Beyond the Beltway

Between the pomp of the Kennedy Center and the stately elegance of the Smithsonian, a diverse group of organizations, filmmakers, and creative personalities is proving there’s more to DC than snipers and bad policy decisions. Herewith is a sampling of the best, the brightest, and the quirkiest.


The most recent—and the ritziest—addition to DC’s already-lively festival scene is SilverDocs, an all-documentary festival launched in June 2003 by the American Film Institute in partnership with the Discovery Channel. Creatively positioned to exploit the ethnic and social diversity of the metropolitan area, along with its policymakers, journalists, and think tank members, the five-day event attracted more than 10,000 enthusiastic festival-goers. “We didn’t expect to draw that many people,” comments inaugural director Nina Gilden Seavey, filmmaker and founder/director of the Center for History in the Media at George Washington University. “We had standby ticket lines and packed houses at 11 a.m.”

Attendees stuck in ticket lines could marvel at a sidewalk demonstration by skateboard wizard Tony Hawk or simply admire the festival’s glamorous home: the beautifully-restored AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, located in the DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. With 49,000 square feet of luxurious seating and state-of-the-art projection capability, the theater’s three screens showed seventy foreign and domestic films culled from more than 1,000 submissions. Discovery’s role is strictly that of sponsoring partner. “We never had any conversations with Discovery about programming,” Seavey explains. “That would have cast an aspersion on the AFI and on the fest itself.”

While SilverDocs will embrace all forms of independent documentary, this first year’s emphasis was on a more traditional style of storytelling, such as the sold-out opening night selection, Richard Schickel’s Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. Also popular were an evening devoted to the groundbreaking documentaries of NFL Films, and a symposium honoring four-time Oscar winner Charles Guggenheim, which was attended by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and historian David McCullough.

Not surprisingly, politics played a major role with back-to-back screenings of Ron Frank and Ann Benjamin’s Only in America—which follows the career of Joseph Lieberman—and We Wuz Robbed, Spike Lee’s howl of indignation over the 2000 vote-counting controversy. Both films were followed by a discussion of faith in politics led by Mark Halperin of ABC News and Bush strategist Mark McKinnon. “A brand new fest has to decide what it can be,” Seavey says, “and we decided to use the strengths of the DC area to not just show films, but use them as a platform for dialogue. That’s our trademark.”

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Visions/Bar Noir

Located in the heart of tony Dupont Circle, this first-run art house and bar/restaurant has been a popular local destination since its opening in 2000. “Our concept was to create multiple profit centers that would allow us to reach out to the community in creative ways,” programmer Andrew Mencher explains. “We want people to hang out here and have fun.”

Visions screens a wide range of international titles as well as several special programs designed to cement local relationships, such as Out at Visions, a weekly program of gay and lesbian films. “We see this program as a way to be a good neighbor in a predominantly gay neighborhood,” says marketing manager Heather Huston, who also oversees Local Filmmaker Night each Tuesday, which offers screening space to filmmakers and community organizations in exchange for selling fifty tickets at $7 each. “If they can bring in an audience, then we take a chance,” says Mencher, adding that the filmmaker receives 30% of any sales over $350. So far the arrangement has been extremely successful, particularly with events such as the 48 Hour Film Project, where teams compete to produce a movie in just two days.

At a time when independently-owned theaters are rapidly disappearing, Visions’ 2001 box office of over $800,000 is a healthy figure for a twin theater with fewer than 300 seats. Those numbers are the result of a serious commitment to grassroots marketing. “Only about half our films are reviewed in the Washington Post,” points out Mencher, who, along with Huston, works hard to promote programs like the African Film Festival to targeted local communities. “People will often choose our venue just because of the work we put into it.”

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Georgetown Independent Film Festival

Now in its third year, this primarily short film festival showcases provocative documentary, narrative, and experimental films in a converted warehouse in the historic Georgetown district. Founded by local businessman and self-described “serial entrepreneur” Eric Sommer, the fest is the direct result of his disaffection with mainstream cinema. “I wanted to see a movie one weekend and realized that all the art houses had closed,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘I’ll do a film festival!’ A couple of months later I had 100 hours of film stacked in my office and I knew this was serious.”

With the help of local filmmakers—whose representation remains a priority of the festival—and many local businesses, Georgetown 2002 screened seventy-three films to an audience of 4,900 and hosted an evening with John Waters. “We survive by making partnerships,” says Sommer, who recently did just that with The Venice International Short Film Festival. The two festivals now have a reciprocal agreement to screen selections from each other’s programs, and this year Venice will sponsor the Georgetown appearance of two Italian directors.
“DC has some of the most intellectually sophisticated audiences in the country,” comments Sommer, who is also developing his own independent distribution company, Wonderland Pictures. “We have a responsibility to bring them thought-provoking films.”

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Center for Social Media

Located in the School of Communication at American University, the Center is a rich resource for independent filmmakers and anyone interested in media as a tool for public engagement. Directed by Communication Professor Pat Aufderheide (a contributing editor of The Independent), the Center’s activities include research projects and public events, conducted both independently and in collaboration with other organizations.

“We have a wealth of material written by filmmakers and distributors, including information on rights issues and strategies for using media effectively,” says Aufderheide, who is currently examining the problem of public access to socially-engaging documentaries and the difficulty of keeping them in the marketplace. Another major aspect of the Center’s research is the thorny question of intellectual property in a digital environment—how to foster creativity while maximizing public access to films. “We’re interviewing filmmakers all over the country about their problems acquiring and maintaining rights to finished films,” Aufderheide explains, “with a view to pinpointing the most useful positions to adopt.”

Locally, the Center is most noted for organizing a number of public events. For example, this fall it will sponsor a panel of award-winning filmmakers for the third annual DC Labor Film Festival—which the Center helps curate—entitled “Lens At Work: Labor Filmmakers and the Challenges of Storytelling.”

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About :

Jeanette Catsoulis is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She was Director of Programming for Georgetown Independent Film Festival from 2001-2002, and remains a programming advisor to the festival. She can be reached by email at