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Success Story

Courtesy Emma Howells
After recently wrapping up its 10th year of programming, the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs film festival has become a mainstay in the Washington, D.C., political and arts culture. The festival always features documentaries that address political and policy issues.

The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs documentary film festival just wrapped up its 10th year of programming, and its recent lineup of films shows that the operation based in Silver Spring, Md., has retained its quirky pedigree and its penchant for addressing some of Washington’s thorniest political issues.

“What I think is particularly fruitful is our proximity to D.C.,” said Sky Sitney, Silverdocs’ festival manager. “Silver Spring creates an unexpected, campus-like feel that we couldn’t necessarily get in D.C.” or other festival venues. And that “slight distance” from the capital allows the festival and its distinct but overlapping audiences — filmmakers and the film industry, policymakers and Mid-Atlantic filmgoers — to retain their identities even while exploring the broader political and cultural life of the United States.

The inaugural Silverdocs festival launched in June 2003 at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring, just a short time removed from the theater’s March opening. Success was anything but guaranteed, particularly in an urban area that had been moribund for years.

“When we first founded [it], we asked, ‘Who needs another film festival?’ But there wasn’t a documentary film festival in the nation’s capital. And we had these two media giants, AFI and Discovery, and we were just ready to go,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, the initial festival director who is now director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University’s Center for Innovative Media.

Seavey, who went on to be the festival’s executive producer, said the early years were sometimes lean and the festival staff had to rely on some “stunts” to spread the word. 

As an example, she cited the festival’s securing permission in 2003 to shut off Georgia Avenue so it could set up a skateboarding half-pipe for Tony Hawk, who was there to promote his “Boom Boom HuckJam Tour.” After that screening, he performed a live demo in downtown Silver Spring.

“Now there are lines down the street” for premieres and other high-profile films, Seavey said, some of which have opened before, some of which may never open and some of which might be headed for television or other venues such as video on demand. 

Center of Power

But as the festival grew into its own, Washington power brokers took notice and helped spur it on.

“When I saw [former Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor pull up and get out of a limo, I knew we had arrived,” Seavey said. That kind of proximity to the nation’s political power center is something other festivals can’t match.

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