It was when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was spotted exiting the National Portrait Gallery that it became obvious that the film festival previously known as Silver Docs had changed.
Public figures have been a part of the documentary showcase's world at the Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md., since it started in 2003. Former Vice President Al Gore helped keynote the 2006 festival, and former Washington Mayor Marion Barry walked the red carpet in 2009 for the movie about his life, "The Nine Lives of Marion Barry."
But a sitting Cabinet member lends extra heft and Holder's appearance helped ground the rechristened festival, AFI Docs presented by Audi, in Washington. That was something the organizers went to great pains to communicate, saying it was a return for AFI to the capital, where President Lyndon Johnson had signed legislation in 1967 creating it.
"In the words of Mel Brooks, AFI is like the police. It's there to protect and serve. I'm not sure that's what President Johnson had in mind, but I digress," AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale said at Wednesday's opening night show of "Letters to Jackie" at the Newseum. It was a light comment in his introductory remarks, but the theme of returning AFI to Washington was a point Gazzale hit repeatedly in public comments at the festival.
In its previous years in Silver Spring, the festival gained a reputation as a cozy, well-curated haven for a special subset of filmmakers: documentarians. It was possible to see movies about climate change and Marion Barry, yes, but it was also a place you could meet struggling filmmakers who had put together strange and delightful movies about as broad a palette of issues as imaginable, from copyright law to brain surgery to the 9:30 Club here in D.C.
This year's lineup, particularly the movies screened in Penn Quarter, were polished and informative, and both downtown and the Silver Theater buzzed during the festival's four day run. But the Penn Quarter films also were aimed directly at the D.C. political nexus, with all the baggage that comes with that.
Holder was at the Portrait Gallery to attend the June 21 screening of "Gideon's Army," a movie about public defenders. Also showing that evening was Jose Antonio Vargas' "Documented," about the former Washington Post reporter's status as an undocumented immigrant, the politics of immigration policy and Vargas' own family history.
For a moment, before being informed that Holder was there for "Gideon's Army," the question popped up as to whether the nation's top prosecutor might be there to confront Vargas.
Vargas, after all, has called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials personally to ask if he has been targeted for deportation. And Holder is the top law enforcement official in an administration that has overseen a record number of deportations.
There was nothing of the sort afoot. And the screening of "Documented" and the discussion afterward went off without a hitch.
But such uneasiness comes with the territory when the territory is the nation's political capital.