On a warm June afternoon, AFI Docs festival director Sky Sitney hurries into the L Street offices of Bracy Tucker Brown & Valanzano. “Sorry I’m late,” she apologizes, blaming the traffic in Silver Spring. Sitney, the guiding force of one of the country’s premier documentary showcases, exchanges some small talk with festival press manager Jody Arlington and advocacy consultant Michael Bracy, and then the three get to work. The task at hand is reviewing plans for this year’s Policy Engagement Program, in which documentary filmmakers will be invited to discuss the subjects of their films with lawmakers, political appointees and organizations. Soon, the group turns its attention to a special pilot project that will offer five filmmakers one-on-one meetings with congressional staffers. Both are new features representative of a seismic shift in the festival’s direction.
Bracy fills Sitney and Arlington in on his conversations with the filmmakers, noting wryly that he still hasn’t found six hours to actually watch the movies, which deal with criminal justice (“Lost for Life”), traumatic brain injury (“The Crash Reel”), health and education (“Best Kept Secret”) and immigration (“I Learn America”). When talk turns to “Gideon’s Army” — a documentary about public defenders — Arlington notes that the filmmakers “probably don’t need our help.”
Sitney, who’s been quiet for most of the meeting, pipes up. “While this is about helping, it’s not just a charitable program,” she says. “It’s about identifying films that can change the dialogue around an issue, as well as films of the kind of quality we want to be connected with at the festival.” A few moments later, Sitney reminds her colleagues of the need to measure the engagement program’s impact. “We should think through how we want to track the success of the connections we’re building over time,” she says. “We should [conduct surveys] immediately, then a few months later, and then even a year later, when we’re planning the next one.”
Since arriving in Washington to program the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival eight years ago, Sitney admits that she’s found herself talking as much about issues and impact as more esoteric filmmaking concerns. “It’s definitely been a huge evolution for me,” she says after the meeting with Bracy. “It’s a whole other world that has turned out to intersect much more spectacularly with film and with documentary in particular than I ever would have imagined.”
Politics has taken on even higher stakes this year, both as subject matter and subtext. Just two months ago, the American Film Institute announced that Discovery Channel had dropped out as the presenting sponsor of Silverdocs and that the festival would be given a new name, a new chief sponsor and a new geographical center. Now called AFI Docs and presented by Audi, the festival will expand this year from its historic hub at AFI’s Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to downtown Washington. A pared-down slate of 53 nonfiction films will play at the Goethe Institut, the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Archives and the Newseum, where the festival will get underway Wednesday with the world premiere of “Letters to Jackie,” about the people who wrote condolence letters after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The professional development conference that drew filmmakers from across the country to Silver Spring has been replaced with the policy engagement program and “Catalyst Sessions” addressing such questions as “What Is an American?” and “What Is the Future of Education?” Now spanning a mere four days (down from a week), AFI Docs will present a leaner, more concentrated program while facing the question that has animated just about every conversation about the transition: Will audiences come?
At the center of it all is Sitney, who at 42 exudes the openness and enthusiasm of someone half her age even as she juggles new programs and venues, disgruntled Silverdocs fans, stepped-up involvement by AFI’s home office in Los Angeles, and her own roiling anxiety and excitement. “There are certainly challenges, but there are challenges inherent in any transition, not the least the time frame,” Sitney notes carefully. “We’re executing a much more ambitious event . . . in half the time. It’s been very reassuring to receive the enthusiastic response from one of the constituents I care about the most, which is the filmmaking community.”
That Sitney is getting support from filmmakers should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with her tenure at Silverdocs and now AFI Docs, during which time she has become one of the most beloved and respected figures on the festival circuit. Lauded as much for her aesthetic judgment as for her warm, even-keeled temperament, Sitney earns near-universal praise for turning what might have been a diverting but inessential suburban festival into a crucial destination on the documentary circuit. “The timing of [Silverdocs] was always so bad,” says director A.J. Schnack, whose films “We Always Lie to Strangers” and “Caucus” will be at AFI Docs this year. “It was after Cannes and it overlapped with the big documentary festival in Sheffield. But the big thing the festival always had going for it was Sky.”
In many ways, Sitney’s success derives from the fact that film is in her blood. The daughter of P. Adams Sitney, who co-founded the Anthology Film Archives in New York with a group of avant-garde filmmakers that included Jonas Mekas, Sky remembers taking the subway every weekend from her mother’s neighborhood on the Upper West Side to what would later be known as SoHo, where she would tend the metal box that stood in for a cash register at Anthology, playing behind the screen while the movies unspooled. “I was born into a world in which film was upheld as this beautiful thing to be revered, but also to have a playfulness around it.”
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence and working briefly for independent film companies, Sitney went to graduate school in cinema studies at New York University, where she studied with anthropology professor Faye Ginsburg, whose students made and studied ethnographic documentary films; she was also hired to program the Newport International Film Festival. Sitney credits her graduate studies and that early stint at Newport for solidifying her interest in curating. “When the opportunity arose at Silverdocs, I didn’t know I necessarily wanted to make a career out of documentary film,” she recalls. “But immediately upon taking the job, I loved the focus.”
Nina Gilden Seavey was executive producer of Silverdocs in 2005 and was on the team that hired Sitney, who by that time had programmed the New York Underground Film Festival and had co-founded the Fresh Film series at her father’s theater. “I’m an unabashed Sky Sitney lover,” says Seavey, who now heads the Documentary Center at George Washington University. “Most festival programmers are unapproachable, they are frequently full of themselves, they revel in their own wonderful artistic creativeness. And Sky is none of that. . . . She has a certain kind of quiet confidence that allows her not to be egomaniacal and have the program be about her, as opposed to being what it should be, which is a reflection of the filmmakers.”
Seavey notes that Sitney “thinks very deeply about film” within a documentary form that too often skates by on the strength of compelling stories or outsize characters. For every issue-oriented film at AFI Docs this year, for example, viewers can see a film as experimental as “The Act of Killing” — in which Indonesian death squad leaders reenact their crimes as scenes from movies — or the animated cinematic essay “Approved for Adoption.” “I still try to prioritize the art form,” Sitney says. “Even if it’s an important social message, I expect it to be articulated through an artistic eye.”
Sitney’s commitment has allowed even the harshest naysayers to give AFI Docs the benefit of the doubt, as what had grown into a bustling, camplike confab of kibitzing filmmakers and sold-out screenings in Silver Spring threatens to disperse into something far less intimate in D.C.’s Penn Quarter. (Everything except opening night, closing night and gala screenings will be shown in Silver Spring as well as in the District through the run of the festival.)
“I grew up in Silver Spring and my organization is based here, so I loved having Silverdocs in my back yard,” says Erica Ginsburg, executive director of the nonprofit Docs in Progress. “But I also see the festival expanding into the capital of our nation — and not leaving Silver Spring behind — as opening it up in other ways to make more of an impact than it already has. . . . There’s been this feeling that the politically focused or issue-focused films are going to get more attention. . . . But they show a lot of films that don’t necessarily have that same kind of political feel, they’re just wonderful visual stories. And I think that aesthetic, which really links to Sky, has not been lost.”
Sitney herself understands the ambivalence — if not outright hostility — that some longtime Silverdocs fans are experiencing. For her own part, she hates to lose the filmmakers’ conferences and expresses cautious hope that they might return one day, albeit in a different form. “There’s a lot of suspicion, curiosity and grief over a perception of the loss of something that was very beloved,” she observes. “It’s a great unknown.”
“You know, I’ve been part of this festival for eight years, so I have a deep, deep sense of its past and recognition of what it has served,” she says. “I love the idea of it growing, but I also hope to preserve the accomplishments that we’ve had.”
presented by Audi, runs Thursday through Sunday. Call 301-495-6720 or visit afi.com/afidocs.