by Marelise Voss
Filmfest DC, the region’s oldest, largest and only international film festival, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The festival will run April 14-24, screening 75 films from 35 countries, many of which cannot be seen anywhere else, not even Netflix. Founder and Director Tony Gittens shared his perspective from the Filmfest DC office in the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) in Van Ness.
Gittens was Professor of Media Services at UDC when he and some friends organized a series of films from developing nations and underserved cultures. Its success prompted a bigger dream of creating an international film festival for the nation’s capital.
“It took two years of work to figure out how to make it a festival,” says Gittens. “We screened films you couldn’t see otherwise, and in venues you wouldn’t be otherwise – we went into prisons, schools, and nursing homes.”
Filmfest DC launched in 1986 and had 5,000 moviegoers its first year. Now, Filmfest DC sees about 16,000 patrons annually.
“Every year is different. That’s what makes it interesting to do,” says Gittens. “People can cook at home, but they go to restaurants. It’s the same with going to the movies: People want to be with other people.”
Shirin Ghareeb is deputy director of Filmfest DC and director of its offshoot festival, Arabian Sights, itself celebrating 20 years. Gittens and Ghareeb travel the international film festival circuit every year seeking the best of world cinema.
“It all starts in May with Cannes, and then we go to Toronto in September and a few others,” says Gittens. “Shirin and I don’t just program films to our taste; we need to see the audience’s reaction. We hear the laughter, we get excited, and we want to share the experience with people.”
The programming committee narrows down 300-350 films to 75 for the final slate, organizing them into series: World View (best of world cinema), Justice Matters (social justice themes), The Lighter Side (comedies), Trust No One (thrillers), Rhythm On & Off Screen (global music), Shorts (short films), and Cine Cubano, a new and timely series of Cuban film.
“Our audience is loyal, and they care. They are very thoughtful. They want to discuss the film in the lobby afterward,” says Gittens. So the festival programs special events to add depth, including director appearances, question-and-answer sessions, discussion panels, Skype interviews, receptions, and dance performances before films.
Filmfest DC is renowned for presenting diverse cultures, voices, stories, and landscapes and for strong partnerships with embassies. This year, for example, viewers can see the world premiere of The Sweet Smell of Spring, a Tunisian comedy; Marshland, a thriller from Spain; Roaring Abyss, a film featuring Ethiopian music; Angry Indian Goddess, a Indian social drama focused on women’s issues; Nahid, a family drama from Iran; Tanna, an Australian love story; The Thin Yellow Line, a road film from Mexico; and Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, a documentary from Canada about Guantanamo Bay.
Filmfest DC has maintained this focus on programming to adapt to changes in the industry, technology, and the city. Says Gittens:
“Theaters used to be owned by local people. We screened at many small theaters like the Biograph, Circle Theaters, the Foundry, and the Jenifer. Now theaters are large corporations and the personal connection is lost. More and more people stream film via Netflix, web sites, and so on.
“We’re proud to show films you can’t find on Netflix. And Washington, DC is completely different than when we started. Downtown used to be nothing, and now one of our anchor venues, Landmark E Street, is there. Our other anchor is Mazza Gallerie. Both have the larger screens some of our films need, as well as Metro and parking.”
“We’ve survived,” says Gittens. “We have a strong slate again this year and we keep adapting. We’re still fresh and looking forward to the next 30 years.”
The full 2016 film lineup and schedule is coming soon at FilmfestDC.org.