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D.C. Powerhouse Duo Shor and Sitney Are Behind the Rise of DC/DOX Festival

After AFI DOCS’s departure, the capital city once again has a documentary festival.

DC/DOX 2024 graphic
DC/DOX 2024 graphic

The truth is more important than ever, and in the heart of democracy, the truth-telling of documentary filmmaking and exhibition must therefore continue. So it was that when AFI DOCS, a longtime D.C. institution, decamped for the west coast, Sky Sitney and Jamie Shor got to work on its replacement.

Shor, president of the D.C.-based PR Collaborative, and Sitney, a documentary film professor and director of the Film and Media Studies program at Georgetown University, had been intimately involved for years with AFI DOCS.  So applying their expertise and significant network for an entirely new festival was well within their wheelhouse.

“In recognition that there would no longer be this really important platform, it became very obvious and clear we wanted something to fill that void,” Sitney said recently of the inaugural DC/DOX, which took place June 15-18.  “So while we are certainly looking for DC/DOX to be considered a home for filmmakers [from] all around the world, we are rooted in D.C. and want to make sure it’s also reflecting the space that we’re in.”

The June event entailed such high-profile guests as Joan Baez, in town for the premiere evening’s screening of “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” held at the National Portrait Gallery.  The 82-year-old singing legend was joined for a post-screening Q&A alongside director Karen O’Connor and moderator Ann Hornaday from the Washington Post.  (And yes, Baez did belt out a few notes, much to the crowd’s delight.)

Joan Baez on stage at DC/DOX festival sitting in red chairs among interviewers and panelists laughing with microphone in hand
Joan Baez at Day 1 of DC/DOX 2023, Photo by Carolina Kroon

DC/DOX’s slate offered many other feature-length docs and shorts, many of which touched upon the importance of the nation’s capital to America’s identity.  This included “The Space Race” from National Geographic Documentary Films, which shares the stories of several Black astronauts.  

“[D.C.] is the home of NASA [and] this is where many of those wonderful gentlemen are based,” Sitney said of the astronauts profiled in “The Space Race.”  “[D.C.] is [also] the home of National Geographic, and [it was] a special opportunity to create this hometown screening.”

(Indeed, the astronauts were resplendent, in full uniform, at the closing-night reception held at the Riggs Hotel.  The reception was sponsored by National Geographic, another D.C. mainstay.)

To highlight homegrown talent, the inaugural session of DC/DOX also hosted a section called DC/FRAME, which Sitney and Shor curated in collaboration with HumanitiesDC specifically to examine topics she said would “resonate” with DMV audiences.  

“There’s a great irony that they had been calling their grant, unbeknownst to me, ‘DC Docs,’ and we were of course DC/DOX,” Sitney said of collaborating with HumanitiesDC.  “We realized why create two completely separate events that have the potential to celebrate the same thing.”  

The special series included three thematic iterations of short docs—each focusing the lens on a different aspect of life in the District, be it artistic spaces and the city’s cultural landscape (“Rhythms of Resilience”), the trauma faced by the unhoused in the heart of democracy (“Lost & Found”) or celebrating the sheer power of will of certain individuals who live here (“I Did It My Way”).  

“We essentially had 11 films that were all not just made by D.C. filmmakers but that actually included D.C. as a topic,” Sitney said, adding that she hopes the series shall continue in the years to come—which is likely given that DC/FRAME, which was free to attend, was completely full and the filmmakers behind the short films were there to answer post-screening questions.  (Disclosure: I moderated three filmmaker Q&As at DC/DOX this year, though none in the DC/FRAME series.)   

Filmmakers laughing as they answer questions onstage in front of DC/DOX graphics
Filmmakers answering audience questions at DC/DOX 2023, Photo by Carolina Kroon

In addition to her previous work as festival director at AFI DOCS—which partly evolved from Silverdocs—Sitney also co-created and served as co-director for D.C.’s Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium, which she shepherded for eight years.  

“It’s this kind of niche festival that explores the intersection of film and journalism—in particular documentary film and investigative journalism,” Sitney said of Double Exposure, adding that reporters increasingly are applying visual media to tell their stories and filmmakers are more often utilizing journalistic paradigms into their films as well.  “A film like ‘Joan Baez’ or ‘The Space Race’ would not be in Double Exposure as it’s really [for] films that are truly journalistic and really utilizing journalism,” she said.

Between Shor and Sitney, the duo had the experience and know-how to stage a brand-new festival in Washington, D.C.  However, their gusto and enthusiasm would need to be tempered with the practical realities of successfully bringing a new event in for a landing: locking in venues and sponsors, raising money, hiring a team, getting the word out, harnessing volunteers.  

Thanks to Shor’s heading up the PR Collaborative for many years in collaboration with AFI DOCS, the public relations apparatus was already in place.  Sitney and Shor busted out their rolodex of contacts throughout the city and on Capitol Hill, locking in such media partners as Nat Geo and The Post with whom they already had longstanding working relationships.  Sitney also recruited many of her own students at Georgetown to check in media and VIPs, take and tear individual screening tickets, assist with the festival’s social media apparatus, and even hand out printed programs to the festivals’ patrons.  (Sitney summed this operation up as “a startup with 30 years of experience and relationships under our wings.”)  

But more important than any such logistics, Sitney said, was the need to get the word out to city players, the international documentary community and cineastes here in the DMV: The D.C. documentary festival is back in a major way.

“It’s carrying forward a tradition that already existed, but I think it’s important to also clarify that’s kind of the starting point,” Sitney said of applying the previous blueprint she and Shor refined with AFI DOCS as the launchpad for DC/DOX.  “And I think this first year was proof of that belief that there is a desire and an enthusiasm for it.”

It’s a tradition Sitney imagines continuing for many years to follow.  In fact, for this interview the festival director spoke to me via phone during her much-deserved vacation in New England.  This dedication to touting DC/DOX even after the fact speaks to the need to, rather than resting on her and Shor’s laurels and significant accomplishments, already think about 2024 and beyond.

“There are many filmmakers who see D.C. as an extremely important stop for them,” she said.  “I’ve had a major role in creating and running festivals for quite frankly my entire professional life.  Jamie and I in our respective, distinctive spaces have been in this realm and building relationships for a very, very long time, [so] I don’t think it resembled the ‘typical’ first-year experience.  I think there was a lot of trust in both of us and a true desire to support what we were doing—a clarity of mission and a clarity of need.”

Audience at DC/DOX
DC/DOX entertaining its audience last year, Photo by Carolina Kroon

Furthermore, the festival’s success demonstrates the excitement people have for returning to crowded in-person events in the wake of the pandemic—and especially at the same time that many other documentary film festivals have ceased to be.  

“We [wanted] to create a space of hope…instead of grieving the loss of things,” said Sitney.  “There will always be a special home for D.C. filmmakers here.”  

Early Bird Passes are now available (until May 1st) for the second edition of DC/DOX, taking place June 13-16 in Washington, D.C.!

Follow DC/DOX online at https://dcdoxfest.com/, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dcdoxfest/ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/dcdoxfest/

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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