Film Festival puts philanthropy on the big screen


Founder & President of the Washington West Film Festival, Brad Russell (left), with Wolf Trap President Emeritus, Terre Jones, who serves on the Advisory Board of the film festival. (david madison photography)
October 20, 2013

In Brad Russell’s world, film is the currency of philanthropy. He’s a movie buff, a pastor, a family-man and the brains behind one of the region’s more unusual film festivals.

The Washington West Film Festival is scheduled to debut a range of independent movies, documentaries and short films this week at Reston Bow Tie Cinemas that attempt to capture the human condition.

Russell’s mission is to use storytelling as a means to feed the homeless, rebuild communities devastated by natural disasters and back other socially minded causes. Proceeds from the event go to fund a charitable project that will then become the subject of its own film next year.

The event, now in its third year, plans to open with a short film that documents the work of the group that received last year’s contribution, a team of festival volunteers that helped repair houses in New York’s Breezy Point Beach that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

One scene shows a Breezy Point resident standing amid the debris of her home, shedding tears as she told her story to Russell, who wears a T-shirt that reads, “Story Can Change the World.”

The words are the tagline of the film festival and the rubric by which Russell and his team selected the 41 films that are to be screened Wednesday through Sunday.

The opening film, “Living On A Dollar” chronicles four friends who battle hunger and disease when they challenge themselves to live on $1 in rural Guatemala. “The Genius of Marian” highlights the realities of living with Alzheimer’s disease. “Running Blind” shows the journey of EJ Scott who ran 12 marathons in 12 states for charity — all while blindfolded.

The closing film is a Peabody Award winning documentary,“My Neighbourhood,” created by a Reston filmmaker and shows the life of a Palestinian youth who finds an unexpected connection with local Israelis.

Many of the films are to be followed by question and answer sessions with the filmmakers.

The event has attracted some big names in Hollywood, such as “Seinfeld” star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who now headlines “Veep,” and Tom Shadyac, director of “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” and “Bruce Almighty.” Also in attendance will be actress Olivia Wilde of “Rush” and Edward Asner, known for his Lou Grant character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Beyond the financial donation that the event generates, Russell said he will only deem the festival a success if viewers exit the showings empowered to make a social impact.

“My dream for this event is to help bridge great and powerful stories on screen to audience members who have the powerful stories to tell themselves,” said Russell, 43.

The money raised will fund programming at Shelter House, a Fairfax nonprofit that serves the homeless. Festival patrons can sign up to volunteer at a relief effort at the shelter that will be filmed and shown at next year’s film festival.

In 2011, the film festival organization used proceeds to build a theater in Haiti that also doubles as a community relief center. Last year’s festival raised about $3,000, and this year the event is expected to raise $6,000. Corporate sponsors include Hyatt Regency, Reston Town Center, Boston Properties and Canvas.

Russell, who pastors the congregation of 500 members at Dulles Community Church, is known for using scenes of blockbuster hits to drive his sermons. He believes playing a short scene from “The Help”during service enlivens a point about seeing the good in people and a clip from “Moneyball” elevates a message about the power of dreaming.

“They should ultimately lead us to take inventory on how our own story relates to that,” Russell said. “When people look at my life, what story are they seeing? Do they see a consumer or someone contributing?”

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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