When the second annual Investigative Film Festival opens this week, there will be something missing. To wit, the program of eight documentary screenings, seven of which are Washington premieres, will not be supplemented by a splashy feature like the Academy Award-winning “Spotlight,” the dramatization of the Boston Globe’s exposé of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that opened the inaugural 2015 festival with a bang.
Instead, this year’s three-day celebration of film and reporting will get underway Thursday with “The Ivory Game,” an exploration of the trade in elephant tusks by Kief Davidson (“A Lego Brickumentary”) and Richard Ladkani (“The Devil’s Miner”). That 7 p.m. show, like all of the festival’s screenings, takes place at the McEvoy Auditorium of the National Portrait Gallery, and will be followed by a discussion between the film’s directors and two of its intrepid subjects: wildlife activist Andrea Crosta and Chinese journalist Hongxiang Huang.
Despite the lack of Hollywood sizzle, aficionados of what festival co-director Sky Sitney calls the “investigative instinct” will find plenty of variety among the programming, which also includes — under the festival’s umbrella designation of “Double Exposure” — a symposium. Participants include filmmakers whose works are not necessarily being shown in the festival — such as documentarians Kirsten Johnson and Craig Atkinson — but whose works will open in commercial theaters. Johnson’s “Cameraperson” and Atkinson’s “Do Not Resist” come out on Oct. 14. (The Thursday and Friday symposium will take place at the National Press Club.)
Along with the standard outraged muckraking, you’ll find the lighthearted offering of “Sour Grapes” (Saturday at 3 p.m.). Filmmakers Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas take a fascinating look at a recent scandal among wine connoisseurs in which a talented charlatan, Rudy Kurniawan, was revealed to have produced thousands of counterfeit bottles of rare, expensive vintages in his home kitchen, mixing cheaper wines together and printing old-looking — and occasionally misspelled — labels and then selling the concoctions at auction for exorbitant prices. Like the 2014 documentary “Art and Craft” about Mark A. Landis, a gifted art forger who fooled leading museum curators for years, “Sour Grapes” has much to say — beyond the intoxicatingly kooky subject matter — about human credulity, pretentious connoisseurship and the slippery nature of authenticity.
A more conventional investigative subject can be found in “Betting on Zero.” The film by Ted Braun (“Darfur Now”) follows hedge fund manager Bill Ackman in his crusade to lay bare the dietary-supplement company Herbalife as a pyramid scheme. As with the money managers in the 2015 fact-based feature “The Big Short,” Ackman hopes to profit big by betting on the collapse of the company, a gamble that at times seems potentially self-serving, as well as quixotic. It’s a film that works on more than one level: as a journalistic exposé of wrongdoing and a portrait of a man on what he characterizes as a moral mission.
The breadth and depth of offerings is entirely by design, according to Sitney, the former festival director of AFI Docs, and her co-director, journalist Diana Jean Schemo of the independent news organization 100 Reporters. As the festival evolves, both women say, it will change to incorporate more features along with the requisite documentaries, as well as more documentaries that expand the definition of journalism to incorporate not just explorations of public policy but poetic meditations on what Sitney calls “the ecstatic truth” (as opposed to simple facts).
That is to be expected, Schemo says, as the documentary medium — and this upstart festival built around it — mature. “Not only is the Investigative Film Festival going to evolve, but the field of investigative film is going to evolve too,” she says. “At the same time that we grow up, they’re growing up.”
Information, schedules and
tickets for the festival and
symposium are available at
Tickets to individual screenings
are $12.75-$15; a film pass is $75.
An all-access pass, available for
$250, includes breakfasts,
lunches, happy hours, screenings
and all symposium events.