An interim director has been selected to run the AFI Docs film festival, the American Film Institute announced Wednesday. Christine O’Malley, a documentary producer whose films include “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A,” will serve as interim director for this year’s festival, said Bob Gazzale, AFI’s president and chief executive. “Christine is a pillar of the documentary community who can help listen to what the filmmaking community wants and needs from the festival, and help deliver on those promises,” Gazzale said.
O’Malley’s arrival at AFI Docs marks the latest in a series of changes for the festival, which last year changed its name from Silverdocs, moved its headquarters and main venues from Silver Spring to downtown Washington, got rid of the nationally known filmmakers conference, and evinced a new focus on connecting directors with public-policy experts and politicians.
Those changes were greeted with wary optimism in some quarters and outright hostility in others — especially on the part of filmmakers and audience members who over the course of 10 years had come to cherish the intimacy created at Silverdocs. During the festival, AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center became a lively hub of filmgoing, panel discussions and socializing for a long weekend every June. Sky Sitney, the longtime director of Silverdocs, announced her resignation from AFI Docs in February, and AFI Docs’ primary sponsor, Audi, will not be returning this year.
Gazzale acknowledged that the radical rebranding of one of the country’s premier documentary festivals will be “a long walk uphill,” noting that the selection of a filmmaker to run this year’s edition should reassure observers that documentaries and the festival in particular are an “institutional priority” for AFI, which sprang from a presidential mandate issued in the White House Rose Garden in 1965 to celebrate and preserve film and educate the public about the art form. O’Malley’s appointment, Gazzale said, is “a foundation on which to grow.”
In a visit to Washington this week, O’Malley, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A.” director Patrick Creadon, stated flatly, “My allegiance is to the documentary community.” Asked whether there were plans to restore the filmmakers conference — which helped make Silverdocs a destination for directors eager to connect with broadcasters, distributors and mentors — she said that discussions are under way to create new opportunities for filmmaker development.
O’Malley, who was a filmmaker at AFI Docs last year with her and Creadon’s film “If You Build It,” met with AFI staff and members of the local documentary community this week on a mini listening tour in preparation for her new role. “I heard over and over again that what people miss is the sense of community and a feeling that you had when you’re in one contained venue and you could easily run into people between screenings. That’s the really beautiful thing about going to a festival, and, frankly, as someone who was there last year, I understand that. It’s not like I need explanation for why that needs to happen.”
AFI Docs will run June 18-22 at venues throughout Washington and at the Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring.