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Filmmakers Nicole Boxer, Farzad Sangari and Steve James discuss their paths to AFI Docs

“Life Itself,” a doc about Roger Ebert, left, with Gene Siskel, closes out AFI Docs. (Kevin Horan)

It’s easy to think that film festivals — even our own beloved AFI Docs — enable audiences to be absolute movie gluttons, shoving films into their eyeballs as fast as possible. And that’s exactly right! There’s another level, though: The filmmakers who bring their work often skip the cinematic buffet for a chance to network, learn and (hopefully) make money. We talked to three directors at different stages of their careers whose films are appearing at the five-day AFI Docs festival to see what goes on behind the screens.

Nicole Boxer Nicole Boxer

The Home Team

“I could not have been lucky enough to have a better premiere,” says Nicole Boxer, director of “How I Got Over,” which is being shown for the first time ever at AFI Docs. Her film is about “Life Stories,” a Theatre Lab program through which 15 D.C.-area homeless women created and performed a show at the Kennedy Center in 2012. “I wanted to ask the question, ‘Can art save your life?’ ” Boxer says. “It’s this really intense question, and these women come from pretty tough circumstances, and so the question seemed really appropriate.”

Boxer has been to other festivals (she’s served as a producer on several documentaries, including “14 Women,” which premiered at Sundance in 2007, and 2012’s “The Invisible War”), but this is her first time in the director’s chair. Since Boxer lives in the area, getting to debut her film at AFI Docs is especially meaningful. “I get to have my subjects there, I get to be in my hometown,” she says. “I don’t feel any pressure. I feel a tremendous amount of support and love.”

As for the business side of things, she’s taking that as it comes. “My understanding is that there are going to be some players there” who could help the film get distribution, she says. “My hope is the buyers will talk to me, but my plan is to enjoy the first time I’m showing the film to this large of an audience. If my phone rings off the hook, that’s a bonus.”

Naval Heritage Center, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Sat., 4:15 p.m., only standby tickets available. (Archives)
AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; Sun., 11:15 a.m., only standby tickets available. (Silver Spring)

Farzad Sangari Farzad Sangari

The Rookie

Farzad Sangari knows about competition; after all, his film is about a college team out to capture a championship. It’s not exactly the typical tournament, though: “Mudbloods” is about the UCLA Quidditch team and its attempt to win the 2011 Quidditch World Cup. Yes, like in “Harry Potter.”

“I was just sort of walking around when I saw people playing Quidditch for the first time,” the former UCLA film student says. “I stopped in my tracks, astonished and surprised and sort of happy to see it. I went home and was looking it up online and contacted the UCLA team, which was who was playing, and it just kept snowballing.”

AFI Docs will be Sangari’s first festival experience, so he’s not quite sure what to expect. In fact, he hasn’t thought about it much — he hasn’t had time to. “I’ve been so busy with the film, finishing it, so it’s just started to hit me now,” he says. “I don’t have any plans. I’m just really excited to show [“Mudbloods”] to an audience and see a bunch of cool films.”

Sangari’s trying to take it cool when it comes to wheeling and dealing. “For me, it’s just about trying to share this story,” he says. “It sounds sort of silly, but I just want to share what [the Quidditch world] has created with as many people as possible. I don’t think too much beyond that.”

AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; Sat., 4:30 p.m., $14. (Silver Spring)
Goethe-Institut, 812 7th St. NW; Sun., 1:30 p.m., $14. (Gallery Place)

Steve James Steve James

The Closer

This is not Steve James’ first time at the rodeo. Or second. Or … well, don’t ask him to count. He guesses he’s been to “a couple of dozen” different festivals as a director, some multiple times. His films have appeared previously at AFI Docs (the last was “The Interrupters” in 2011) and he’s served as a judge for the competitive portion of the festival. And this year his film “Life Itself,” a documentary about the life and death of Roger Ebert, has a plum spot as the festival’s closing-night film.

James doesn’t have to worry too much about the business side of things, since “Life Itself” already has distribution (it opens in D.C. on July 4).

“We were very fortunate to get distribution coming out of Sundance, so it relieves that pressure,” says James, who got the world’s — and Ebert’s — attention with his 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.” “But I’ve had other times where the festival success really helped pave the way for the theatrical release.”

Getting a spotlight screening is “flattering and exciting,” James says. “But one of the things I like about AFI Docs [is that] even though it’s a competitive festival, that’s not the feeling. I understand the need for prizes and it’s always great to win prizes. I like it, too. But I like it when that doesn’t seem so important. It’s really about coming together out of the love for documentary films.”

It’s that love, James says, that younger directors should focus on. “If it’s literally your first time at a festival as a director, you should really be happy for yourself and proud that you made it,” he says. “It’s not easy getting any documentary made and it’s not easy getting into that festival. If you’re in competition, try as hard as you can to not get caught up in whether you’re going to win a prize. Really be happy that you’re in and you’re showing.”

National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW; Sat., 7:30 p.m., $14. (Gallery Place)

You Might Also Like

The Critic (Kristen Page-Kirby’s column on the death of Roger Ebert)

Showtime in Naptown (about the launch of Annapolis’ first film festival)

It may be the end for Filmfest DC, Washington’s celebration of international movies

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film, arts and events for Express.



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Lori McCue · June 19, 2014