“We Are Grounded Here”: DC/DOX’s Inaugural Edition Goes Live
By Coley Gray
A Conversation With Jamie Shor and Sky Sitney
Washington, DC, is getting its newest documentary showcase with the launch of DC/DOX Film Festival, which will run June 15–18, 2023. Described on its website as bringing together “innovative visions, bold voices, and truth seekers in celebration of documentary cinema,” the festival’s full slate includes 31 doc features and 21 shorts showing at seven venues throughout the District. The heavy-hitter slate is composed mostly of well-received films coming off world premieres at Sundance, Berlinale, SXSW, True/False, and the nearly contemporaneous Tribeca, and beginning their regional film festival circuit. A substantial number come from major broadcasters and distributors, ranging from Magnolia Pictures to Hulu to Frontline/PBS. Though aspiring to be a home for smaller and less commercially conventional offerings like Ralph Arlyck’s I Like It Here (2022) or David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Kim’s Video, at least in its opening season, DC/DOX has room to calibrate the ratio of high profile to high quirk. DC/Frame, a special program comprising shorts from filmmakers from the Washington metropolitan area, includes another ten films.
DC/DOX steps into the space in the area’s early summer doc festival calendar left by last summer’s cancellation of AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs). In fact, DC/DOX is the brainchild of two alums of AFI Docs with deep roots in the DC documentary film scene. Co-founder Sky Sitney served as AFI Docs’ festival director from 2005 to 2014 and then as co-creator of Double Exposure, a festival, and symposium that explores the intersection of documentary film and investigative journalism. With a background in public policy and journalism, co-founder Jamie Shor is president of the public relations and strategic communications firm PR Collaborative, which represents major film festivals and distributors, including National Geographic and Showtime.
I spoke with Shor and Sitney over Zoom after DC/DOX’s program had been announced but with several hectic weeks still ahead before opening night. Each of us calling in from a different neighborhood in the District, we discussed the duo’s plans for the festival, the dynamics of their complementary points of view on shaping the program, and the virtues of DC as a platform for documentary film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: How would you describe the particular mission or personality of DC/DOX? What does DC/DOX bring to the film festival ecosystem that’s different?
JAMIE SHOR: I’m not sure I have a concise answer because we actually do spend quite a bit of time thinking about that! The whole idea of film festivals, film marketing, programming, everything—Sky and I approach it from different perspectives. Sky can speak to her experience with running festivals and, as a programmer, as someone with film degrees and a background in film. And I could tell you that I have none of that traditional experience, that I come from journalism and politics and political media and found film later in life. So, you have two women coming together, one who represents the artistic side of this with a curatorial eye and one who knows how to sell a legislative bill and what it takes to build a community and an audience for a film. You marry that and come up with DC/DOX and its ethos and commitment to being both extraordinarily programmed and with a well-thought-out plan of how we assist these films on their journey.
SKY SITNEY: I truly believe that these differences are a strength of the festival—that they’re expansive instead of conflicting. On top of that, when you’re creating a documentary festival in DC, it’s such a unique context. It’s a really important market, but it’s also really important from the perspective of filmmakers who are trying to, quite frankly, change the world with their films and to be able to bring that kind of visibility. Our film program is not exclusively political or only supporting films that have a very overt social-issues agenda, but when those films do come, and they’re important and artistic, we feel like we can provide a foundation for them that few festivals can.
D: Can you talk about how you went about pulling together the DC/DOX program, with an eye on both of those perspectives, into a cohesive whole?
SS: We were deliberate in not wanting to go out with an open call for submissions in year one, knowing that we would arrive at what we initially thought was 20 to 25 films and ultimately became 31 features and 52 total films. In terms of selecting the slate, first and foremost, we welcome films that have artistic significance and utilize the language of cinema in a meaningful and intentional way. Recognizing that documentary is not a one-size-fits-all experience, from highly observational films using a verité style to those that are much more informational and centered on interviews. Wanting to be not only a place where distributors or platforms like Netflix or Showtime can launch critically important films into the marketplace but also where a first-time filmmaker with their tiny little precious film can introduce themselves to the world. We are committed to nonfiction storytelling, but within those parameters, recognizing all the incredible variants and diversity of the form, of the storytelling, of the issues, going from conventional storytelling all the way to highly experimental films, from those that are going to be almost certainly Academy-nominated next year to introducing someone who 20 years from now will become a marquee title.
JS: Sky would come to me and say, “This film was gorgeous.” Then I would have to add my layer, “Can I sell it? Can I marry it with the journalists with stakeholder groups? Can we add value to it? Can we justify it for a Washington audience?” And that’s where the tension is, and don’t mistake me for saying tension is a bad thing. There’s this one coffee shop where we meet and talk about our frustrations, concerns, challenges, and the things we're most excited about, and we hash it all out. When you have precious few spaces in the program, you have to make that determination that it’s going to provide [both] the artistic sensibility that Sky is looking for and the marketability that I’m looking for. Sometimes we have to do a little bit of horse trading to come up with a slate that we can both be proud of, can sell, and can say to the community, “We did a really good job for you.”
D: Tell us how that creative tension manifests itself, for example, in the choice of your signature screenings, including your opening (Joan Baez: I Am A Noise) and closing films (The Space Race)?
JS: They were actually pretty easy! They’re just some phenomenal films. Joan Baez, The Body Politic, The Space Race, and Anthem—both of our ambitions can be satisfied in those four features. When you talk about the Joan Baez film, just how beautiful it is and how it delves into every aspect of her life, you get her personality and all of her 80-some years and the issues that she cared about. We can go out and build a community around that, and she’s such an interesting character that she is newsworthy.
SS: Going backward a tiny bit, the tension Jamie described was not too often activated. I think we’re in agreement a great deal of the time and that we find many of the films successfully embody both opportunities, that they’re marketable and exquisite artistic works. That’s largely the space that we want to be in. Returning to these signature films, they are films where the post-screening experience can also be significant. Having the opportunity to bring Joan Baez here or some of the living astronauts with The Space Race, for example. The feeling with these films is that they bring a certain heft and significance or, in the case of The Body Politic [set in Baltimore], a certain geographical importance that we want to anchor our program around. By no means are we saying they are in a hierarchy of importance, perhaps just a hierarchy of creating a certain elevated event and experience.
D: The program has a healthy mix of films that have distribution with streamers, some that will have theatrical releases and some that have gotten great buzz but are still waiting to find their distribution. Is that spread something you planned for? What do you think about the role of a festival like DC/DOX in the documentary distribution ecosystem?
SS: That question is playing out at the epicenter of our two sensibilities. The answer we have come to together as partners is to create space for both. There’s a value (and some pitfalls) to us being at the tail end of a particular trajectory of a film that has come out. For me, in addition, festivals can be a place of discovery. When I say discovery, it’s not necessarily assuming that the only desired outcome for that discovery is a final distribution deal. Festivals can and should operate in an adjacent complementary and connected space with distribution. They are also a place for community, dialogue, and connection. I wouldn’t be passionate about being behind a festival where the only thing we’re doing is being that last stop exclusively and only for films that are about to hit a major streaming platform. I want that, and that’s clearly reflected in the program, but I would not want that to be the only thing we serve because I value these other things that a festival can create.
JS: This is where we’ve had long and sometimes hard discussions. I do see the importance of this market as a market. I see what we have here in terms of journalism, in terms of stakeholders, in terms of community, and the ability to platform films. It’s one of my biggest arguments for bringing films to Washington because we can do so much for the trajectory of each film, whether at the beginning of its festival run through its potential distribution options. We can also be excruciatingly effective when you’re at this point in the year where it’s ready to take off, be seen by consumers, and go directly there. We can amplify how important it is. Because summer has become such a doc season, this festival arriving at the beginning of the summer can add a lot to what they’re trying to do. However, you’re going to deliver these films to consumers, whether through a streamer or theatrical or DIY distribution; we want to show that there’s a market for documentaries wherever they go from here.
D: You have described this as DC/DOX’s inaugural edition, but you did have an event last June. What was that precursor?
SS: That first event was literally our announcing to the world our intention for this festival to happen. We were anchoring that announcement in a day of celebration. That first year was not our first year of the festival. It was the articulation of this promise, which we’re delivering now, of what this festival would be. In announcing our intention to do this, we also had to give a proof-of-concept of what might be possible. We demonstrated that in a hyper-micro, call it “skinny,” one-day event. There’s never been any doubt in my mind that this is year one of what DC/DOX is.
JS: We felt pretty strongly that we would go out with a more ambitious festival this year as opposed to last year, but we felt like we should prove the concept first in some ways, prove our mettle a little bit. Essentially, we will put together some of the constituent pieces so you can get a flavor of what we’re doing. We did seven films; we could have done 70 with all the interest that we had once we said we were doing it. Last year we staked it out and said, “We’re here, we’re staying, and we’re coming in 2023—get ready.”
D: It’s pretty daunting to launch a festival, programmatically, logistically, and if you look at the industry surveys, financially. What is the funding model for DC/DOX?
SS: [Laughs.] The funding model is asking and begging. If you look at the sponsors, it’s a cross-section of the industry, from corporate media companies like Nat Geo to the philanthropic community like Perspective Fund and the deNovo Initiative, to the city’s HumanitiesDC and the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment, [and] to some local developer and community stakeholders. There are a tremendous number of partners that provide in-kind support. The Washington Post is a founding media sponsor. We’re operating lean, but we’re able to deliver the festival that we want to deliver that’s aligned with our values. There are things that we feel are really important to invest in, such as bringing our filmmakers here and putting them up in the Eaton Hotel [another partner]. We’re investing in exhibition spaces, ensuring we can present these films with exceptional quality.
JS: We do have two different perspectives on funding, too. Sky had a vision for this, and I am the “work with what we’ve got” type. When she had moments like, I don’t know whether we’re going to make it to this goal, I’m like, it’ll be fine, we’ll work with this, and it’ll be wonderful and beautiful. And then she’s like, “No, we can do more.” On those days, she can inspire me, and on days when we may not get that, I can tell her it’s all going to be okay.
D: How do you see DC/DOX leaning into its DC-ness?
JS: You know those maps that you see at novelty stores where you’re in the District, and then you see you’re at the Pacific Ocean—you look out, and you see the entire universe, but DC is the center of the universe? I think this is the most important city in the world. And I’m proud to say that. I believe in this market, the additive value, and the fact that it brings together something that no other market can do.
SS: Our partnership with HumanitiesDC has a sidebar program called DC/Frame. We’re highlighting DC-based filmmakers who are making films that strongly resonate with DC as a topic, and that’s going to become a signature moving forward. On the one hand, we absolutely intend for this festival to be an international film festival where filmmakers from all around the world can have an anchor in DC for their work. But we are grounded here; we don’t want to just be a festival that’s a platform for the community outside of DC to come in. We want to connect deeply to this environment and nod to our partners here on the ground and the filmmakers in this community. Also, DC has these extraordinary venues and exquisite screening spaces. When we have a film such as Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, we have been able to activate a partnership with the National Museum of African American History and Culture as the venue for that film. Nikki Giovanni is coming. It’s my understanding from the filmmakers that she hasn’t actually participated in any of the film screenings yet, including Sundance, so this is her debut with that film. Similarly, we’re showing Dawn Porter’s Lady Bird Diaries, a completely archival film, at the National Archives.
D: You both have devoted so much of your careers to film and documentary. What set you on this path?
JS: Robert Redford. I’m serious. I come from a more political background. I came from the Hill, and I worked for Jim and Sarah Brady on handgun control. And then I started my company, and in 2003 or 2004, I started working for the Redford Center on climate change stuff. And they came to me when they were doing some screening in Washington and said, “Can you help us fill the screening?” And I was like, “For Redford, yeah.” I started getting people calling me, saying, “Can you help us with this film event?” I began to realize that you could use political media skills to sell films. So that’s how this practice was birthed, and then the practice overtook everything else.
SS: In describing my on-ramp, it also helps to understand how the roads for both Jamie and me are such different influences. I grew up in New York City and was born into a world where film was already a major part of my existence but in a very unique and humble way. My father was very involved in avant-garde cinema and helped create, along with Jonas Mekas, Anthology Film Archives. I literally saw extremely experimental films even before narrative films. Part of that world was this reverence, incredible admiration, and appreciation for films that will never have any hope or ambition to enter the marketplace. But I needed to find my own calling in it, and from a very early stage of my career, I’ve been deeply committed to documentaries. I was interested in curation, which lent itself to curation in a festival context. Those early formative years really laid the foundation for me and then probably informed some of my interest in creating space for films that can operate outside of the marketing model as well.
D: There’s a lot of angst in the field now and concern about its present and future. What is your takeaway when you look at the field and your launching DC/DOX in this climate?
SS: I think the fact that we’re creating a festival is an extraordinary sign of optimism. A number of people have said to me that it feels like such a relief to have something that’s being birthed at this moment. People are getting excited that we’re creating something, and that’s been joyful to grow—at the same time, being aware that there’s so much anxiety and so many complicated things happening to the industry. Yes, it’s a time of incredible turmoil and seismic shifts, but it’s incredible to be in this moment and space and to still have this optimism to build something.
Based in Washington, DC, Coley Gray has a background in arts management and public policy and works at the intersection of film, social change, and the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors.