Filmfest DC seems to be suffering a quarter-life crisis. Celebrating its 25th year, Washington’s first and biggest international film festival still isn’t sure exactly what it wants to be when it grows up, a wavering that’s even summed up in its broad tagline: “For people who love movies.” Is there a festival out there for people who don’t?
Like every year, Filmfest (which kicked off April 7 and closes April 17) does have its themes. “Global Rhythms” is a perennial series that focuses on music. This year’s program also includes the self-described series “Justice Matters,” “New South Korean Cinema,” and “Nordic Lights.” But with the exception of the latter, which offers 10 films, each series includes only five, out of the 70-plus films (representing 39 countries) that comprise the fest. Five hardly makes a focus.
Also hurting the festival is the fact that, because of logistics, it rarely feels like one. Venues are scattered across D.C., from multiplexes and art houses to the Embassy of France and the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art. Tight scheduling means that audiences pretty much have to pick a location and stick with it for a night, regardless of whether what they really want to see is across town. Most films screened twice, but serious festival-goers still had to fashion a tricky plan of attack.
Those quibbles hardly add up to a hiccup, though, considering the relative strength of this year’s lineup; even the worst films were simply mediocre, a big improvement over Filmfest’s earlier years. Francois Ozon’s “Potiche,” one of the program’s most enjoyable narratives (albeit one already in limited release elsewhere), opened the fest at the city’s historic Lincoln Theatre. The French feminist comedy starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu recalled Deneuve’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by having her “trophy wife” (which “potiche” loosely translates as), Suzanne, take over her husband’s umbrella factory when a workers’ strike sends him into cardiac arrest. Depardieu plays a former lover of Suzanne’s, and the two — though the years haven’t been all that kind to either of them — display a playful, palpable chemistry that elevates the film above the trifle it should be.
Other winning comedies include “The Names of Love,” another French film about a comely, liberal “political whore” who sleeps with conservatives to change their worldview, and “Young Goethe in Love,” a German romance about the budding author in 1772, when he was an unpublished playboy forced to work as a lawyer’s aide by his impatient, practical father. A country woman captures his heart and — spoiler alert! — lends his life just the roller-coaster ride he needed to pen his masterpiece.
By far, though, Filmfest’s documentaries made the strongest impression. Jean-Charles Deniau’s “Scientology: The Truth About a Lie” is simply astonishing, offering a glimpse into L. Ron Hubbard’s highly manipulative and strongly guarded organization that outsiders would otherwise never get the chance to see. (“Bonkers” is also an appropriate description: One contract for a job inside Scientology asks for a commitment of a billion years, with 21 years off between lifetimes.) Screenings of “Rejoice and Shout,” an American offering about gospel music, were accompanied by the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men, Women, and Children of the Gospel Choir.
Director David Weissman was on hand for Q&As after showings of “We Were Here,” a wrenching documentary about the toll AIDS took on San Francisco’s gay community in the 1980s that is slated for a September release. Says Weissman: “I had a great time at Filmfest DC. The audiences were very diverse and engaged, and I particularly appreciate that [the programmers] put a special focus on films with a social-justice emphasis.”
Another highlight was “Nuummioq,” the first feature film from Greenland about a man whose life is unexceptional until he learns he’s dying from cancer. Pedigreed films include last year’s Cannes closer, “The Tree,” a touching, original story starring Charlotte Gainsbourg about a girl who believes her dead father whispers to her through an ancient, cumbersome tree in her yard. Less successful is “3” from Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), a love-triangle quasi-comedy that premiered at Venice and Toronto; it has some amusing moments, but is just too convoluted and unfocused to work.
After the closing-night screening of Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson’s “Sound of Noise,” an audience award will be presented along with juried competitions for the Circle Award (for films deserving increased recognition, sponsored by indieWIRE parent SnagFilms), the Justice Matters Award (for the use of film “to expand awareness of social-justice issues”), and the Signe Award (for the film that “best illuminate[s] and celebrate[s] what it means to be human in a diverse and challenging world.”) And though several of these films have distribution plans, many will never be seen in Washington again — suggesting that people who love movies will have to wait until the 26th Filmfest DC to get a fresh chance to catch such international flavors.