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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 Washingtons 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 couldnt 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 Institutes Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring, just a short time removed from the theaters 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 wasnt a documentary film festival in the nations 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 Universitys Center for Innovative Media.

Seavey, who went on to be the festivals 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 festivals 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 OConnor pull up and get out of a limo, I knew we had arrived, Seavey said. That kind of proximity to the nations political power center is something other festivals cant match.

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 Liebermans 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: 1993s 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 writers successful 2008 Senatorial campaign in Minnesota. 

Talk of the Town

And its not just political Washington that sees itself reflected on the Silver Theatres 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 Washingtons HIV and AIDS epidemic.

Weve always had certain films or filmmakers where theres a direct connection, said Jody Arlington, the festivals 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 dont want to pigeonhole ourselves into one definition of excellence, Sitney said. 

Others have noticed.

Its 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.

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