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Documentary Goes to Washington: The Rebirth and Politicization of AFI Docs

Documentary Goes to Washington: The Rebirth and Politicization of AFI Docs

After a decade in Silver Spring, MD, the festival formerly known as Silverdocs announced this past spring that it was moving its core programming to Washington, DC, and would henceforth be known as AFI Docs (with “presented by Audi” tagged on to reflect an important new sponsor relationship). It marked a significant shift for the event, notably moving forward without its longtime co-presenter, Discovery Channel, and drawing on AFI’s historic roots in Washington, DC to establish a new and, potentially, wholly distinctive profile within the larger documentary festival world.

With the new incarnation of the festival in full swing since this past Thursday, it’s clear that organizers haven’t abandoned their loyal fanbase in Silver Spring, still utilizing its AFI Silver Theatre for satellite screenings, but the focus is decidedly on the new downtown DC venues. These reflect partnerships with impressive institutions including the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, the Newseum, the American History Museum, and Goethe-Institut, establishing AFI Docs as a new cultural player in town, with gala screenings like Thursday evening’s “Herblock: The Black and the White” drawing what seemed to be a different type of crowd than the one I’ve grown used to from attending Silverdocs the last two years. The pre- and post-parties for the Michael Stevens’ tribute to the legendary Washington Post editorial cartoonist were filled with a smattering of familiar filmmakers and doc industry, but far fewer than in past years, their number instead replaced with a mix of friends of the film and what appeared to be seasoned DC insiders.

READ MORE: 5 New Films to Watch Out For From AFI Docs

While the festival’s programming slate has shrunk this year, an understandable development as the staff oversees this radical transition, it’s notable that their high profile slots have been filled with politically-oriented films, perhaps presaging a full embrace of the possibilities of its new surroundings. The opener, Bill Couterié’s affecting “Letters to Jackie,” revisits the outpouring of public support to Jackie Kennedy after JFK’s assassination, and immediately forges a programmatic link between AFI Docs and the political legacy of its new home. The remaining galas similarly underscore an inside the beltway connection – beyond the already mentioned DC-centric “Herblock,” Jose Antonio Vargas’ Centerpiece, “Documented,” addresses the hot-button issue of immigration reform, and AJ Schnack’s Closing Night film, “Caucus,” goes inside the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Outside of these public events, AFI Docs also announced a new Policy Engagement Program that facilitated contact between filmmakers and DC policymakers. Thursday saw select filmmakers attend a Film and Politics Boot Camp, consisting of three bipartisan panels addressing campaigns, intergovernmental relations, and lobbying; a networking lunch; and, most significantly, targeted one-on-one meetings that directly address the specific issues at the core of films like “Gideon’s Army” (public defenders), “I Learn America” (immigration), and “Lost for Life” (life imprisonment). Participating filmmakers noted that value of these events, saying that the panels and opportunities to talk to these insiders revealed practical advice on how to gain access to government representatives for current and future projects – at times common sense suggestions that even seasoned documentary filmmakers confessed to assuming would never work. Filmmakers were also surprised by a general sense they took away from the experience that policymakers need filmmakers – they have causes but need a way to tell stories to connect their constituents with the core issues on an emotional and personal level, and that’s what filmmakers can bring to the table. 

Exactly how this collaboration between filmmakers and policymakers can ultimately work is still a question, one brought to the fore in a special visit to the White House on Friday morning by a delegation of filmmakers and special guests to meet with the Office of Public Engagement. Four White House staffers, representing a range of policy concerns from gun violence to immigration, expressed genuine enthusiasm to be hosting AFI Docs filmmakers, and were already familiar with a number of the films in the lineup, but the meeting felt very much like a preliminary one. Filmmakers had a brief opportunity to describe their films, but the bulk of the proceedings focused on the work the Office of Public Engagement does on specific policies, with no obvious or direct way to bridge the two realms. Still, the fact that AFI Docs was able to make the meeting happen, and the interest shown by the White House, suggests that there is a unique, and mutually beneficial, relationship here that can be fostered from these initial connections.

Indeed, these nascent attempts to build synergy between the non-fiction world and politics suggest that AFI Docs may be poised to make a much bigger transformation in future years beyond a simple location shift and name change. Now uniquely geographically positioned in the nation’s capital, a one industry town, the festival could, and perhaps should, seek to focus itself exclusively on championing work that has the best chance of reaching policymakers and lobbyists, namely political and issue-oriented films. If AFI Docs could develop strong and meaningful ties with its new neighbors, ones that could lead to real-world impact on the issues that its programming slate advocates and explores, it could carve a singular place for itself on the bloated festival circuit, and serve an immeasurable benefit to certain kinds of non-fiction filmmaking. It remains to be seen if this will come to pass, but what does seem clear is that Silverdocs’ successful and welcome transformation to AFI Docs has opened up a world of possibilities.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, Senior Programmer for DOC NYC, and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).

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