At this time of year, a cinephile’s thoughts turn to film festivals. Not just to Sundance or the Berlin International Film Festival, though those are obviously important, but to the small, quirky film festivals that take place in our backyard. Because of Washington’s status as a global city, and the presence of embassies and great cultural institutions, these festivals are truly transportive. Where else in the United States could you watch a hit French film while sitting at the French Embassy? Or view award-winning Iranian films from a theater inside the National Museum of Asian Art?
After two years of virtual lineups, the Smithsonian’s Mother Tongue Film Festival is back in person this spring, with dozens of features and short films highlighting Indigenous cultures and languages shown at Smithsonian museums and other venues. “Everyone’s kind of Zoomed out, right?” says festival co-director Amalia Córdova. “We are eager to be able to discuss these films in person, to have the filmmakers come and engage with them and meet with them again.” Organizers are “cognizant that there are concerns of covid safety,” Córdova adds, “but we also recognize that people don’t want to keep staying at home, and especially for beautiful films, they want to come back and be able to see them on the big screen.”
The ability to show films on big screens in dark theaters to an attentive audience, instead of to viewers watching from their couches while also maybe checking their phones or folding laundry, has played a role in Mother Tongue’s programming. Last year, when the festival was staying virtual, Córdova says she and the festival’s staff fell in love with a documentary called “Faya Dayi,” from the Mexican and Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir.
“Last year was the year that it was coming out and hitting the festivals. And I said, ‘You know what? Let’s not show it online,’ because I feel like we have not brought a lot of African film, particularly East African film, [to Mother Tongue]. We have a huge Ethiopian community here in the DMV, so I said, ‘I really want to show this live so that we draw in that audience, so that we can actually see our audience and tell them we have something for you, and help us parse that film with the community.’”
While many festivals begin before the end of March, the majority are still hammering out details of their schedules. Córdova acknowledges that the festival is “a little behind” in announcing its slate of films, which she puts down to the moving parts of a film festival — organizing program blocks, setting up Q&A sessions with directors — combined with the threat of the pandemic: “What if I had to cancel 24 airplane tickets” for attendees due to an outbreak? “That’s why we didn’t want to come back huge. We want to come back manageable. We want to make sure that the experience of the festival is good for the venues that we’re partnering with as well as for our audiences.”
Whether you need a light comedy to provide a temporary vacation or want to delve into the cold of the Arctic Circle, one of these festivals can take you away for a few hours — and they’re only a Metro ride away.
Le Ciné Français de Filmfest DC
Synopsis: This new festival, a collaboration between D.C.’s best-known independent film festival and the French cultural organization Villa Albertine, launched five screenings in early January and will continue through next month. Instead of yet another series lionizing Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, Le Ciné Français focuses on works from this century, such as “The Intouchables,” a comedy about the relationship between a White quadriplegic and his Black caregiver, which set French box office records after its 2011 release.
If the concept sounds familiar, Filmfest DC was one of the partners for Films on the Green, a series of outdoor screenings of French films at the National Gallery of Art, the National Arboretum and other locations in the summer of 2021.
If you see only one: “Mozart’s Sister” uses a blend of fact and fiction to tell the story of Nannerl Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister, who was renowned as a harpsichord virtuoso but about whom little information survives. (Feb. 14, 7 p.m.)
When and where: Through Feb. 28. All screenings held at the Embassy of France’s La Maison Française, 4101 Reservoir Rd. NW.
How to get tickets: Tickets cost $10, or $5 for students with ID, and are available through filmfestdc.org. Allow extra time for security screening before entering the embassy.
Festival of Films From Iran
Synopsis: Iranian films have won fans and awards across the globe for decades, though the country’s realist and humanist movies and documentaries remain little known in the United States. Uncovering recent gems and showing classics from the pre-revolutionary New Wave and Second New Wave of Iranian cinema is the job of the annual Festival of Films From Iran, now in its 27th year. This year’s festival pays tribute to two award-winning directors: Jafar Panahi, who was arrested in July and remains in detention, and Mohammad Rasoulof, also arrested last July, who was temporarily released from jail because of health concerns earlier this month. The festival takes on a hybrid format, with in-person screenings at the National Museum of Asian Art and at the AFI Silver Theatre and a program of virtual screenings.
If you see only one: In September 2019, 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire on the steps of a courthouse in Tehran. Her crime: dressing as a man to watch her favorite soccer team, Esteghlal, play in a male-only stadium. More than a decade earlier, Jafar Panahi directed “Offside,” about a group of women who are caught attempting to sneak into a World Cup qualifier while dressed as boys. The film, which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2006, was inspired by the story of Panahi’s daughter, who sneaked into a stadium to watch a match. The film is shown Feb. 5 in the spirit of the “Women, Life, Freedom” protesters.
When and where: In-person screenings run Jan. 20 through Feb. 12 at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium, 1100 Independence Ave. SW, and Jan. 28 to April 10 at the AFI Silver Theatre. Films stream online Feb. 13-26.
How to get tickets: Free tickets for in-person events at the Meyer Auditorium and virtual screening registration are available through ffi2023.eventive.org/films. Online films can be watched only in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Architecture & Design Film Festival
Synopsis: If you’re not a fan of modern architecture or cutting-edge home design, a film festival dedicated to architecture and design might sound a little dry. But this five-year-old fest, hosted at the National Building Museum, also tackles the bigger picture: how planning policies shaped segregation, the impact of urban regeneration on gentrification and displacement, and the future of sustainable fashion and architecture. Sure, there is still a documentary about Maija Isola, one of the first designers for Marimekko, and one about the farce that was the construction of Paris’s Opéra Bastille, but the four-day festival also includes happy hours with pop-up exhibitions and a fashion market, as well as food and drinks from vendors including Little Miner Taco and Other Half Brewing.
If you see only one: Sunday’s closing Go-Go Brunch starts with a performance by TOB Band & Show, known for its cranking bounce beats, and a pop-up exhibition by photographer Dee Dwyer, before a noon screening of “Barry Farm: Community, Land and Justice in Washington DC,” which examines history and displacement at the historic public housing complex in Southeast. A panel discussion about the film, including directors Samuel George and Sabiyha Prince, follows.
When and where: Jan. 26-29. National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW.
How to get tickets: Tickets for the opening night party and Sunday brunch are $50 each, or $25 for students. Tickets for Friday and Saturday are $35 per night, or $15 for students. “All access passes” for all four days cost $150, or $70 for students. The full schedule is available on nbm.org.
Mother Tongue Film Festival
Synopsis: An annual celebration of Indigenous people and language, Mother Tongue is a festival that takes viewers into worlds they’re not likely to experience anywhere else, beginning with sound. The 2022 festival included 36 films, from Brazil to Hawaii, India and Canada, for a total of 45 languages. This year’s program is different from previous years’, says co-director Cordóva: “I would say this year we’ve leaned into feature film more than the shorts programs,” whereas in previous years, the lineup has been more balanced. “There have been so many great feature films to choose from that we got filled up, and we have smaller little pockets of short films.”
If you see only one: If there’s a surprise this year, “we have an unusual focus on the Russian Arctic and the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic that are within the Russian territory. And, yeah, we had to think about the implications of that,” Cordóva says. “But the Indigenous people come before Russia is Russia, so that’ll be an interesting set of screenings. We’re going to have some short films and we’re going to have a feature film from the Sakha people.”
When and where: Feb. 23-26 at multiple sites. Opening night takes place at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; other venues include the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian and Planet Word.
How to get tickets: Screenings are free. More information will be posted on mothertongue.si.edu in early February.
D.C. Independent Film Forum
Synopsis: The D.C. Independent Film Forum — previously known as the D.C. Independent Film Festival — takes place over five days, with a focus on talks not just after screenings, but also outside of them. This year’s final event schedule hasn’t been announced, but 2022 included industry seminars delving into the mechanics of securing film distributions and discussions with producers about what their job actually entails. And, unique to this forum, there are also happy hours. The lineup of films for 2023 includes five full-length films and five feature-length documentaries, primarily from the United States, but also two dozen narrative shorts, ranging from four to 25 minutes, that span the globe, as well as short documentaries, animated shorts — some not even a minute in length — and even web series pilots.
If you see only one: Those craving stories from the next generation of filmmakers should take note of the DCIFF High School Competition, which screens and judges short films from teenage students. Held the weekend before the festival at the Miracle Theatre on Barracks Row, the program includes 13 films, all between three and 13 minutes long, from young filmmakers in the United States and as far away as Korea, Armenia and Poland. (Feb. 25 from 1 to 6 p.m. at Miracle Theatre, 535 Eighth St. SE.)
When and where: March 1-5 at Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. dciff-indie.org.
How to get tickets: All-access passes are $95 and include both opening and closing night parties, workshops, and special events. Two-day weekend passes are $55 and include all screenings from Friday to Sunday, events, and admission to either the opening or closing parties. One-day passes, which cost $35, are valid for either Saturday or Sunday. All passes include two drink tickets and a festival T-shirt.
Capital Irish Film Festival
Synopsis: Maedhbh McCullagh was named the director of the Capital Irish Film Festival in the fall, after years of working with arts organizations in the United States as well as her native Ireland, and she’s already starting to expand the horizons of the long-running festival. “I love traditional art forms and Irish art forms, but it’s really interesting to me to see storytellers and the stories coming out of Ireland that are reflecting contemporary Ireland,” McCullagh says. “And that doesn’t mean that we leave behind our history or those traditions. It means that we just are embracing an Irish identity that is much broader than maybe we typically would have had.”
This year, there are two new areas of focus: a family programming slot with two short films — “it’s the shortest slot, obviously, because it’s for children” — as a way to bring younger people to the festival, as well as an experimental program, in addition to 17 features and two collections of short films. McCullagh is enthusiastic about showing harrowing documentaries by female filmmakers that force the country to confront its past, as well as love letters to the streets and music of Dublin. “Even though they’re made by Irish artists, they’re made mostly in Ireland, they have a universal appeal and they’re very humanistic stories about what it means to be living right now in this world, in this moment. The works speak for themselves down to the ground, regardless of them being Irish or not.”
When and where: March 2-5 at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.
How to get tickets: All-access passes are $130 through afi.com/silver.
Environmental Film Festival
Synopsis: The Environmental Film Festival, or DCEFF, returns to in-person screenings for the first time since 2019. The program, which will be announced in coming weeks, includes documentaries, feature films and shorts focusing on all aspects of the environment: Previous editions have told stories about endangered ecosystems, the secret lives of primates, the causes of megafires and the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals. There are locally focused films, too, such as 2021’s “Power of the Paddle,” about a man who attempted to ride a stand-up paddle board the length of the Chesapeake Bay to raise money and awareness for oyster recovery efforts. Many events feature Q&A discussions with filmmakers and environmental thought leaders. Pro tip: More than 300 films from previous festivals are available to watch through dceff.org.
When and where: March 16-23. Screenings are held across the area, at museums, embassies, theaters and universities.
How to get tickets: Passes covering all in-person screenings — other than the opening and closing events — are $50 before Feb. 15, and $60 after. Registration and ticket sales for individual events begins Feb. 23 on dceff.org.
New African Film Festival
Synopsis: While the full lineup hasn’t been announced, AFI public relations manager Abbie Algar says the program at this 19-year-old festival includes close to 30 films “from across Africa and the diaspora, a number of U.S. premieres, and several countries’ 2023 Oscar submissions,” including one that’s on the Oscars shortlist. Previous festivals have seen Q&As with filmmakers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Blitz Bazawule.
When and where: March 17-30 at AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.
How to get tickets: All-access passes are $150 through afi.com/silver.