FIlmfest DC turns 25
Filmfest DC Director Tony Gittens, sipping a coffee at Tryst, the local Adams Morgan coffee house, could look around him and know how much had changed since the first festival.
This is the 25th anniversary for Filmfest DC, which opened April 7 and closes April 17 at locations and venues throughout the city, and it’s also the same for Gittens, the festival’s first and only director over the years.
At Tryst, there are smartphones, laptops and iPads open everywhere, all of them potential venues for international films of all kinds.
“There wasn’t any of that back then. No downloading anything from or to your phone, no computer libraries of films, no Netflix,” he said. “Basically, there were theaters, and Cannes, and repertoire theaters which showed old movies, new and smaller films that weren’t made in Hollywood [they weren’t called independent films back then], and theaters specializing in festival fare, like the Circle Theaters, the Avalon, the Biograph and the Key Theater.”
“Actually, there were no festivals here,” Gittens said. “We were the first.”
He looked around at the laptops and the people glued to their screens, probably wondering if anybody was watching a movie.
“We didn’t have all these new delivery systems and ways of looking at films,” he said. “There was no digital film, no Internet, no Youtube, nothing like that. Sundance didn’t exist as a major marketplace for independent films.”
The DC International Film Festival was a pathfinder and trailblazer for other festivals to come, a booming DC festival atmosphere that’s now taken for granted. We’ve got the Environmental Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival, the Documentary Film Festival, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, festivals for short films, children’s film, the Jewish Film Festivals and all kinds of niche festivals.
The tech explosion has affected the film industry in no uncertain terms, dictating a Hollywood aversion to serious films and a drift toward big-budget items for adolescent boys—the so-called youth market. That’s why you have so many movies based on comic book characters like Batman, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. That’s also why you haves a surge in cartoons and a resurgence of high-tech 3-D movies.
None of those things are part of film festivals, which, because of their diversity for every niche and special interest, become a kind of clearing house, the places and occasions that form a kind of venue all by itself. Festivals are the venues where you can see movies from France, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan and India. A festival is where you can see the results of the restive imaginations of young American and international directors. A festival (and the occasional E-Street Cinema) is where you can see documentaries with a political and social edge. They won’t be at the mall where transformers, pirates and superheroes rule.
Gittens put it this way, writing about his festival: “Filmfest DC has always been willing to bring films not only from Western Europe but from Eastern Europe, Latina America, Africa and Asia with little concern for a film’s long-term commercial prospects. The only criteria in place were that the film be intelligent, thought provoking, well made and entertaining. Without Filmfest DC, the thousands of films the festival has brought to our city would never have been seen.”
Although sometimes criticized in the media, the festival has in fact been innovative in its approach to films, with focuses on international music, documentaries, special regions of the world, celebrations of directors and film movements. These have included “Justice Matters,” a unique section of films focusing on social justice issues, and “Global Rhythms.”
The international focus in this year’s festival is on Scandinavia with “Nordic Lights: The Old and the New” and New South Korean Cinema.
As always, the venues are varied and spread out all over the city. This year, they include AMC Mazza Gallerie, the Avalon Theatre, the Goethe-Institute of Washington, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Regal Cinemas Gallery Place, Busboys and Poets, the Embassy of France, the Lincoln Theatre and the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.
In the distant past (the 1950s-1960), when people talked about film festivals they meant Cannes and maybe Venice and Berlin. But not the United States. That’s certainly changed with Sundance and, yes, the DC International Film Festival.
We talked a lot about foreign films, when you could still see foreign films in the United States at the small theaters that carried them. Today, festivals are the scene and venues for foreign films. And in a way this festival pays a little homage to the past by opening at the Lincoln Theater with the French film “Potiche,” the work of a relatively young director, François Ozon, and starring bonafide French and international movie stars Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Diperdieu. Ozon is known to specialize in what might be called screwball comedies, French style, with a more sophisticated twist than possible in the age of Carole Lombard.
The festival will close with “Sound of Noise,” a decidedly modern comedy cum police procedural, cum drama and music, a combined Swedish, French and Danish effort from Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson at the Regal Cinemas at Gallery Place April 17.
In between are over 70 premieres from all over the world, with visits by artists, directors and producers: director Vibeke Lokkeber and producer Terje Kristiansen of “Tears of Gaza”; Director Jean-Charles Deniau, director of the documentary “Scientology: The Truth About a Lie”; director Matias Bize of “The Life of Fish”; director Ali Samadai Ahadi of the documentary “The Green Wave,” and others.
Some other highlights include films like “Flamenco, Flamenco” from Spain’s Carlos Saura; “Queen to Play” with Kevin Kline (in French, no less!); “Juan,” a riff on “Don Giovanni”; “Circumstance” from the director of “Run, Lola, Run”; “Young Goethe in Love”; Argentinian Director Eliseo Subiela’s “Hostage of Illusion: Korkoro,” a French film about a gypsy family in Nazi Occupied France; and “The Traveler,” an Egyptian film (pre-revolution, we’d guess) starring Omar Sharif.
What’s always striking about the film festival is the eclectic spirit it carries with it and the memories it arouses, because so many international films—which you won’t see anywhere else—bring with them the electricity of recent and current events and upheavals. We remember once talking with a noted Czech director who arrived in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain which saw a playwright raised to the Czech presidency. We remember documentaries about World War II and the Holocaust and romances from Canada and the first movies coming out of North Vietnam.
This year’s festival promises to be the same, and for this, Gittens, and Deputy Director Shirin Gareeb can take a lot of the credit.