Reserving Judgment on AFI DOCS

by Erica Ginsberg

Change is hard.  We constantly experience it, resist it, and eventually adapt to it.  (If you don’t believe me, how many “New Facebooks” have you complained about in your status update, but never actually quit Facebook as a result?)

There is a new change those of us in the DC documentary community are facing, which has become the subject of many a status update, listserv posting, or water cooler conversation.  And that all relates to a certain all-documentary film festival in our own backyards.  The festival formerly known as Silverdocs.  Or more accurately formerly known as the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival.

That festival is being reborn this year as AFI DOCS.  Or more accurately AFI DOCS Presented by Audi.

What was whispered about as big changes coming to the 11-year old festival earlier this year was made public through an April 11 article in the Washington Post called Goodbye, Silverdocs: Hello, AFI DocsWhile the article attracted few comments from the average Washington Post reader, it lit up the discussions in the documentary community – both locally and nationally.  Much of the chatter was not particularly favorable to the festival, and still filled with rumors and misinformation about what was happening:

  • Why has the festival gone from a full week to a long weekend?
  • Why was it moving from Silver Spring to Washington DC?
  • What happened to the conference?
  • Would it lose its campus-like feel now that it was being spread across the city?
  • Were these new Catalyst Sessions just a way of making the festival only show documentaries about politics – what’s so unique about that in a city which lives and breathes politics every day of the year?
  • And what about the name?  What was wrong with Silverdocs?  Why had the festival sold out now?

If you want an encapsulated version of filmmaker reaction to the announcement, look no further than Dave Nuttycombe’s blog article Farewell Silverdocs

Yes, change is upon us.  And yet the more things change, the more they stay true to what they are.  However, before we look forward to this year’s festival, perhaps it is best first to look backwards:

Back in 2003, a new upstart documentary film festival began in a close-in suburb to Washington DC called Silver Spring, Maryland.

Change was in the air then too.  I should know.  I grew up in Silver Spring.  As a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, I lived within easy distance of the shopping on Colesville Road – Hecht’s, Kresge’s, J.C. Penney’s, and lots of nearby stores for records (yes vinyl!), comic books, ice cream, and art supplies.  Not to mention movies.  At that time, downtown Silver Spring had five (!) different movie theaters within a mile of each other.  In a new era of VCRs, cable TV, and multiplexes growing in the further out burbs, each of those theaters slowly was closed.  The Roth Silver Spring West became a storefront church.  The Roth Silver Spring East became a bank. Rumor has it the seats are still there for the Capri (Montgomery County’s “underground” theater long before Bethesda Row).  The Flower Theater tried to survive, but was a victim not only of times but of flooding.

The Silver Theatre a few days after it opened in September 1938. Photo courtesy Silver Spring Historical Society.

And, of course there was the Silver Theatre – the grande dame of Silver Spring, one of only a few movie theaters in the DC Metro area which spoke to a much earlier time of the 1930s golden age of movie palaces.  Sadly the Silver lost some of its luster in the 1980s, and almost suffered the same fate as the other theaters.  At one point, it was being considered for demolition as part of a hare-brained idea to create a Mall of America-style shopping mall/theme park into the heart of downtown Silver Spring.  Though it was added to the  National Register of Historic Places thanks to efforts of local residents, the Silver remained closed, a symbol of the shell of a city Silver Spring had become.

Contrary to popular myth, Silver Spring was far from a ghost town. I lived in downtown Silver Spring throughout most of the 1990s and somehow made a life there quite easily thanks to the amazingly resilient small local businesses – yes even City Place Mall!  However, Silver Spring was portrayed as a place which had fallen on hard times, an inner suburb which could neither compete with downtown DC or with the growing shopping and entertainment options in the exurbs .  Once the mega-mall idea had been left behind, there were still efforts by the county to revitalize the downtown area of one of Maryland’s largest unincorporated areas.

These efforts seemed to be pushed forward when it was announced that Discovery

The Silver Theatre after it was reborn the AFI Silver in 2003. Photo courtesy of Silver Spring Historical Society.

Communications would be moving its headquarters from Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring in 2003.  The same year, the American Film Institute would be moving its East-Coast satellite from a small corner of the Kennedy Center to the renovated Silver Theater.  Downtown Silver Spring had recently become Maryland’s first state-designated Arts and Entertainment District, and the moving of these two large film organizations seemed to signal not only a commitment to the revitalization of downtown, but a commitment to building Silver Spring as a center for filmmaking and other arts.

As part of this revitalizaton, a new film festival was born.  Silverdocs premiered in 2003 as a partnership between the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications.  An all-documentary film festival was created when there were only a handful of such film festivals in the United States, but still at a time when film festivals were often the de facto distribution for many documentaries.  This was still a year before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me would show that Michael Moore was not the only kid on the block who could have financial success with wide distribution of theatrical documentaries.

The festival also worked hard to connect itself locally, organizing events which integrated the films, filmmakers, and film subjects into the local community.  Who could forget the inaugural festival included a skateboarding stage for Tony Hawk (there to screen The Making of Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom HuckJam) to demo his craft?

What surprised many was that Silverdocs not only became a great new festival serving documentary-hungry Washingtonians, but that it also quickly proved itself to be one of the top festivals on the documentary festival circuit. Though it came late in the season (which usually began with Toronto and IDFA in the fall; Sundance and Berlin in the winter; and the all-doc festivals Full Frame and Hot Docs in the spring), Silverdocs showcased a mix of standouts from these festivals, as well as regional, national, and even world premieres in competition.  Even as other soon-to-be-major stops on the documentary circuit began (namely True/False and Tribeca), Silverdocs held its own, becoming a must-stop on the circuit.

Adding to this was its conference which became less of a sidebar and more of a side-by-side with the festival, attracting industry from New York, Los Angeles, and worldwide.  What Silverdocs attending filmmaker can forget the difficult job of choosing between panels, master classes, doc talks, and screenings, hoping you would make it off the waitlist for a Silver Session with an industry bigwig, or get a chance to mix and mingle at low-key social events with a documentary strand TV executive or special guests like Al Maysles, Al Franken, or Al Gore.

The DC documentary community – the third largest in the country after New York and Los Angeles – especially benefitted from Silverdocs not only for the professional development and film inspirations it provided, but for the chance to reconnect with itself.  In one of the most workaholic cultures in the country, it was a pleasure to take a week or even a few days off, and spend time with others in your tribe before we all returned to the daily grind.

It is this I think which those in the DC documentary community will most mourn.

Yes the conference is gone.  We hope it will be back next year, but understand that, in this transitional year, it is perhaps better for the festival organizers to focus on the core of the film festival.  The DC documentary community existed and connected before Silverdocs.  And it will continue to exist, connect, and thrive even as AFI’s documentary festival takes on its new form as AFI DOCS.  WIFV, TIVA, the Center for Social Media, The Documentary Center at the George Washington University, the DC Film Alliance, more than 100 other film festivals, and, yes, my beloved Docs In Progress all continue to bring that community together all year long.  While AFI DOCS’ Catalyst Sessions may not provide the same direct professional development for filmmakers, they do provide something which may benefit filmmakers just as much – a means to see how documentary film provokes discussion of big issues with the people who have the power to actually make a difference on those issues.

Yes the festival is expanding (not moving) to DC.  No, it will not have the small-town atmosphere that it did when it was in Silver Spring alone.  But perhaps this offers some potential for growth.  Someone who works downtown can now easily get to a screening straight from the office on Thursday and Friday.  Folks from Virginia or even parts of DC may be less reluctant to cross that psychological line to Maryland.  The venues where the films will be screened in DC – the National Portrait Gallery, the American History Museum, the Newseum, the National Archives, and the Goethe Institut – are all great quality cinema spaces – a far cry from the makeshift sound system of the Round House Blackbox Theatre.  While they are not next door to each other, they are all within walking distance, giving festivalgoers a chance to experience Washington DC’s Penn Quarter and Chinatown neighborhoods. as well as have proximity to the National Mall (how many Silverdocs-goers from out of town did I know who could claim they had attended the festival multiple times, but had never been to the Smithsonian or seen a monument?)  And it looks like many films are being show twice – one in DC and once in Silver Spring, so the local audiences will still have plenty of films to choose from.

Yes the festival is shorter.  Is this a bad thing?  I look for quality, not quantity, and some of my favorite documentary festivals – Full Frame and Sebastopol – are only four days long, but pack a lot into that timeframe.  I want to give AFI DOCS the benefit of the doubt that it can do the same.

Yes the festival has a new name.  OK, here I will admit I liked the name Silverdocs better.  It just rolls off the tongue better than AFI DOCS.  But I don’t think the name is any more or less corporate than it was before.  The festival has always been a part of the nonprofit American Film Institute’s programming, and has always had a for-profit company attached to it (before Audi, it was Discovery).  Potato, potahto.  In the end, the cover of the book is far less important than what is contained within its pages.

And that’s where I come back to my original statement that the more things change, the more things stay the same.  Looking at AFI DOCS’ slate of films which was announced last week, it looks like Festival Director Sky Sitney has kept true to what always made Silverdocs such a gem of a festival – the breadth and depth of the films it showcases.

Yes, this is ultimately a film festival.  And looking through the list of films being screened this year, I see films every documentary filmmaker and film fan must see; The Act of Killing, The Crash Reel, We Always Lie to Strangers, After Tiller, and Remote Area Medical, to name a few.  Other films I can’t wait to see like Cutie and The Boxer, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, The New Black, Rent-a-Family, Inc., and Muscle Shoals.  And while this festival has never been a huge showcase for local talent, I am very excited to see Sean and Andrea Fine’s Life According to Sam, and Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn to support the DC area’s documentary filmmakers.  And yes the Guggenheim Honors are still around, and this year will be given to the legendary documentarian Errol Morris.  With or without the conference, I still don’t think any film festival in the DC area can bring this many great documentary films and filmmakers together under one umbrella.

I should end this blog by saying that perhaps you won’t think I am an objective voice.  The Docs In Progress Peer Pitch (where Let the Fire Burn was pitched four years ago) was always sponsored by Silverdocs, and this year AFI DOCS will again be providing a special deal for our Peer Pitch participants to be able to attend both Peer Pitch and AFI DOCS.  However, the organization I co-founded, Docs In Progress, was built upon the principle of constructive critique at its core.  Though we’ve had a relationship with the film festival for years, I have never shied away from providing my two cents on what I loved and didn’t love about it.  This year is no different.

Yes, change is hard, and I am as curious as everyone else to see how these changes work out in reality.  But I want to base my judgment on what I see rather than rush to judgment.  Afterall, Facebook is still a great way to connect with friends – old and new.  And AFI DOCS may very well still be one of the top documentary film festivals on the circuit and one of the best festivals in the DC area.  We will all see for ourselves from June 19-23.

Erica Ginsberg is the Executive Director of Docs In Progress, a nonprofit documentary film organization based in Silver Spring and serving the DC-area documentary filmmaker community.  She has attended every Silverdocs/AFI DOCS Film Festival since it began.  As sidebar events to the festival, Docs In Progress will be organizing Peer Pitch for filmmakers to practice pitching their documentary projects, and co-hosting a Happy Hour with the International Documentary Association on Thursday, June 20 from 5:30-8:00 pm at Busboys and Poets 5th & K Street.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

HTML tags are not allowed.