Arts Desk

Ctrl + Alt + Doc: A Year After Hitting Reset, AFI DOCS Is Still in Transition

Reinvent the Deal: A policy-oriented festival means fewer oddballs like Louis the Ferris Wheel Kid.

A policy-oriented festival would mean fewer oddballs like Louis the Ferris Wheel Kid.

The American Film Institute’s annual documentary festival is in transition, as any savvy critic or audience member can tell. But, at least for the folks at AFI, it’s all part of the plan.

Last year, after scrapping the Silverdocs name when longtime sponsor Discovery Communications pulled out, the festival left its Silver Spring nest and moved half its programing into D.C. under the new name AFI DOCS. Gala screenings and signature events took place at downtown venues like the Newseum and the National Archives instead of being concentrated Silver Spring, and the overall program count plummeted from 114 films to 53, including shorts.

Gone, too, was the gathering’s filmmaker conference, where directors went to schmooze and hone their craft; instead, organizers touted a new initiative to use films to spearhead policy discussions with D.C.’s audience of “changemakers.” Much grumbling ensued, both from Silverdocs diehards who’d grown to love the Silver Theatre’s intimacy and from filmmakers who could no longer look forward to industry panels and pitch sessions.

Then, in February, Executive Director Sky Sitney left her post after nine years with the festival, leaving her temporary replacement, filmmaker Christine O’Malley, with less than four months to prep the remainder of the five-day event. Add that to the ongoing sponsorship shuffle—Audi, which stepped in as presenting sponsor at the last minute in 2013, is out this year; AT&T takes its place—and casual observers would be forgiven for interpreting “transitional” as “trainwreck.”

But that’s not the case, insist AFI officials and Sitney herself. They say AFI DOCS is right where it needs to be: rebuilding, responding to the changing needs of documentarians, and looking to encourage thoughtful discussion around timely issues through the movies. This comes at the expense of the Silverdocs model, which encouraged discussion around the movies themselves and didn’t look to make every screening into a policy talk.

“Anytime there’s significant change like that, it takes a little while to adjust,” O’Malley says. “But I don’t think that’s inherently bad. I think that’s just change. That’s the nature of it.”

Sitney agrees. “There’s no bad guy,” she says. “There’s no one smirking in a corner behind a curtain.” The drama around her own exit has been overblown, she claims, insisting that she left because she was simply ready to move on after close to a decade in various festival capacities. She’s returning to her Ph.D. studies at Georgetown, which she’d put on hold to run the festival, and is currently planning the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture conference in August.

The location changes may have shocked longtime festivalgoers, but AFI top brass had been planning to do something inside D.C. city limits for years. The institute was founded by a Lyndon Johnson 1965 presidential mandate in the White House Rose Garden, and its Los Angeles headquarters has long wanted “to create a more robust presence in D.C.,” Sitney says.

Discovery had begun sponsoring the festival in 2003 primarily because the company’s headquarters neighbors AFI’s Silver Spring office, and the two organizations sought to collaborate on an event for the community. But despite the media company’s wide slate of nonfiction programming on its cable channels, according to Sitney, Discovery was never a big lure for filmmakers because it demonstrated little interest in acquiring festival movies.

When Discovery declined to renew its sponsorship in 2013, “there was a feeling of being unanchored,” Sitney says, describing the year as “a ‘eureka’ moment” for AFI. Without a sponsor tethering the institution’s flagship Washington-area event to a suburb, there was an opportunity to finally find a way over the District line. Thus, AFI DOCS became essentially two festivals with near-identical programming. There’s the lineup at the Silver Theatre, for the fans who crave the intimacy and movie-palace accoutrements of AFI’s beloved repertory house. And there’s the downtown expansion into venues like the National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center, where organizers schedule panel discussions and encourage the directors to invite D.C. politicos and other guests of distinction to their screenings.

But AFI instituted these changes without much warning or explanation, and many of the festival’s guests are picking up on the uneasiness of the transitional phase. “The documentary filmmaker world is still in a state of waiting to see what the new AFI DOCS will be,” says Katy Chevigny, a Palisades-based filmmaker. “Obviously people like me, who have two films in the festival, are counting on this year’s AFI DOCS being a great success.”

Chevigny is bringing E-Team and 1971, two of the buzziest documentaries of the year, to the festival—so AFI DOCS is arguably counting on her just as much to pack the theaters. The former, a look at human rights workers in Syria and Libya, was acquired by Netflix after showing at Sundance and is being promoted as a “Spotlight Screening”; the latter, an account of a 1971 FBI office break-in, screened at last fall’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Chevigny has had varying degrees of involvement with Silverdocs over the years: She helped organize panels for Sitney at the 2011 fest and moderated one in 2012. Still, she sees the downtown expansion as “fantastic.”

“A lot of times, filmmakers come to festivals in other cities because they want to see that city,” Chevigny says. In the past, it proved difficult for Silverdocs out-of-towners to make it into D.C. when events in Silver Spring demanded so much of their attention. “I think it’s smart to take advantage of these gorgeous public spaces [in D.C.]”

AFI is also encouraging filmmakers to take advantage of the benefits of hosting a festival in D.C., as long as they do the legwork themselves. When O’Malley attended the 2013 fest as a producer, she and her film’s team had to do their own hustling to get the “changemaker” audience they desired. For If You Build It, a film about a STEM education initiative in a rural North Carolina public school, they reached out to federal education and arts officials to attend the screening at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The effort was worth it to see the audience for the film, O’Malley says: “Had we not been screening at the venue we were at, I don’t know if we would have had somebody from the Secretary of Education’s office, or someone from the National Endowment for the Arts.” She expects this year’s crop of filmmakers to make their desired connections themselves, too.

The organizers are taking the lead in facilitating some bigger discussions, though. The Washington Post, AFI DOCS’ major media sponsor, has a branded slate of films paired with post-screening discussions with Post journalists: three features (including 1971) about government surveillance and the Internet, which the paper is explicitly linking to its coverage of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks in the fest’s press materials.

In addition, O’Malley has organized four “Catalyst Screenings” designed to highlight specific social issues, including homelessness (The Homestretch) and the rising cost of higher education (Ivory Tower). One selection, the Aaron Swartz biography The Internet’s Own Boy, is double-dipping as both a Post film and a Catalyst Screening.
Festival organizers hadn’t been looking to narrow the programming focus to political- and populist-minded films, O’Malley says, though she notes that those types of movies seemed to be “bubbling up organically” in the selection process: “It would be an interesting thing to analyze, but I would not say that this is something that was done by leaving any other contenders out.”

Sitney concurs. “There’s never been a mandate,” she says. “There’s never been anyone saying, ‘OK, you must change your programming sensibilities.’” She sees a larger trend of documentaries tending toward the political, with the festival’s move to D.C. partially a response to that. At the same time, Sitney notes that in 2013, the limited roster afforded fewer opportunities for “those crazy, quirky little gems, those films that barely fill a 75-seat theater and are perplexing to half the audience but life-changing for the other half.”

Still, there’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work. By increasing its focus on the message of the films that can be prepackaged as issue movies, the festival must pay less attention to the ones without easy labels, sending a message (intentional or not) to the makers of those “quirky little gems” that their work matters less. If a film screens at the new AFI DOCS and no changemaker sees it, does it make a sound?

This Monday, two days before opening night, festival organizers announced the “Filmmaker Enrichment Program.” The name sounds like a last-minute attempt to reconstruct the technique-based filmmakers’ conference from Silverdocs past, but in fact, it’s a series of panels and sessions to teach directors how to connect with those ever-elusive changemakers. One event actually brings filmmakers to the Capitol for “a strategic overview of impact points in the policymaking process,” which seems to encourage the artless line of thinking that a documentary is only as good as its political message.

Though AFI likes to refer to the rejiggered, D.C.-centric fest as an “expansion,” the size of the festival is still smaller than in the days when it was limited to a single Silver Spring theater. This year’s event has 84 films, an increase from last year’s crop but 30 movies fewer than in 2012, and it runs for only four days instead of the full-week Silverdocs of yore. Both the festival opener and closer are about entertainment: Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, about actor Hal Holbrook’s traveling one-man stage play, kicks off the festival on June 18, while Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert, wraps everything up on June 21. Straddling the subject line between political intrigue and entertainment, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, whose credits include the Iraq War doc Taxi to the Dark Side as well as sports-centric films like Catching Hell and The Armstrong Lie, will hold court at the June 20 Guggenheim Symposium retrospective of his career (occupied last year by Errol Morris).

Is AFI’s new approach to its documentary festival connecting with audiences? The institute wouldn’t share ticket sales figures for the 2013 fest. Anecdotally, several screenings at small-to-midsize downtown venues including the Goethe Institute, the Newseum, and the Portrait Gallery were sparsely attended throughout the week, while crowds turned up in droves for Sunday afternoon showings at the Silver Theatre.

But ticket sales may not matter right now to AFI: Chief Marketing Officer Liza deVilla repeats that the institute wants its festival in D.C. for the long haul, regardless of financials. “The American Film Institute is fully committed to AFI DOCS,” she says. “We’re here and we’re planning to stay in Washington, and we work hard every year to make the festival happen.”

The way deVilla tells it, AFI DOCS is here to stay regardless of who the sponsor is, though no one at AFI would discuss the particulars of losing Audi. One component current and former officials hope to see back on the menu in future years is the filmmakers’ conference; Sitney suspects AFI has only tabled that element temporarily, until the institute can find its footing in D.C.

Is the District, with its scattered screening venues, a congenial home for any film festival? After all, Filmfest DC tried to make it work for years, only to close its doors (for now) following this April’s festival.

O’Malley isn’t worried. “With expansion there comes unforeseen challenges, and I feel like we’ve addressed a lot of them this year,” she says. “And I don’t know, but I would imagine, that things like this take time to really take shape.”

In other words, enjoy the transition. It’ll be here for a while.

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