Goodbye, Silverdocs: Hello, AFI Docs

April 11, 2013

Silverdocs, the AFI-Discovery Channel documentary film festival that for the past 10 years has made the Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring a destination for non­fiction filmmakers and their fans, is losing a sponsor, gaining another one, changing it name and expanding its reach.

The festival, now known as AFI Docs presented by Audi, will have a new presence in Washington, its director, Sky Sitney, announced Thursday. In addition to gala screenings at the Newseum, the festival will present films at other D.C. venues, including the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History.

Sitney added that a newly re­tooled conference — called the Catalyst Sessions — will involve tightly focused panels on issues associated with the films on view and will take place in the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center.

Silverdocs was founded in 2003 as a joint effort of the American Film Institute and Discovery Channel, both of which have been hubs of Silver Spring’s commercial and cultural rejuvenation over the past decade. The ­changes come on the heels of the festival’s rapid rise as a major stop on the documentary circuit, as well as shifts in Discovery’s corporate focus that resulted in a decline in the channel’s support in recent years.

“We created a very distinct brand that in some ways brought incredible opportunities and challenges simultaneously,” Sitney said, adding that the economic downturn and concomitant challenge of finding and retaining sponsors “made it difficult to think beyond maintaining the wonderful things we’d created.”

“The struggle of maintaining it made it hard to be visionary about taking it beyond what we’d achieved,” she said. “The shift in presenting sponsors and [AFI’s] institutional commitment to expanding the festival into D.C. are giving the festival the opportunity to move past the ceiling we hit over the past few years and stretch ourselves into the next chapter.”

This year’s festival will be two days shorter than in years past, kicking off June 19 and continuing through June 23. Rather than have filmmaking panels every day, AFI Docs will tailor its panels to address specific issues raised in the films being screened, with politicians, policy advisers, nongovernmental organization representatives and other D.C.-centric stakeholders taking a more active role. Sitney said the festival will be “trimmer, leaner, but also more ambitious.”

“One of the most significant elements of the festival all these years has been taking these extraordinary films, sometimes on the most topical issues of our day, and following the screenings with the best discussions, where we’ve been able to look at those issues through a microscope and delve into them on a very deep level,” she said. “We want to take that initiative to the next level and into the heart of D.C., and choose certain films as catalysts of hopefully wonderful discussions that might lead to impact.”

Sitney took pains to add that the audience Silverdocs built in Silver Spring over the past decade will not be left behind.

“Our activities will continue as they have been in Silver Spring,” she said. “But there’s something symbolically potent about having a robust festival, especially a documentary festival, truly in the heart of D.C., within view of the Capitol and the White House. It functions logistically and symbolically as a significant move.”

AFI Docs

presented by Audi will take place
June 19-23. Visit www.afidocs.com
for more information.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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