AFI Docs, held annually in Silver Spring, MD and downtown DC, is regarded as the nation’s premier film festival for documentaries. Programmer Andrea Passafiume talks about highlights and standouts from 2014’s fest, which wrapped up last weekend.
Teresa: Why is it so important to have a festival devoted to strictly documentaries?
Andrea: I think it’s important because there are so many documentary filmmakers out there and we specialize in documentaries because frankly, there are just so many incredible stories out there waiting to be told and we want to support the filmmakers who are dedicated to the art of documentary storytelling and getting these real life stories to the public in very entertaining forms, forms that are able to be consumed like the riveting dramatic films that they are, just like narratives.
I agree and thank you for giving docs a special forum. I love documentaries as both an art form for entertainment and an educational and informative pieces that can spur action and change. What can you tell me about filmmaker Christine O’Malley stepping in as Program/Festival Director this year?
She has been wonderful, stepping in as our long time director Sky Sitney resigned. Of course, we were very sorry to lose Sky, but Christine stepped in and provided tremendous leadership in the midst of a tricky time, because it was right as things were about to kick off for the festival. She kept direction very focused and helped pull together a very successful festival across the board. We had a great team and were grateful to have her leadership.
You’ve haven’t really had a change in locale, but more of an expansion, in the past couple of years. How has that enhanced the experience?
Last year was the first year we expanded our campus into the downtown DC area in addition to our AFI Silver Campus in Silver Spring. Last year, which we expected, was a transitional year, to kind of figure out how that was going to work an iron out the rough spots. This year, we did a little bit of tweaking, we learned so much from last year. We able to use that knowledge to streamline the venue situation. They were located much closer to each other. We had a festival hub at Penn Social where filmmakers could go and meet and greet. I think overall this year had an excellent energy and a festival feeling, if you will. There is always a feeling of connectedness, being at a film festival and being out and about with other filmmakers that we were able to successfully get back in touch with this year.
What was your feedback from the filmmakers in attendance?
We had overwhelmingly positive feedback. I think they appreciated having the films show at really great venues, both at the Silver, which is always great, but also at the Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center offered great showcases for the films. To be able to get to all of them easily with easy transport, and have them near the Monaco, which was the filmmakers’ hotel, I think made a great difference.
What filmmakers featured were you particularly excited to have?
We are happy to have all of the filmmakers show up for their films because that’s exactly what a film festival can offer that just a regular screening can’t, which is an actual opportunity to chat with the filmmaker. Some of our more notable filmmakers that attended this year and participate in discussions, were Joe Berlinger, who came to support his film, Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger; Doug Block came to support 112 Weddings, and Amir Bar-Lev came to support Happy Valley. We also had some great subjects show up, like Caroll Spinney.
Yes, he showed up [in support of I Am Big Bird] and he brought Oscar the Grouch with him, which was awesome. People went crazy for Oscar and Caroll, and he got a standing ovation, which was great. Another notable guest was James “The Amazing” Randi, who was the subject of our Audience Award winner, An Honest Liar, which is a film I love. He’s just this incredible 85 year-old magician dedicated to debunking frauds, those who use magic to trick people and bilk them. People went crazy for him.
One last subject to mention that showed was Bronx Obama, Louis Ortiz, who is not famous by himself, he is a dead ringer for President Obama. To have him running around the streets of DC was hilarious and everybody, all of our guests and filmmakers, wanted their picture taken with him. He played it to the hilt and was even accompanied by two “secret-service” type companions who went everywhere with him.
You mentioned that An Honest Liar was a favorite. Any other personal standouts for you?
So many! I absolutely loved our program this year. I love The Overnighters, a terrific story about a town in North Dakota that is dealing with a great number of down on their luck men that swarm to the town to find work in the oil industry, but unfortunately it causes a big rift within the community and the church that houses them. It goes on all sorts of twists and turns. Dinosaur 13 is an incredible story that unfolds like a great page turning novel about a tough city battle that ensues over an incredible T-Rex fossil that is found in the South Dakota hills. Dior and I, was this absolutely beautiful film that takes place in the fashion industry about the House of Dior. It’s not just about fashion, but about anyone’s passion for work with incredible attention to detail, and the collaborative nature of that sort of work. They are stand outs for me, but I loved so many.
It’s probably a little early for this question, but any thoughts for next year?
Yes, obviously we are just coming of this festival, but the intention is to continue to listen to our guests and listen to our filmmakers about what’s working and what’s not working, tweak the program, and be on the lookout for fantastic films for next year.