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The DC Film Festival Will Go On This Year, Albeit A Little Differently

by Eric Althoff

Last spring’s D.C. International Film Festival was among the last major in-person fetes prior to lockdown. Even as nervous planners nixed SXSW and other events, Maria Datch, chair of the board and director of international relations for DCIFF, and her team pressed on to make 2020’s iteration happen.
“Last year’s crew specifically thanked us, saying, ‘My film is not going to be seen anywhere live. You were it,’” Datch said of the “before” times.

Accordingly, this year DCIFF will be a hybrid affair, with many screenings and panel events taking place online, along with a few in-person events as capacity and social distancing restrictions allow. Several live events will be held at the Arlington Drafthouse in Virginia, where it is more feasible to space out patrons.

“Even though we have made a real effort to not do much outside of D.C. before…it’s so important for these filmmakers to be able to interact with an audience and to see their work on screen, especially after the last year,” Datch said.

Courtesy of DCIFF

DCIFF has been bringing indie filmmakers to the capital since 1999, and in years past has helped budding cineastes not only show their projects to a D.C. audience but connect them with potential distributors, which is one of the festival’s primary aims, Datch said. And it’s also a way for people to share in film as a collective cultural narrative—one of the goals of festival executive director and programmer Deirdre Evans-Pritchard, whose background is in anthropology.

Past years’ high-wattage guests have included German actor-filmmaker Jean-Marc Barr, Australian director Phillip Noyce (“The Quiet American”) as well as George Pelacanos, a writer on the Baltimore-set series “The Wire.” This year will still have panel discussions and VIPs dropping in, but mostly from screens in faraway zip codes. Programs for high school students have already taken place, with the bulk of official festival events running March 30 to April 8.

Other screening venues besides the Arlington Drafthouse may be certain of D.C.’s many embassies—with safety measures in place. Even an unlikely location or two will put a screen up.

“There is a film that we really, really want to take place in a church; it’s just meant to be seen in a church,” Datch teased.

"Leave The Door Open" - Courtesy of DCIFF

Datch said the festival takes seriously its “international” label. In addition to documentaries and narratives from within the United States, this year’s crop of movies includes animated shorts from Argentina and the Czech Republic, as well as full-length narrative features from China, Germany and Korea.

And much closer to home, there’s the documentary “Leave the Door Open,” which chronicles how the sons of the Turkish ambassador to America during the Jazz Age learned to appreciate the music of Black D.C. when the city was still very much segregated. (The film says that native son Duke Ellington’s first public performance in D.C. was in fact at the Turkish ambassador’s residence.)

Then there is the documentary “Keeper of the Fire,” about one of the last Beat poets, and fun fictional narratives such as the creepily effective horror short “Household Demons.”

Datch said being in the U.S. capital allows festival programmers to connect with various embassies to seek out a variety of voices.

“We really try to foster an international section of screenings as well as work with different art councils,” she said, adding that premieres in years past have taken place at the embassies of Canada, Australia and Mexico.

Also, DCIFF has consistently worked with Capitol Hill’s “Entertainment Caucus,” which aims to study and advocate on behalf of issues that affect the arts scene. DCIFF connected visiting filmmakers to specific members of Congress who advocate on behalf of issues such as rules for filming with drones and crowdfunding. (Unsurprisingly, past years of the festival have featured many politically oriented documentaries.)

“We try to make it a part of the festival because of the fact that we are in D.C., [so] we’ve got that unique opportunity,” Datch said.

"Keeper of the Fire" - Courtesy of DCIFF

This year’s panel discussions will include how “best” to scare people on screen, and with a limited budget. Discussions will inevitably also address how filmmakers can get their films seen by large audiences whenever it is again safe to do so.

Fellow DCIFF board member Peter Voth—who happens to share the same home address as Datch—said that the past year’s pandemic hasn’t so much changed how films are exhibited but accelerated trends that were already present thanks to home-based viewing platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. But film festivals do have an advantage.

“The one thing we can do that Netflix or Amazon can’t is get you the filmmaker sitting in front of an audience, hearing and seeing and feeling their reaction,” Voth said. “Audiences get to not merely experience film as just another piece of content that is longer than a cat video, but to see film as a piece of art, a labor of love, a thing that is made by a person who has ideas—and someone you can interact with.”

DCIFF is transitioning from labeling itself a film festival to becoming the “DC Independent Film Forum.” That way, events and panels and screenings will take place the entire year through, not merely at the annual festival.

Courtesy of DCIFF

Said Voth: “Moving to that concept allows us to move further away [from] putting butts in seats at a movie [theater to being] more an organization that tries to support filmmakers in a variety of different ways, whether it’s having them interacting at a festival or educational opportunities.”

DCIFF has also made a point to get filmmakers together in the same room. Datch says from these experiences have been planted the seeds for future collaborations.

“We’ve had one or more films germinate at DCIFF at cocktail hour with filmmakers knocking ideas back and forth,” she said, adding that face-to-face interactions invariably help this process.

But even though pressing the flesh won’t be possible this year, Datch maintains that technology nonetheless allows filmmakers and film lovers to interact in ways never before possible—especially after a year of relying on such tools for daily contact with even friends and family outside one’s own household.

“We are all global citizens at this point, especially artistically,” she said. “People aren’t being held back by international borders anymore because they don’t have to be doing something in person to collaborate on a film.”

In fact, she points to a DCIFF project from a few years ago called “Train Station,” in which two dozen directors each had a piece of a script to interpret. The final product was pieced together such that it wasn’t quite an anthology nor a serial, but was something entirely new.

“It was completely democratic,” Datch said of that unique collaboration. “We have been able to foster that collaborative nature and interaction of these filmmakers with each other.”

However the show goes on this year, even without red carpets or swanky cocktail parties, DCIFF promises to still be artistically fulfilling. And all of the films will be available to stream virtually for those who buy festival passes.

“We’re all about trying to support those people who are making art,” said Voth, adding that he and the other board members all volunteer their time. “The goal is not to make a profit, but to make sure that the people producing the films that we love are able to keep growing the industry.”

With a hint of a self-assured note in his voice, Voth added: “This will be our first virtual festival, so please be patient.”

More information about the in-person and virtual DC Independent Film Forum Festival and schedule, please visit dciff-indie.org

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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 Alexandria, Virginia, with his fiancee, Victoria.

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