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AFI DOCS: In Transitional Year, DC Fest Expands Back to Silver Spring

By Lauren Cardillo

If you were looking to see independent films about Quidditch competitions, the life of Olympic diver Greg Louganis, the wild boar invasion in the Netherlands, or the man inside of Big Bird, AFI DOCS (formerly Silverdocs) was the place to be in June. The international festival, celebrating its 12th year in the Washington, DC area, offered 84 feature and short documentaries and 14 premieres over five days.

But it wasn't just cultural topics that attracted viewers. Social issues docs were big. There were stories about homeless high school students trying to graduate (Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly's The Homestretch), the crackdown on whistleblowers since 9/11 (James Spione's Silenced), the rise of young activists and social media during Arab Spring (Greg Barker's We Are The Giant), and even more that were critical of government of all sizes.

With the loss in 2013 of Discovery Communications as a main sponsor, the new name, the discontinuing of the festival's popular industry conference, and the departure this year of longtime director Sky Sitney, there were some concerns among filmmakers that the festival would continue to scale back this year. The gradual shift in screening sites from the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland to an assortment of venues in downtown Washington, DC was of particular concern.

"I totally appreciate that it all used to be centered in Silver Spring, and people miss the old days," says interim festival director and filmmaker Christine O'Malley (Wordplay). "But now we have the best of both worlds, with DC and Silver Spring. Change here is growth change." She adds that AFI feels the festival is a priority, and is "committed to making it work." This year AT&T came on as the presenting sponsor, and Penn Social on E Street in DC was added as a meeting hub.

"They nailed it," said first-time director Nicole Boxer (How I Got Over). Boxer's film, about a group of DC homeless women who write and perform a play about their lives, had its world premiere in front of a sold-out crowd. "If you're a social impact filmmaker, there is no reason not to be at AFI DOCS." For Boxer the proximity of policymakers is unique to the festival, and there were plenty present this year, including her mother, Senator Barbara Boxer.


The cast and crew of Nicole Boxer's How I Got Over. Courtesy of AFI DOCS


As a producer, Nicole Boxer (The Invisible War) has brought other films to the festival. The difference for her this year? There just seemed to be more films "that inspire, change and have impact." This was also the second year of the Policy Engagement Program, a Capitol Hill tutorial for filmmakers on how to engage leaders in an issue and influence public policy.

Boxer's characters were also on hand, as were others: Big Bird's creator, Caroll Spinney, from Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker's I Am Big Bird; actor Hal Holbrook, from Scott Teems' Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey; and magician James "The Amazing" Randi, from Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom's An Honest Liar, which earned the Audience Award for Best feature. There was even a Quidditch lesson—the game invented by author JK Rowling for her Harry Potter series—for all interested players after the screening of Farzad Sangari's Mudbloods, a doc about college teams competing for a Quidditch World Cup. "It is a grand slam, anytime you have participants at premieres," O'Malley maintains. "These are the moments that move me." Several volunteers from the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964—a time explored in Stanley Nelson's new film Freedom Summer—were on hand. "It was remarkable," comments O'Malley. "This is why we all do what we do."

Social impact and outreach were also the subjects of several panels. One panel sponsored by IDA--Getting Real: Creating Change from the Inside Out--centered around last year's AFI Docs selection, Documented.  (Documented aired on CNN, and will air again July 5.) The film's subject and director, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, joined Frank Sharry of America's Voice, Ryan Eller of Define American and Emily Verellen of the Fledgling Fund to explain to filmmakers how to plan, execute and evaluate a social media campaign. Documented talks about the issue of immigration on a heart level. For Vargas, it started with his story as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. He then used his story to "open people's minds" and reach others—who in turn become allies. "Every civil rights issue needs them," he said. The panel agreed that cultural shifts come before political ones.


Jose Antonio Vargas (right), director of Documented, speaking on the IDA-sponsored panel Getting Real: Creating Change from the Inside Out. Courtesy of AFI Docs


The second panel, also presented by IDA, focused on a film from this year's AFI DOCS, Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick's The Hand That Feeds, which tells the story of food workers who unionize, as a test case for outreach. Former SILVERDOCS Festival Director Patricia Finnernan walked the filmmakers through the different levels of outreach that can be achieved.

A later panel, "Public Media Content that Matters, Engagement that Counts," sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), offered a further course in outreach. According to Eliza Licht of POV, the first thing you need "is a great story." The panel focused on Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson's American Promise, Katie Dellamaggiore's Brooklyn Castle, and Rory Kennedy's Last Days of Vietnam.   

Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney was the focus of the Guggenheim Symposium for his work in films such as Taxi to the Dark Side, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The Symposium honors what AFI calls "masters of the non-fiction art form." Previous honorees have included Barbara Kopple, Spike Lee, Albert Maysles, Frederick Wiseman and Errol Morris.

"Gibney's personal drive to find and expose truth in film makes him one of the most important documentarians of this and any generation," says O'Malley. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post moderated the discussion with Gibney. "I think Ann is a wonderful interviewer and conversationalist, so it was interesting to hear more about Alex's life and the people and experiences that have had a major impact on him," O'Malley continues. "I really enjoy the way that symposium is set up because it lets you get acquainted with the filmmaker in a way that feels very personal-kind of like Inside the Actor's Studio for docs."


Alex Gibney and journalist Ann Hornaday. Courtesy of AFI DOCS


Opening night featured the world premiere of Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, about actor Hal Holbrook's decades-long role of playing the author Mark Twain on stage. According to freelance writer Natalia Megas, "The night was spectacular. The film was surprisingly good, and I say surprisingly because the title threw me off a bit. It was also nice to have the director [Scott Teems] and Hal Holbrook there. They were very approachable."

Independent producer Maryanne Culpepper agreed. "It's talking one-on-one with key creatives that's really interesting, and AFI DOCS offers this. It's an excellent exchange of thoughts and ideas. It's a mutual learning environment."

For first-time AFI DOCS participant Will Sweeney (Back On Board), the festival was "great for us. We had a great response, incredible crowds and a standing ovation." The biographical and archival film premiered here, and Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis was on hand to answer questions. Sweeney, primarily a narrative feature producer (The Royal Tenenbaums), just dipped his toes in the doc pool with Back On Board. As a first-time doc producer, he found the creative process amazing and awesome, and would do it again. In the end Louganis' story about being accepted as gay is "about all of us, the progress we have all made". 

Erica Ginsburg, executive director of the Silver Spring-based nonprofit Docs In Progress, has attended all the incarnations of the festival, dating back to 2003. The presence of about 100 filmmakers and characters, like Oscar the Grouch, "harkened back to the old days," she says. "It was a great opportunity. I hope we don't lose that kind of interaction." Ginsburg adds that last year was challenging with all the changes to the festival, but she felt the staff did listen to feedback; for example, they re-established a meeting space for filmmakers to meet and mingle, at Penn Social in downtown DC.

"This year they also did a better job of insuring that the Silver Spring location was not forgotten," Ginsburg points out. "They have almost created two festivals." She notes that in the past you could have that serendipitous moment when you heard about a film or a panel, and just went to it. "Now, you have to be more organized. Yes, there is huge hole in the industry without the professional conference, but the quality of the films is still high."

Culpepper adds that AFI DOCS "has turned into more and more of a film festival, attracting not only those in the industry but the general public. I think it has an important role to play in getting great nonfiction storytelling in front of audiences. Festivals like AFI DOCS offer a mainstream entertainment venue for great factual stories. They offer the general public a chance to view together as a community—to discuss, to critique, to hear from the directors, producers and writers. It's a wonderful creative outlet-and a great way for audiences to see something in a theater that isn't a remake or sequel of the last box office smash."

Other audience favorites included Michael Rossato-Bennett's Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, about an innovative music-based program that has proved effective in addressing the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. According to author Liliane Mavridara, "Watching the transformational results music has on bringing back memories to people with memory-loss diseases was beyond just moving. There was a gentleman who suffered from MS and who had lost any interest or hope in life. Through listening to his favorite music from before, he was enlivened in front of our own eyes. The film was highly inspirational."


From Michael Rossato-Bennett's Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. Courtesy fo AFI DOCS


The shorts programs came back with force this year, too. Among the big hits: Ned McNeilage's Showfolk, about the residents of the Motion Picture & Television Retirement Community in Los Angeles; Marcelo Kiwi Bieger's The Chilean Elvis; Willem Baptist's Wild Boar, about a small village in the Netherlands overrun by a large pack of wild boars; and Sam Thonis' Beyond Recognition: The Incredible Story of a Face Transplant, which won the Audience Award for Best Short. winner.

Life Itself, Academy Award nominee Steve James' biographical film about the late film critic Roger Ebert, closed the festival. Ebert was a big fan of films that opened people's hearts. Many of the docs this year at AFI DOCS achieved that goal.

Lauren Cardillo is an award-winning Washington, DC-based filmmaker who was co-producer of the 2007 Silverdocs selection STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age.