When someone with only a passing knowledge of the nation’s capital hears the words Washington D.C., what typically comes to mind is government dysfunction, political gridlock and nauseous flashbacks to Ted Cruz filibusters. It’s a city with a thorny reputation blanketed by the unpopularity of Congress and politics in general. However, those who actually live around the Beltway know that it’s a much more charming town than outsiders would presume, steeped in American history and heavily saturated in culture. While D.C. has certainly been getting its fair share of exposure on television, hilariously skewered on HBO’s “Veep” and depicted with Shakespearean shades on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” it’s not commonly viewed as a city associated with cinema. A closer look, however, reveals that this is an oversight, giving little credit to a community of savvy viewers who take movies seriously.
Ample evidence of Washingtonians’ enthusiasm for film can be found at Filmfest DC, which has been showcasing international cinema for decades. Held from April 17-27, overlapping with New York’s more renowned Tribeca Film Festival, Filmfest DC culls international films from around the globe, their roster including entries from the Americas, Africa, Europe, Middle East and the Pacific. Such international variety is reflective of D.C. itself, the city an ethnically diverse microcosm of the international community packed with ambassadors, expatriates, immigrants and the like. For each of the films shown, whether they’re from Syria or Newfoundland, there is assuredly going to be an audience.
This was a bittersweet year for Filmfest DC. While this is, remarkably, the festival’s 28th year, it is also its last. Tony Gittens, co-director of the festival with Shirin Gharib, insists that its closure has nothing to do with lack of attendance. “It’s purely a financial issue,” he said. Venue space is pricey, and mounting costs have made the festival unsustainable, the space between closing shop and pressing onward bridged by $250,000. Any enterprising film enthusiasts in the neighborhood could save the day by cutting a hefty check; they would certainly be doing the community a big favor. “We’re not closing due to a lack of enthusiasm, Gittens said. “The audience is there.”
If indeed this was D.C. Filmfest’s last hurrah, at least it ended on a good note. The lineup of films that unfurled throughout the course of the festival, grouped into categories such as “The Lighter Side of Politics” (Comedy), “Trust No One” (Thriller), and “Justice Matters” (Call to Action entries), all had titles worth talking about. Venues include cinemas across D.C., neighboring Bethesda, Maryland and cultural centers that include the German Goethe-Institut, the Embassy of France and the National Gallery of Art. It’s a uniquely D.C. experience to see a French film in its country’s embassy.
Higher profile entries in the festival included Richard Ayoade’s identity mindbender “The Double,” Chiwetel Ejiofor-starring Nigerian civil war drama “Half of a Yellow Sun” and Errol Flynn biopic “The Last Robin Hood.” But there are other, less known properties that give the festival its distinctive flavor.
One hidden gem was the Iranian and German co-production “From Tehran to Heaven.” In equal parts distressing and serene, the dreamlike narrative refreshingly follows an Iranian woman (Mahnaz Afshar) as she searches for her vanished husband, embarking on an odyssey that will put her at odds with her country’s bureaucracy, a mass conspiracy and the oppressive landscape of the desert. Trippy and menacing with a keen eye for social critique, the film positions its director, Abolfazi Saffary, as one to watch.
New Zealand entry “White Lies,” the feature-length debut by Mexican director Dana Rotberg, tells the race-driven story of a Maori medicine woman (Whirimako Black) who agrees to help an aristocratic white colonialist abort her unwanted pregnancy. This is a film that sneaks up on you, beginning with an almost sedate sense of urgency until rewarding your patience with deeply provocative twists that thoughtfully reflect on racism, classism and motherhood.
The cumulative experience of attending D.C. Filmfest feels like a bit like globetrotting through different nations and cultures that very much reflects the international landscape of D.C. itself. The audiences here tend to be plugged into the geopolitical issues of today that many Americans simply aren’t that interested in.
“It really is an incredible group of people,” Gittens said. “We have people from all over the world who have come here and made Washington their home. We also have a very diverse economic layer, people with various jobs making a lot of money.”
Even with the curtain closing on Filmfest D.C., Washington won’t be at a lack for film festivals. Numerous festivals provide the residents of the capital and its neighboring cities of Maryland and the Northern Virginia region (whose populations largely work in D.C. anyway) with cinematic nourishment, including the D.C. Independent Film Festival, The Washington Jewish Film Festival, Environmental Film Festival and the Washington West Film Festival, among many others.
There is also a voracious appetite for art house cinema. Take the Landmark Theatre chain, which screens the films that many regions of America are denied, currently showcasing Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi sensation “Under the Skin” and the Indian crowd-pleaser “The Lunchbox.” With a theater already in D.C.’s Penn Quarter and another in Bethesda, the art house entity is not only thriving but plans to expand in the area. Gittens sees it as indicative of the city’s appetite for quality cinema. “They’re not opening more theaters just to make a statement,” he said, “they’re doing it because there’s money to be made.”
Despite all of this, D.C. still isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other American cities with strong film communities. What gives? “D.C. has a profile that’s all about politics,” Gittens said. “It’s understandable that that’s going to overshadow everything else…but D.C. is a city that needs reconsideration.”
As the setting of numerous television shows and films, host to numerous film festivals and home to an audience that is interested in seeing substantial independent cinema, D.C. has earned that reconsideration. It’s time to start giving it the attention it deserves.