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Inside the Beltway: Docmakers Meet Dignitaries in Reconstituted Fest

By Lauren Cardillo

What's in a name? Well, if you are the festival formerly known as SILVER DOCS, it was not only a name but an identifying location: Silver Spring, Maryland.

But with the recent departure of Discovery Networks as one of the event's main sponsors for the past decade, the documentary festival had to re-invent itself. So in 2013 AFI DOCS Film Festival  was born. The festival took on a new look and main sponsor (Audi), added a new campus of landmark venues in Washington, DC, close to Capitol Hill, and premiered some groundbreaking filmmaker programs. There were also five premieres, including three world premieres.

What could have been considered a disaster with the exodus of Discovery actually provided festival director Sky Sitney and her staff with an opportunity to make some changes. Not everything went perfectly, from the unexpected breakdown of a key subway line to the lack of a social meeting place for all the festival attendees. Yet Sitney and many others thought the new AFI DOCS, which attracted more than 19,000 attendees, exceeded expectations. "We all walked away happy," Sitney reflects. "The fact that we could make it happen was great."

As in previous years, more than 1,900 films were submitted to the festival. Fifty-three features and shorts from 30 countries were screened in new iconic locations that included the Portrait Gallery, National Archives, American Museum of Natural History, the Newseum and the Goethe Institut. (Most films could also be seen at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring a day after showing in DC.) Fifty-two filmmakers were given access to policymakers in a new Public Policy Engagement Program; some even made it to the White House. The Newseum hosted a one-day conference called Catalyst Sessions: The Art of Moving Reality, which looked at filmmaking issues in the areas of immigration, education, intellectual property in social media, and the role of humor in politics.

Because of its central location, the festival also enjoyed the presence of some DC power-hitters. Among those who participated in screenings included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Senator Robert Menendez (D., NJ), former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and Attorney General Eric Holder, who introduced Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army, a doc about public defenders. For filmmakers coming from out of town, access to such dignitaries and to the landmark theaters made it "a profound experience," according to Sitney. Opening night was even a bit of an homage to DC with the premiere of Bill Couturié's Letters to Jackie, a touching look at the letters sent to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of JFK.

Several docs took advantage of the DC vibe, too. Documented, about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—and illegal immigrant—Jose Antonio Vargas, follows his journey as he becomes an immigration reform activist. The film, which Vargas wrote and directed with Ann Pulo, was shown as the US Senate was debating immigration reform. AJ Schnack's Caucus highlighted the inner workings of the Republican Party caucus process in Iowa in 2012. The filmmakers of Celia Peck's Brave Miss World, the story of the rape of an Israeli woman who would later be crowned Miss World, had a screening on Capitol Hill.


Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino speaks during the immigration catalyst session panel, with Moderator Jim Avila of ABC News (left), David Hoppe of the Bipartisan Policy Center and Documented filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas

Jean-Michel Dissard, co-director of one of the world premieres, I Learn America, had a chance to take part in the Public Policy Engagement Program. The program's goal was to partner filmmakers with public policy shapers. According to Dissard, that included a politics boot camp with various Congress and Senate staffers, a meeting at the White House, and a series of one-on-one sessions with staffers who were interested in his documentary subject. His film, which addresses the plight of children caught in the immigration process, really struck a chord with people. "I shared stories with them," Dissard recalls. "I like to say I got them to cry. They were very receptive to the film, and it helped them remember why they took on the issue of protecting kids who are fighting the immigration system on their own." The program's DC location made it easy for Dissard to tap these important people: "It's the beginning of a relationship; it was a fabulous opportunity."



Filmmakers, producers, funders and AFI Docs staff in front of the West Wing of the White House following a meeting with members of the Office of Public Engagement about the issues in their films.

Filmmaker Samantha Buck agreed. She also participated in the program, as the director of Best Kept Secret, a documentary about a teacher in Newark, New Jersey, whose class of 21-year-old students with autism will soon graduate into a world of unknowns. "No other festival has done this," Buck remarks about the program. "We now have a direct staff connection with policymakers who are working on this issue. That makes this unique." Buck, the daughter of a lobbyist, adds, "Our story gets them more emotionally involved in the issue. People on the Hill sometimes need entertainment to help them move policy." Next up for Best Kept Secret is a Congressional screening and a premiere on PBS' POV series. As for AFI DOCS, Buck maintains, "They have re-invented the festival in the best possible way."


From Samantha Buck's Best Kept Secret.


"After Discovery left the festival we took a few months to figure out what we wanted to do," Sitney explains. "We looked at it as an opportunity, a transition or transformational year." Once Audi was on board as lead sponsor, AFI (American Film Institute) and the festival decided to expand the festival's footprint in DC. (This is really a return to DC for AFI; its birth was announced in the White House Rose Garden in 1965.) The length of the event—five days—was also a positive change, although fewer films were screened. "I enjoyed the conciseness," Sidney says. "Before, there were different waves of people. This year it was easier for people to stay for the entire festival."

The Charles Guggenheim Symposium, as always, was a crowd-pleaser. This year it honored Oscar-winner Errol Morris, the man behind films such as A Brief History of Time (1991); The Fog of War (2003); and The Thin Blue Line (1988). The event was so popular that the National Archives had to shut down the building and turn away would-be attendees. 

Sitney is upbeat for the future and is thinking of expanding next year's festival, perhaps tapping into more iconic DC theaters. The Catalyst Sessions could be a greater strand that looks at more unique topics. "I hope that we leverage our DC location and build our campus here in DC," she maintains. "We had a great beginning and now we want to build up. There are lots of opportunities for us." As for the need for a central place for people to meet? "The lack of such a place is fair criticism. We would like to offer that. That space was collateral damage because of the changes and growing pains this year." Sitney is hoping that additional fundraising and time will allow AFI DOCS to offer that feature in 2014. "We would like to honor the audience we built all these years, create a unique festival space, provide meaningful connections, and offer a wide variety of films—not just on social policy, but more."


Lauren Cardillo is an award-winning Washington, DC-based filmmaker. Her film Stand-Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age, which she co-produced, screened at SILVER DOCS in 2009.