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.
“It does something that no other film festival can do,” she said.
From its earliest days, the festival has featured documentaries that address political and policy issues, whether it was “Only in America” in 2003, a film that explored Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s selection in 2000 to be the first Jewish vice presidential nominee; “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” in 2006, about a long-shot Congressional candidate, Jeff Smith; “14 Women,” in 2007, about female U.S. Senators; or “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” in 2010, which tackled No Child Left Behind and the state of the education system.
For this year, the festival pulled off a two-fer in showing not just one, but two documentaries on the U.S. health care system. “The Waiting Room” and “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” screened the week before the Supreme Court voted to uphold the 2010 health care overhaul.
Seminal political documentary works are celebrated also, such as a retrospective in 2011 on filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker that featured two of his more famous films: 1993’s “The War Room,” which vaulted James Carville and George Stephanopoulos to near household name status, and “Al Franken: God Spoke,” which helped cue up the one-time “Saturday Night Live” writer’s successful 2008 Senatorial campaign in Minnesota.
Talk of the Town
And it’s not just political Washington that sees itself reflected on the Silver Theatre’s silver screen.
Silverdocs has made a point of showcasing films that are about the cultural and municipal life of Washington that goes on outside Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and the White House.
In 2009, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” had its world premiere at Silverdocs. The one-time Washington mayor and current city council member was on hand, arriving to cheers from one side of the sidewalk and jeers from the other, encapsulating his unique effect on the civic and cultural life of the capital city.
This attention to D.C. as a place people live, not just work, shows up in other films the festival has featured, including “Children Will Listen” in 2004, about public school kids in Washington staging a Stephen Sondheim production at the Kennedy Center; “930 F Street” in 2005, about the original 9:30 Club music venue; and “The Other City” in 2010, which explored Washington’s HIV and AIDS epidemic.
“We’ve always had certain films or filmmakers where there’s a direct connection,” said Jody Arlington, the festival’s longtime public relations guru.
And aside from what it offers Washington, the festival seems to have a little something for everyone, not just local activists and national power brokers, but punks and cricket aficionados, paraplegic rugby players and sushi chefs, aging sexual exhibitionists and New Orleans’ post-Katrina diaspora.
“We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into one definition of excellence,” Sitney said.
Others have noticed.
“It’s definitely one of the best festivals in the country. The programming is never filtered,” said Brian Liu, a documentary filmmaker and founder of Toolbox DC, a creative agency in Washington.