spring for screenings.  Some of the screenings attracted big name guests and speakers including Attorney General Eric Holder (at the screening of Gideon's Army), former Labor Secretary Robert Reich who is at the center of the film Inequality for All), and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and various well-known broadcast and print journalists (at the screening of Herblock - The Black and the White).  The U.S. premiere of a film like Caucus could not have taken place in front of a more appreciative audience in our Wonderful Wonktown of Washington.

The Catalyst Sessions -- while uneven -- seemed to be particularly effective for using the festival's documentaries as a means to discuss bigger policy issues, particularly immigration and education reform.  And the festival created a tour for filmmakers with social issue films in the festival to meet with legislative and executive branch representatives to gain insights into how to use their films for policy impact.

There were a lot of things I really liked about the new AFI DOCS. And some things I think AFI could improve upon without losing the expansion into DC venues or the energy and hype of power-players being a part of screening discussions. Key things:

(1) Bring back the conference.  This is really the most important single professional development and networking event for the Washington area's documentary filmmakers, and for many filmmakers from other places too.  Not having it this year created a large gap for our local documentary filmmaking community.  We know.  Our Peer Pitch Program -- which in past years had always been a sidebar program to the larger festival and conference -- suddenly became the only professional development activity associated with the festival, and it was no surprise that we had a waitlist of more than 12 filmmakers from across the country who we could not accommodate.

(2) Screen all films three times at three different venues.  The spread of the venues and the unanticipated Metro challenges made it much more difficult to see a lot of films.  This year, I only was able to see eight films whereas in prior years, I often made it to 15 films or more on top of conference sessions.  I also could not see some of my "must-sees" at all because the logistics of getting between venues made the timing impossible.  This allowed for one sweet surprise -- my favorite film of the festival turned out to be Approved for Adoption which was not originally on my radar screen -- attended only because there were no other films I could fit in at that time.  If the festival ultimately returns to a full week, I would recommend scheduling each film three times so that geographic and timing logistics do not get in the way of being able to see films.

(3) Consider some different DC venues. I was happy with all of the new venues except the Newseum theater which was way too small and uncomfortable, and where museum loudspeaker announcements interrupted Q&As.  However, the festival also lucked out since this was one of the rare Washington Junes which was neither super hot and humid or full of tropical afternoon downpours.  Had either been the case, even the walk from the Newseum or the American History Museum to the Goethe Institut could have been discouraging for many festivalgoers.  I was curious too, if the festival wanted to be centered around Penn Quarter/Chinatown, why it did not consider several other great DC theater venues within easy walking distance: the Navy Memorial (a big theater which is considered one of the best in the city) Landmark's E Street Cinemas (an arthouse multiplex which is used by a number of other festivals), or even the Regal Cinemas at Gallery Place (they do fewer festivals, but have been a good location for FilmFest DC for a few years).

(4) Diversify the documentary genre: One of the joys of past Silverdocs was getting to see films which would never make it to Washington DC otherwise -- quirky shorts, foreign films, humorous slices of life, and rare films made by whoever is getting the Guggenheim honors that year.  Understandably, with a shorter festival, AFI DOCS chose this year to focus the majority of its schedule on political and social-issue documentaries.  However, these are par for the course in Washington DC -- screened at many of the city's 100+ other film festivals as well as at cultural centers, Hill screenings, think tanks, and NGOs any day of the year.  Yes the political docs will always have a place at the festival -- especially given the fact that policymakers can attend or even be a part of the film discussions.  However, if the festival goes back to its full week format, we hope it will also return to featuring many of the other documentaries for which it has become well respected locally, nationally, and internationally, and help convince the filmgoing audience that documentaries are as varied in genre and style as their narrative fiction counterparts are.

I do think there is a lot of potential for the festival to grow forwards while also drawing from the strengths it has built up over 11 years.  Overall, for a big transition year like this, AFI DOCS did quite well, and I look forward to seeing what comes in 2014.

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