In the course of its 19-year history, Filmfest DC has become known as something of a catch-all series, a polyglot grab bag whose variety and breadth inspired former Post critic Rita Kempley to dub it "the kitchen-sink festival." Yes, it has garnered a large and devoted audience over nearly two decades, but with its long running time (12 days), sprawling number of theatrical venues and an eclectic, unthemed program of films, the festival -- which starts Wednesday -- nonetheless has had some trouble grabbing purchase in the minds of outsiders. Where is it? Who is it for? And what's it all about, exactly?
This year, longtime Filmfest DC Director Tony Gittens has taken a few steps to answer those questions, practically and -- perhaps more important -- symbolically. He's reduced the number of theaters, giving the festival a more community-centered, intimate tone. He's added a juried award -- the Filmfest DC Capital Focus Award -- that will carry the festival's name outside its immediate milieu to the larger filmmaking community. And, most significant for audiences, he's invited two guest curators for programs of Chinese and Indian films that lend this year's festival a distinctly Asian flavor.
Shahrukh Khan, left, and Manisha Koirala in "Dil Se," a political drama.
(Madras Talkies Via Filmfest Dc)
"They're all intentional," Gittens says of the changes, "and part of a strategic plan to keep the festival up-to-date. We're approaching our 20th year, and the environment has changed. These changes are [about] keeping pace, keeping it modern and adjusting to the reality of the city we work in."
Although Filmfest DC has focused on specific countries in the past, "we decided on China and India for a number of reasons," Gittens says. "One is the relationship between the U.S. and both China and India has intensified, both economically and trade-wise and culture-wise, and we thought that it would be a great opportunity for people to get this window into these cultures that can only be displayed through film."
With the burgeoning popularity of Hong Kong films ("House of Flying Daggers," "Hero") and Bollywood movies ("Monsoon Wedding," "Bride & Prejudice"), Western audiences have become more familiar with Asian films, but with the unfortunate effect that those two genres have come to represent what are in reality far richer and more complex film cultures. When Gittens asked Chi-hui Yang, director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, to program the Chinese films, for example, he assumed the films would come from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China's mainland. Instead, Yang insisted that the focus be on the mainland. "I was apprehensive at first because I wasn't sure there would be enough variety to build a series," Gittens recalls.
Instead, Yang came up with nine films that not only reflect a surprising thematic and aesthetic diversity from a part of China whose film culture has historically been eclipsed by Taiwan and Hong Kong, but that reflect China's growing role in the global economy.
"This is just a small list of films being made [on the mainland], but you'll notice that several of them are co-produced by Taiwan and Hong Kong," Yang says. "It mirrors what's happening with growing economic interdependency with those areas. A number of these films were also financed by Japan and France. So we're seeing more producers and financiers looking to China both for economic investment and artistic endeavors as well."
If American filmgoers have recently embraced Hong Kong movies, their vision of China has historically been shaped by directors from what is known as the "Fifth Generation." These graduates of the Beijing Film Academy came to renown in the 1980s, their most well-known representatives being Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. Two films at this year's Filmfest DC, "Shanghai Story" and "Peacock," reflect a direct lineage with the Fifth Generation: "Peacock" was directed by Gu Changwei, Zhang's longtime cinematographer, and "Shanghai Story's" director, Peng Xiaolian, is a less well-known Fifth Generation member.
But Yang made sure to program films from China's cutting edge as well, represented by films such as Liu Fendou's "The Green Hat," which examines traditional masculinity in the context of China's changing political economy, and "Pirated Copy," a low-budget independent feature made on digital video that looks at the country's booming industry of cultural piracy.
From a contemporary comedy of manners ("Cell Phone") to excavations of China's troubled history ("Jasmine Women," "Peacock," "Shanghai Story") to the uncertainties of the country's future ("The World," "Mountain Patrol"), Yang says, each film reflects in some way "the political and economic stresses and schisms that are forcing innovative storytelling. Most of these films, especially the ones set in a contemporary settings, take a look at these things that are simultaneously tearing the country apart and rebuilding it."
Manjula Kumar, who programmed the 10 Indian films in the festival, approached her job with a similar eye toward reflecting the diversity that lies beyond the Bollywood monolith.
"I wanted to present a panorama of Indian films," says Kumar, program director of the Smithsonian office of education and museum studies. "A few of them are Bollywood, in the sense that they're made in Bombay, which is the main film industry in India." But Kumar adds that there's more to Indian cinema than just Bombay.
Although American viewers might find the dazzling color and movement of Bollywood musicals intoxicating, they may not be as aware that India has also produced one of the 20th century's greatest humanist filmmakers, Satyajit Ray. On Wednesday, Filmfest DC will open with "Raincoat," by Rituparno Ghosh, the Bengali director Kumar calls "the next Ray." (The festival will also show Ghosh's 2003 film "Chokher Bali.") Although most of the Indian films are in the country's national language of Hindi, Kumar wanted to represent some of India's other languages, including Bengali, Rajasthani, Malayalam and English. She included films that grapple with women's issues ("Sandstorm," "The Journey"), political dramas ("Dev," "Dil Se," "Songs of Mahulbani"), examinations of Indian history ("A Thousand Dreams Such as These") and, yes, two bona fide Bollywood films ("Morning Raga" and the 1960 classic "Mughal-e-Azam").
In Kumar's opinion, movies such as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bride & Prejudice" are misinforming mainstream filmgoers about Indian society and culture.
"It shouldn't be that a film from India is only about one thing," she says. "I'm hoping this focus on Indian cinema will raise questions and bring awareness and little more authenticity to what is considered Indian cinema."
Filmfest DC will run April 13-24. For a schedule and program, call 202-628-FILM or visit www.filmfestdc.org.