Highlights from the Inaugural Edition of DC/DOX
“It’s so great that this festival is back again!” In one form or another, I kept hearing that phrase between June 15 to 18 at DC/DOX, a brand-new festival in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Sky Sitney, DC/DOX’s co-founder, was also a founder of the 1990s-born Silverdocs, a partnership between American Film Institute and Discovery Networks mourned by the entire doc community after it passed. Silverdocs morphed into AFI Docs when Discovery bailed, but AFI Docs was run out of AFI’s Los Angeles office and often seemed out of touch with DC. Meanwhile, Sitney co-founded a mini-festival, Double Exposure, with investigative journalism organization 100 Reporters. Eventually, AFI Docs folded, leaving a neat little hole in the festival schedule. Now, Double Exposure continues post-Sitney, DC/DOX rises from the ashes of AFI Docs and Sitney has a dynamic partner in DC political public-relations wizard Jamie Shor of PR Collaborative.
The inaugural DC/DOX was manageably small, mostly featuring films new to DC audiences that had probably already debuted elsewhere. Many had distributors, some of which were also sponsors of the festival. The selections were a notable mix of art, culture and social relevance, often all in the same film. Packed screenings testified to the fact that DC audiences aren’t driven by world-premiere status. Celebrities attended: Joan Baez was welcomed with a standing ovation at the opening night film, Joan Baez: I Am a Noise (directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor) and the mysterious and idiosyncratic former video store owner Yongman Kim actually answered questions at sessions of Kim’s Video (directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin). The festival boasted two other reasons to show up: elegantly curated shorts sessions alongside a set of panels and workshops that presented both interesting topics and afforded opportunities for people to network with fellow filmmakers, distributors and potential funders. With screenings held throughout the Smithsonian mall area, the Saturday panels at the boutique Eaton Hotel were prime networking time.
Several of my favorite features were both highly personal works of art as well as powerful social statements. Richland, by non-fiction filmmaker Irene Lusztig, combines archival material and interviews with residents of Richland, Washington, a city built to house workers in the government-run Hanford nuclear production site. It’s an extraordinary interior portrait of a deadly way of life: Hanford produced plutonium for atomic bombs at a location that’s now a Superfund site, the largest environmental cleanup effort in the U.S. The central area is uninhabitable and will be for tens of thousands of years.
With producer Sara Archambault (Riotsville, USA), Lusztig creates a complexly empathetic experience that plunges us into memory and consequences. It begins with volunteers replanting native grasses in polluted soil and ends with a Japanese-American artist, descended from survivors of the Nagasaki bombing, putting the finishing touches on an installation. In between, we meet residents who have the fondest memories of an idyllic childhood. They also have horrifying accounts of family cancer and early death. The film asks pointed questions: Why is this town so blindingly white? Why is it so hard to change the school’s logo from a mushroom cloud superimposed on the word “Bombers”? What counts as cleanup? It leaves the answers to us, and to the residents left with the problems. Richland, it turns out, is an American town that looks hauntingly familiar in many ways.
Queendom, by Russian artist Agniia Galdanova, lets us walk in the very stylized shoes of Gena, a nonbinary artist who’s 22, confused, stubborn, scared and fabulous. The sternly observational approach works with the extraordinary access and deep mutual trust Galdanova won. Gena’s art is body-centered—wildly improbable, hugely three-dimensional, wearable installations. Just walking down the street is a direct challenge to the Russian authorities, which they invariably take up–and always to Gena’s apparent surprise. Gena’s provincial Siberian grandparents are her only lifeline, and their best answer is “join the army.” They seem to think this is a phase, and they say that with love. The neighbors say other things. Where does a performative trans artist go in Russia today? And when they get there, will they still be all alone? There is a lot of courage shown in this film, not least by the filmmaker. It’s also a devastatingly revealing glimpse of Russian culture and politics.
The Body Politic, directed by Gabriel Francis Paz Goodenough, is a compelling, brisk, verité look at Brandon Scott’s mayoralty. If you watched Marilyn Ness’ Charm City, about several Baltimore grassroots leaders of social and economic change, you already met him as a city council member. (Ness executive-produced this film.) Scott is a survivor of the over-policed, underemployed and openly racist environment that Baltimore’s BIPOC young people know too well. As mayor, he’s facing the brutal reality of a murder rate that’s top in the nation and inching up during the pandemic. He’s also determined to walk away from a book ‘em/jail ‘em approach to bring peace to the city. The charismatic, hard-working Scott faces Republican governor Larry Hogan, who seems to love the tough-on-crime approach, and residents who are scared everyday. Scott’s able to show that his Safe Streets programs and social interventions work when they get the necessary investments. But he knows so much more is needed, and that it can’t come from the city alone.
Will he have enough time and win enough support to make it work? The filmmakers manage to capture extraordinary scenes of political standoffs and negotiation, heartbreak and improbable triumph. They make a great case for an approach that’s been working around the country—but also faces huge blowback and resistance.
Return of the Public Affairs Documentary
By the 1980s, thanks to the Reagan-era axing of meaningful public interest requirements, the broadcast network public-affairs documentary faded into the background, with only public broadcasting holding down the genre. But several showcased projects at DC/DOX suggest a revival with spirit. At ABC News Studios, Dawn Porter raided archives to make The Lady Bird Diaries. Who knew that the First Lady of the Johnson Administration kept an audio nightly diary, anyway? Also, who knew that Lady Bird Johnson, with her “beautification” programs, was sneakily introducing an environmentally-conscious policy agenda? Porter also made the superbly executed Deadlocked, a 60-minute doc (part of a four-part Showtime series) on the slow rise of the kind of court that could strike down abortion rights. MTV brought the feature Pay or Die, directed by Rachael Dyer and Scott Alexander Ruderman. It’s a handsomely-made indictment of America’s drug policy, showing the repercussions of price-gouging insulin through three suffering families by using well-established tropes. Geeta Ghandbir and Samantha Knowles’s 30-minute HBO/New York Times short How We Get Free, about the abomination of cash bail, features an activist who wins an election to become a state representative. Public TV’s Breaking the News (an ITVS production by Heather Courtney, Princess Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez) tracks the growth of The 19th News, woman-centered journalism that has been breaking news and collaborating with major outlets that otherwise would have missed significant stories.
There is plenty more material out there. For instance, look at the eight-minute The Threat, Paul Lovelace’s profile of Daryl Johnson, a Homeland Security expert who desperately tried to mobilize U.S. official attention on right-wing terrorism inside the U.S. His report surfaced briefly until immense pressure made the Obama administration back off. Entitlement, and of course the January 6 insurrection, ensued.
There were so many gems among the shorts that it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight. There’s Luchina Fisher’s The Dads, a 10-minute visit with a group of guys guys on an upscale fishing retreat, talking about…supporting their trans kids. It’s been picked up by Netflix and I imagine it will be one of those lightbulb moments for many. Adamu Chan’s 40-minute What These Walls Won’t Hold brings us stories from San Quentin prison. Jeremy Workman and Rob Lyons revisit a precedent-setting moment of political courage a half-century ago in the 20-minute Deciding Vote, when a New York assemblyman sacrificed his career by standing on principle, in his conservative district, to support women’s reproductive rights.
Anthony Ing gives us a “Where’s Waldo?” experience that will warm every working actor’s heart in Jill, Uncredited. In 18 delightful, uncommented minutes, we get ever-so-brief scenes from Jill Goldson’s long career as a background actor. It takes a minute to figure out what we’re looking for, then it becomes a game to try to find her—and it’s only at the end that we find out this is less than 5% of all the films she’s worked in. The half-hour Spanish Joe Remembers, by DC residents Sami Miranda and Elli Walton, profiles Pepe Gonzalez, aka Spanish Joe, a musician who grew up the hard way in DC’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood in a community of disenfranchised Salvadoran immigrants, and whose music tells vital stories.
With streamer retrenchment and post-pandemic uncertainties, the landscape for independent documentary filmmakers looks rocky. For filmmakers such as Big Mouth Productions producer Marilyn Ness, a leader in championing dignity for indies, this makes festivals and old-fashioned impact and outreach work all the more important. Brandon Kramer agreed; his film The First Step has had extraordinary community outreach over the last year, spurring conversations nationwide among local leaders about criminal justice reform. Pete Nicks contrasted two films he had in the festival. Anthem was his own idea, exploring how people in different social, economic and cultural contexts interpret the national anthem. He deliberately sought out unheard, grassroots stories. Another of his projects, Stephen Curry: Underrated, is an Apple TV+ project and a tried-and-true celebrity film. He noted that streamers have been locking in known talent. It’s important, he said, to keep expanding your network to include BIPOC and other marginalized professionals.
Sana Soni of Giant Pictures/Drafthouse Films recommended that indies pay attention to the smaller streamers. “Distributors continue to make deals with filmmakers, sometimes long after their films’ festival premieres are over, and release them across various, lesser-known windows like educational and AVOD [ad-supported] alongside the better-known ones like transactional and SVOD [subscription-supported],” she said. “These films can have as much of a life as their bigger counterparts.”
Themes involving ethics and responsibility suffused these discussions, including one on artificial intelligence (heads-up: I was on this panel). Phil Shane and Dave Haft, both AI early adopters, demonstrated how—and how not—to incorporate generative AI such as Midjourney, DALL-E and ChatGPT into filmmaking.
A big challenge for many is understanding the limitations and capacities of these rapidly-evolving programs. People used to the capacities of search are often stunned by the fact that generative AI only creates answers based on its own software, which summarizes previous analysis of relationships between bits of data. So, generative AI programs can’t fact-check; they can describe common tropes and mimic existing work. For instance, it’s way too easy to imitate individual speech patterns. Concerns about job loss are valid, and being told that creative decision-making still rests with human beings is little comfort to an army of mid-level professionals. Concerns about others producing work that pirates your own are, on the other hand, easily addressable with today’s copyright law; just get to the person who did it, no matter what tools they used.