Sky Sitney, longtime festival director of AFI Docs (formerly Silverdocs), steps down


Sky Sitney, longtime director of AFI Docs film festival, is stepping down. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Longtime AFI Docs festival director Sky Sitney is leaving the festival, the American Film Institute announced Friday.

Sitney, who started with the documentary festival eight years ago, when it was known as Silverdocs, resigned two weeks ago. She will continue to serve as AFI Docs director through Feb. 28. Her departure comes on the heels of Silverdocs losing its major sponsor, the Discovery Channel, and AFI subsequently changing the name of the festival, moving most of its programming from Silver Spring to downtown Washington, discontinuing its nationally known filmmakers’ conference and bringing new emphasis to connecting nonfiction films with advocates, policymakers and political leaders.

“I just felt that I had given what I could to the event, and it was time for me to start exploring other things,” Sitney said Friday. “It felt like a natural time, having seen [the festival] go through that challenging adjustment, to kind of pave the way both for myself to shift into new gears and to create space for new leadership to come into the festival and take it into its next chapter.”

Sitney will continue to serve as a visiting faculty member in the film and media studies program at Georgetown University, where she teaches documentary film history and theory. She will also continue to consult with documentary filmmakers and institutions involved in nonfiction film projects and events. Prior to working at AFI Docs, Sitney served as curator for the Council on Foundations Film and Video Festival; she also programmed the Newport International Film Festival and the New York Underground Film Festival.

“Sky is limitless in the gifts she has given both to American film and the American Film Institute,” said AFI President Bob Gazzale. “Her passion for the nonfiction art form has inspired us all to envision AFI Docs as the place where this nation’s leading artists and our nation’s leaders come together to better the world.”

During Sitney’s tenure, Silverdocs grew from a small gathering in suburban Silver Spring to a convergence of thousands of filmmakers, filmgoers and film industry insiders, all of whom cherished the intimate and supportive atmosphere of the festival and AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Respected throughout the film world for her sensitivity and exquisite taste in programming, Sitney has become one of the most beloved figures within a film festival culture that can occasionally devolve into competitiveness and backbiting. The filmmakers’ conference, which consisted of panels, one-on-one meetings and spontaneous bull sessions, was particularly valued by nonfiction filmmakers as a way to network with programmers, buyers, funders and mentors.

“I love what Sky accomplished, and I think that her exit is a loss for filmmakers in D.C.,” said documentary producer Josh Levin, who also owns the West End Cinema. He noted that the move of AFI Docs out of Silver Spring resulted in a palpable lack of community and cohesiveness last year, but the absence of the conference was just as deeply felt. “That deliverable was something I felt Sky did uniquely well. I feel sorry on behalf of filmmakers here in the District that she won’t be providing that opportunity with the festival going forward.”

Silverdocs founding director Nina Gilden Seavey sad that AFI’s newly narrowed focus on political and issue-driven films, as well as the loss of the conference, ran directly counter to Sitney’s temperament.

“She is an embracer,” Seavey said of Sitney. “She’s an embracer of filmmakers, she’s an embracer of the film industry, and she’s an embracer of the film content. I think that the decision . . . to move the festival into the District and not having it be so industry-driven is a statement that Sky [couldn’t] represent as her own priority. I think in her next iteration, you’ll see her being who she always has been. She will teach, she’ll do consulting, she’ll do some conferences. She’s going to be who she is.”

This year’s AFI Docs will begin June 18 and run through June 22. AFI Docs’ Andrea Passafiume, Sarah Bilodeau and Jacqueline Lyanga, director of the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest, will undertake programming duties.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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