Tuesday, March 11, 2014 6:20 AM
Published on: Thursday, June 27, 2013
By Jack Owen
The 11th annual AFI Docs marked a significant transition for the festival formerly known as Silverdocs by expanding into the nation’s capital.
The internationally recognized festival brought 53 films representing 30 countries and revamped its format by expanding into Washington venues while continuing screenings at the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.
The festival hosted “Catalyst Sessions,” discourses among political leaders and filmmakers to discuss current issues, for the first time. Through the expansion into the District and the implementation of the Catalyst Sessions, the festival sought to further emphasize the value of film as a platform for progress and discussion.
“The AFI is committed to having a presence in D.C.,” said festival director Sky Sitney. “This has been a long term ambition of [the AFI], and is linked to a return home because the AFI was actually created in the White House Rose Garden. Having a significant presence in D.C. is what they intend to see through.”
Sitney said about 2,000 films were submitted to the festival and only 53 were accepted. The highly selective festival featured documentaries on a wide variety of topics, spanning across time periods and national borders.
Of the 53 films, The New Black, directed by Yoruba Richen, won the Audience Award for Best Feature; the documentary explores the division among African-American voters on gay marriage because of homophobia in the church by honing in on the battle for marriage equality in Maryland.
The Audience Award for Best Short went to SLOMO, directed by Joshua Izenberg. SLOMO follows John Kitchin, a doctor who quits his medical practice to see what would happen if he did what he wants all day – rollerblading.
Following the screenings, the filmmakers lead question and answer sessions with the audiences. These sessions allowed audience members to engage with the director in conversation and voice varied opinions.
“When you’re going to be showing documentary films, inherently in that there will be views showcased that aren’t necessarily the general consensus. What’s great is to create a platform after the film to let people express their views,” Sitney said.
Some question and answer sessions transformed into a space for audience members to share their own experiences. After screenings of Barbara Kopple’s Running from Crazy, which follows Mariel Hemingway – granddaughter of iconic author Ernest Hemingway – as she comes to terms with her family’s history of suicide and mental illness, audience members opened up about their own struggles.
“People got up and talked about their own experiences with depression or substance abuse,” Sitney said. “It almost elicited a confessional quality for people.”
Along with audience involvement, the festival strived to strengthen its ties to the political stage. Expanding the festival into Washington, Sitney said, allowed Virginians and Washingtonians easier access to the screenings, creating a more diverse constituency of audience members.
In turn, the festival had several esteemed political attendees and speakers, including Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet, Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and White House staffer Frances Anne Holuba.
Sitney said the festival’s policy engagement program brought filmmakers to Capitol Hill and the White House to meet with the Office of Public Engagement to discuss goals of film to change policy and how filmmakers can go about affecting public policy. Still, she asserted the festival does not solely address political issues and covers a diverse array of topics.
With the transition from Silverdocs to AFI Docs, festival leaders gathered responses to see how audiences felt about the change. The expansion into Washington created a wider audience, but some Silver Spring residents feel a loss as the festival is no longer centered on the AFI Silver Theatre Cultural Center. Nevertheless, Sitney maintained that the majority of responses were positive.
“We received a wide variety of responses. The majority of them were on the positive side,” she said.
For next year’s AFI Docs, audiences can expect the festival to build off of its transition this year.
“We plan to build on the foundation that we laid this year, to continue to build our two campuses and try to make both experiences robust for the constituents that they serve, and to continue to represent our unique location within the D.C. area,” Sitney said. “We still want to showcase a wide variety of films and bring powerful filmmakers to engage with other filmmakers in the industry, audience members and policy members, in celebration of this very powerful art form.”