by Erica Ginsberg
AFI DOCS is back for its second year under its new moniker (I give it one more year before we stop saying "The festival formerly known as Silverdocs.") While the namechange isn't the only thing which changed, this year's festival (taking place from June 18-22) looks like it is bringing back some of what we loved about the Washington DC area's one and only documentary film festival. Call it AFI DOCS 2.0.
2013 was a hard year for the festival. While it expanded from Silver Spring to venues in Washington DC, it also condensed its length (four days from earlier iterations of 7-10 days); had to deal with the Red Line of the Metro being closed, making traveling between venues challenging for filmmakers and filmgoers alike; and showed very few shorts after building up its reputation on incredible shorts programs. AFI also replaced its two annual sidebar conferences -- one for filmmakers and one for K-12 educators -- with Catalyst Sessions, panels with thought-leaders and filmmakers on issues raised by some of the films. While interesting, these panels were not unlike hundreds of similar panels held by think tanks and universities in Washington DC throughout the year. They did not bring together documentary filmmakers, funders, distributors, broadcasters, and teachers in the same way as they had in the past.
Change is hard, and I think we all need to get over wishing that the festival will go back to being what it was in 2012. The festival still spotlighted some of the best documentaries making their way on the circuit. The expansion to Washington DC may have reduced some of that campus-like feel of the festival, but it also drew new audiences who in many ways represent the new Washington -- young, smart, documentary-loving people who live in the city and don't necessarily want to travel all the time to the Maryland suburbs to see and engage with films. It also reminded this particular audience member how amazing the National Portrait Gallery is as a screening space.
So fast forward to 2014. While the festival sadly lost long-time festival director Sky Sitney who stepped down earlier this year, it has been moving forward under the capable hands of Interim Director Christine O'Malley -- herself a documentary filmmaker who understands how important festivals are to filmmakers as both presenters and audience members. Andrea Passafiume also provided continuity in programming so the festival did not have to start from scratch with its aesthetic.
And the forecast is looking good.
[caption id="attachment_3840" align="alignleft" width="300"] Personal documentary auteur Doug Block is back this year with his latest film 112 WEDDINGS.[/caption]
In looking through this year's program, I am excited about what I see. Yes, there is the usual fare of critically-acclaimed films which have been playing the festival circuit and are finally making their way to Washington DC. Yes, many of the filmmakers and quite a few folks featured in the films will be attending the screenings. Yes, the shorts are back. Yes, the AFI Silver as a screening space is being fully utilized with all three theaters showing films throughout the festival. And yes the festival rejiggered the DC venues this year so they are ones with good A/V and not quite as far from each other as they were last year (they include the the Goethe Institut, the Naval Heritage Center, and the National Portrait Gallery).
And yes filmmaker professional development is making its way back into the festival. While focused predominantly on ways to create impact from social issue documentaries, the Impact Panels and Political Bootcamp on Thursday and Friday appear to be more hands-on than the Catalyst Sessions and will be especially relevant to filmmakers working on docs with potential to make change. Plus the panels and bootcamp are all free (though do require an advance RSVP since space is limited).
So what are some of my specific recommendations?
There are two films I have seen at other festivals which are interesting in and of themselves as films, but which also provoke discussions about directorial decisions. Jesse Moss' The Overnighters points a lens on one of North Dakota's boomtowns where men arrive in droves in search of lucrative oil jobs and instead find a lack of housing and little welcome from the locals, except for one pastor who opens up his church to these men. Point and Shoot follows the story of Matthew Van Dyke, a young Baltimore man who travels the world in search of adventure...and finds it when he lands in the middle of Libya's revolution. Constructed primarily from VanDyke's own footage by Marshall Curry, the film is not only an intriguing portrait piece, but a reflection of the new frontier where everyone is a filmmaker.
If you attended our Decade of Docs events or his Master Class back in May or have seen any of his earlier personal documentaries (51 Birch Street, The Kids Grow Up), you already know Doug Block. He is back with his latest film 112 Weddings and is getting as personal as ever, though just not about his own family this time around. Instead he revisits a number of couples whose weddings he filmed as his sidegig and finds out what actually happens in the "happily ever after" of marriage today.
Other films which have been getting a lot of buzz on the festival circuit include Virunga about efforts to save a Congo gorilla park from poachers and corrupt development and An Honest Liar about how magician The Amazing Randi's efforts to expose con artists who try to convince people their tricks are real.
Social issue documentaries based on compelling narratives rather than advocacy have always been a strong component of this festival, and this year will not disappoint. Whether you are interested in homelessness (The Homestretch and How I Got Over), human rights (E-Team), labor issues (The Hand That Feeds), population issues (Misconception), or even the student debt crisis (Ivory Tower), there is a film for you. I am especially looking forward to seeing Paul Lazarus' Slingshot about how Segway inventor Dean Kamen has created a water purification system which could cut waterborne illnesses in the developing world in half.
I am also happy that AFI DOCS has included some lighter fare as a balance, including Bronx Obama about an Obama impersonator; I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story about the puppeteer; The Search for General Tso about the origins of this popular Chinese-American dish; and Mudbloods about real life players of a game which, until recently, existed nowhere but in Harry Potter books.
And the shorts. Yes! Four different shorts programs which will allow us to get a slice of life of characters and places we might not see anywhere else. I can't tell you how many people have commented to me that the shorts programs are what they are most looking forward to seeing at the festival.
There are also several sidebar events (full disclosure: my organization is involved with two of them):
Wednesday, June 18: Peer Pitch: a daytime program in downtown Silver Spring for documentary filmmakers to practice and give/get feedback on each other's pitches of new documentary projects ahead of the festival. Co-sponsored by Docs In Progress and The D-Word. This is a fee-based event and space is limited. More info.
Thursday, June 19: Women in Film and Video-DC E-Team Happy Hour: If you are a WIFV member and you purchase a ticket to the June 19 screening of E-Team at 7:00 pm at the National Portrait Gallery, you can also head to the Filmmakers Lounge Happy Hour in a private downstairs section of Penn Social (801 E Street, NW). You check in upstairs at Penn Social between 4:30 and 6:30 pm by showing your ticket and receive a wristband for admission.
Friday, June 20: Docs In Progress Houseparty: Come join Docs In Progress staff, board, alumni, and neighbors for a free summer open house at our "Doc House" space in downtown Silver Spring. This is a great chance to have a drink and celebrate all things documentary with the local filmmaking community, as well as filmmakers visiting our area for the AFI DOCS Film Festival. More info.
Hope to see you around the fest!
Erica Ginsberg is the Executive Director of Docs In Progress, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing professional development, training, support, and community for documentary filmmakers, especially in the Washington DC Metro area. Erica has attended every Silverdocs/AFI DOCS Festival since the festival began.