It’s hard to imagine a more fertile soil for film festivals than the Washington region, which before 1987 — the year Filmfest DC was born — had none. Now the DMV boasts dozens of them of them, large and small, from Annapolis to Middleburg and from Baltimore to Richmond, and celebrating such far-ranging topics as the environment, investigative journalism, Judaism, horror, linguistic diversity and cat videos. Countries represented by their own local film festivals include Iran, Korea, Germany and France. ¶ “Wait — whoa. . . .” ¶ That’s Tony Gittens, the founder and director of Filmfest DC, when told just how many festivals have been spawned in the 33 years since he started what is now the granddaddy of them all. His is an understandable reaction. But we’re here to help anyone who is overwhelmed by the options — as well as those who never heard of any of them. ¶ The spring film festival season is about to burst forth in Washington (yes, there’s a whole other season that kicks into high gear in the fall). Check out this guide to the best of the fests over the next few months, beginning with one that’s already in full swing.
Through March 8
D.C. Independent Film Festival
The D.C. Independent Film Festival, which celebrates the scrappy spirit of the independent auteur with screenings and how-to workshops, celebrates its 21st birthday this month with the tagline, “We have finally grown-up.” Fittingly, several screenings in this year’s lineup, which runs through March 8, feature post-movie drinks and discussions with filmmakers.
For instance, after a screening of the Christian film industry parody “Faith Ba$ed” (March 7 at 7:45 p.m.), festivalgoers can grab a beer with the movie’s writer and co-star, Luke Barnett. The son of a pastor, Barnett grew up in Clinton, Md., and attended Grace Brethren Christian School before moving to Southern California.
The film follows a pair of burnout friends (Barnett and Tanner Thomason, both formerly of Funny or Die) who, after considering the consistent box office success of Christian films, set out to make one. Barnett and “Faith Ba$ed” director Vincent Masciale conceived the idea a year and a half ago, when they were futilely pitching Hollywood producers on various TV and film premises.
“We were always curious about the Christian film industry because you would see these movies that, in terms of storytelling and production value, were just kind of terrible, and yet they would make $30 million,” says Barnett, 37. “Pitching our movie or pitching our TV show, we jokingly would be like, ‘We should just go make a Christian movie.’ ”
Although “Faith Ba$ed” was put together on a shoestring budget, it attracted such recognizable actors as Jason Alexander, Margaret Cho, Lance Reddick and David Koechner. But the subject matter proved provocative, as the movie’s production last year drew the attention of Fox News and Breitbart News, the latter of which referred to it as a “Christian-bashing comedy.” The vitriol in those outlet’s articles’ comment sections eventually inspired a self-deprecating teaser trailer in which Barnett and Thomason presented their favorite insults from readers.
“Clearly nobody had seen the movie since we hadn’t shot it, and they knew nothing about the filmmakers,” Barnett says. “People were just losing their minds over the idea of this movie.”
The film premiered in January at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and the producers are shopping it to distributors in hopes of a release later this year. Amid the controversy, Barnett emphasizes “Faith Ba$ed” is more of a good-natured ribbing of evangelical filmmaking than a scathing satire.
“The movie doesn’t bash Christianity,” Barnett says. “If anything, it’s about finding your purpose, and a lot of the same things these Christian movies strive to be about.”
Most screenings take place at the Carnegie Institution for Science, 1530 P St. NW. Tickets start at $11, not including a service charge. Festival passes are available from $55 to $145. dciff-indie.org. — T.F.
Environmental Film Festival
UPDATE: Due to concerns over the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Environmental Film Festival has cancelled all events scheduled for March 12-22, 2020. Staring the week of March 16, organizers plan to host a “virtual” festival in which select 2020 films — mostly shorts — may be viewed online via the festival website. A smaller version of the festival, featuring 2020 award winners and other films, will be held this fall. Other screenings will also be planned for later in the year.
Billed as the largest and longest running environmental-themed film festival anywhere, this citywide program — now in its 28th year and coming at a juncture that has never felt more critical — is all about building and consolidating community, according to director Chris Head. “One of our founding principles is to create a space for the environmental film community,” he says. What that means is showing environmental films, mostly documentaries, in contexts where you might not otherwise expect to find them: at art museums, embassies, libraries — even a hotel — and other counterintuitive venues.
What that doesn’t mean is converting climate change skeptics to the cause.
“ ‘Preaching to the choir’ is a phrase I’ve heard all 13 years I’ve been here,” says Brad Forder, the festival’s director of programming. Forder admits it can be a challenge to get the kind of films he finds in front of eyeballs that don’t necessarily want to see them.
But that’s not because the films are dry or strictly educational. This year’s offerings reflect an increased emphasis on what Forder calls “character-driven” stories, including “Flint” (March 14 at 7 p.m. at the National Geographic Society). Narrated by Alex Baldwin, the documentary centers on the response to the man-made health crisis, beginning in 2014, when Flint, Michigan’s drinking water source was changed to the Flint River, leading to, well, poisoning. The screening will include a discussion with director Anthony Baxter and others, including spoken-word artist and activist Mama Sol.
“Flint” is feature-length, but the Environmental Film Festival’s bread and butter is arguably its robust program of thematically related shorts, of which there has been an “uptick” this year, according to Head. Because it takes less time to make them, he explains, many of the 90 or so short films feel more urgent than ever.
Oh, and they’re all free, too. “We want to keep them accessible,” says Head.
Various venues. Most screenings $10-$13; many are free; tickets to special events are $35. dceff.org. — M.O.
April 23-May 3
In 2015, The Washington Post wrote that Filmfest DC, then gearing up for its 29th year in operation, had “teetered on the brink of oblivion recently.”
That wasn’t quite true, says festival founder and director Tony Gittens now, although he admits there had been a period of “heavy financial challenges” during the festival’s third decade in business. Those challenges have, he insists, been met. And the festival, which once sprawled across the city in venues too numerous to list here, and which was once known for its fancy — and expensive — opening-night party, has consolidated in two theaters and dialed back the partying. Micro-targeted marketing on social media — pitching a film about ballet, say, directly to the dance community — has helped save some advertising bucks as well.
That doesn’t mean, according to Gittens, that the festival — the city’s oldest, which Gittens says “showed all the others how it’s done” — is no longer pushing the envelope, even as its audience has grown from 5,000 in 1987 to several times that.
Last year’s fest included a 19-minute virtual-reality film at Ben’s Chili Bowl, “Traveling While Black,” about the 1950s travel guide known as the Green Book. Gittens says Filmfest DC will be back this year with another VR experience, about which he is tight-lipped.
One programming detail that Gittens can talk about is a theme that he says seems to be emerging, organically, from this year’s films (the final details of which are still being nailed down). That’s the theme of what he calls “women’s lives and women’s stories.”
And why might this synergy be happening? In a year when no female directors were nominated for Oscars, it’s refreshing to hear Gittens speculate that it could have something to do with the surprising wealth of female filmmakers that he expects to be included in this year’s program.
At Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW, and the AMC Mazza Gallerie 7, 5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Individual screenings $14. Festival passes will be available from $45 to $600. filmfestdc.org. — M.O.
UPDATE: Due to concerns over the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center has postponed the 2020 JxJ festival until a late summer or fall date, to be determined.
After coexisting as independent events for two decades, the Washington Jewish Film Festival and Washington Jewish Music Festival combined forces last year to become one interdisciplinary celebration, branded as JxJ. As artistic director Ilya Tovbis looks ahead to JxJ 2020, he has focused on internal research that indicated the film and music programs had, in fact, grown stronger together.
“What happened in the first year gives us great optimism and hope because it already clearly resonated with audiences,” Tovbis says. “We heard a lot of great feedback, and we saw audiences cross-pollinating between the two art forms.”
JxJ’s second go-round will primarily unfold at Cafritz Hall and the Goldman Theater — both housed in the newly renovated Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center — as well as Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and the AFI Silver Theatre. The lineup won’t be announced until late March, but Tovbis says movies from 20-plus countries will be represented, and will include filmmaker Q&As, panel discussions and thematically complementary musical performances.
“Our core mission is not simply to present film or to present music at a higher artistic level, though that’s a component of it,” Tovbis says. “Our mission, really, is to further and deepen understanding of Jewish culture and identity through the arts, whether that’s film or music. When they can bounce off one another and you can add another dimension, it just adds to our nuanced understanding.”
Various venues. Tickets to individual screenings are $13; $9 for matinees. Flex passes (good for up to five screenings) are $45. jxjdc.org. — T.F.
May 15-June 28
Korean Film Festival
On the heels of “Parasite’s” history-making win at this year’s Oscars, where Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s satire of class warfare won best picture, best international feature, best director and best original screenplay, Tom Vick — the curator of film at the Freer and Sackler galleries and founder, in 2004, of the Korean Film Festival — says he hopes to leverage the public’s increased interest in Korean cinema. “The idea is to look at ‘Parasite’ as the tip of the iceberg,” Vick says, “and give a very broad picture of what’s being done.” (Past festival highlights include “Stoker,” Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, starring Nicole Kidman.)
To that end, Vick will bring back “Parasite” — in a special black-and-white edition — as well as Bong’s “The Host,” a 2006 monster movie that first brought the director to international attention, and that, like “Parasite,” Vick calls a “crowd-pleasing movie with a political undertone.”
But this year’s festival will also use the power of “Parasite” to boost directors who are not yet household names, according to Vick. Confirmed offerings include Park Hye-reong’s “The Wandering Chef,” a documentary about a man who travels the countryside cooking meals made from native plants, moss, bark and other natural ingredients, and “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin,” a hybrid of documentary and fantasy by Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae about a woman who worked as a prostitute for 40 years at an American military base.
Vick expects to open the fest with “Intimate Strangers,” J.Q. Lee’s remake of “Perfect Strangers,” a 2016 Italian film about couples who play a parlor game in which they agree to share the contents of private texts and phone calls. Vick calls the psychological dramedy a “nail-biting train wreck” of a movie.
Such genre-bending variety is the hallmark of contemporary Korean cinema, Vick says. “Everybody has an idea of what an Iranian film looks like,” he says, adding that Korean film is a little harder to stereotype. “Bong is just the pinnacle of what is probably the biggest trend in Korean film these days: playing around with expectations.”
Freer Gallery of Art, Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW, where screenings are free; and the AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets to AFI screenings are $13; $11 for seniors, students, military personnel and members; $8 for ages 12 and under; and $10 for matinees. Detailed information on the festival will be available at asia.si.edu/films in early April. — M.O.
When asked what makes a great documentary, Michael Lumpkin just laughs. There are simply too many ways of telling a true story, according to the director of the AFI Docs film festival, which will return for its 18th year with a slate of about 80 nonfiction films. Lumpkin does, however, believe that there is one constant to the offerings of any program that wants to be seen as, to use his description, “the country’s leading documentary film festival.” That’s the idea of transparency.
Whether it’s a purely observational film, such as the work of Frederick Wiseman, or an opinionated rant along the lines of a Michael Moore movie, Lumpkin explains, the key is for a filmmaker to let the viewer know what the director is doing — and how they’re doing it — up front. “I’ve seen films where I get to a point, and I’m like, ‘You fooled me. You haven’t provided any reason why you should have fooled me or why I should appreciate the fact that you fooled me,’ ” he says. “And the film doesn’t work then.”
AFI Docs began life as SilverDocs — a nod to the festival’s original base of operations at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring — before changing its name in 2013 and moving downtown to such venues as the National Archives. And while it still uses the suburban venue for some screenings, Lumpkin believes the fest draws much of its strength from a proximity to the halls of power. “One way that AFI Docs is different from such festivals as Hot Docs [in Toronto] is certainly its location,” he says. “Being in Washington — whether it’s an issue or nonissue doc — there can be meaning in the setting.”
Case in point: last year’s opening night film at the Archives, “True Justice,” about the work of crusading attorney Bryan Stevenson to create fairness in the criminal justice system for people — often poor and black — who have been charged with crimes. “Because of the fact that we were in the building where all of our founding documents are actually housed,” says Lumpkin, “you make a connection between the work that Stevenson does and the building you’re sitting in.”
Lumpkin calls such connections “conversations,” and he says they happen all the time at AFI Docs: between movies, between their subjects — some of whom are brought in for cross-film panel discussions — and between what’s happening on screen and the zeitgeist.
Among the roster of this year’s films, which is still taking shape, look for storytelling that grapples with such topical themes as social media, the anniversary of women’s suffrage and the ongoing presidential campaign.
Various venues. Ticket prices had not been set as of press time. docs.afi.com. — M.O.
And mark your calendars for these upcoming festivals:
AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring. silver.afi.com.
Annapolis Film Festival, March 26-29
Various venues, Annapolis. annapolisfilmfestival.com.
Archietecture and Design Film Festival, March 26-29
National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. go.nbm.org/adff.
French Film Festival, March 26-29
Byrd Theatre, 2908 W. Cary St., Richmond. frenchfilmfestival.us.
Bethesda Film Fest, March 27-28
Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. bethesda.org.
Maryland Film Festival, April 29-May 3
Parkway Theatre, 5 W. North Ave., Baltimore. mdfilmfest.com.