Politics on Film, a festival debuting this weekend that hopes to distinguish itself from the rest of the District's cramped film calendar, which already features several established festivals (Filmfest D.C., Silverdocs) that program politically minded movies.
Thursday May 7, 2009
Plug in any old adjective: "The District has a _____ film festival."
Environmental. Labor. LGBT. Asian Pacific American. 48 Hour. Independent. International. Shorts. Spooky movie. Any of those would fit.
But "political"? Not quite yet.
Enter Politics on Film, a festival debuting this weekend that hopes to distinguish itself from the rest of the District's cramped film calendar, which already features several established festivals (Filmfest D.C., Silverdocs) that program politically minded movies.
"There are a huge number of film festivals in D.C. and a lot of them have political overtones, but they are segmented," says Lee Johnson, co-founder of the festival and CEO of the Congressional Media Group. "There was nothing that had this overarching theme of politics that encapsulated the whole gamut."
Johnson and two other local small-business owners have spent the past two years brainstorming and planning Politics on Film. Over lunch breaks and happy hours, they envisioned it as a bipartisan showcase for political features and documentaries. It would start small and grow bigger from year to year, eventually becoming a major international destination for filmmakers who are shopping movies about politics.
First things first, though. Over the past several months, the festival received 100 submissions and screened many of them in the Barracks Row office of Gayle Osterberg, a festival co-founder who runs a public relations consulting firm. Friends and colleagues of the festival founders pitched in to judge and recommend submissions based on quality and topicality. The field was diverse: lots of David-vs.-Goliath stories rolled in as well as films about property rights and justice issues at the micro and macro levels.
And now it's finally showtime. The posters are printed. The filmmakers are flying into town. The opening party is tonight on the rooftop of a building on Constitution Avenue, overlooking the illuminated marble of downtown D.C.
There's a smidge of nervous excitement.
"It's the same type of feeling that you have when you put together a press conference," Osterberg says. "There's an apprehension, a feeling of, 'Oh gosh, I hope people come.' "
There are certainly reasons to check it out. Based on its programming, Politics on Film aspires to be a boutique event in its inaugural year. A dozen movies will screen over three days in three downtown venues. Four are foreign, and all but two are documentaries. Most are followed by panel discussions or a Q&A session with filmmakers. Several entries have already played at prominent festivals, including Sundance. An all-you-can-see festival pass is $35. An ambitious festival-goer could squeeze in seven or eight screenings over the weekend.
In addition to having local founders and sponsors (including the Bipartisan Policy Center), Politics on Film kicks off with the Washington premiere of "The Response," which was written, produced and directed by Baltimore natives and shot with a local crew at the University of Maryland School of Law. (The screening is tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at Landmark's E Street Cinema.) It's a tight, tense, 30-minute re-creation of a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, based on actual transcripts. In attendance will be writer-producer-actor Sig Libowitz, a Washington attorney, and actors Kate Mulgrew, Peter Riegert and Aasif Mandvi (who drops his funny guy routine from "The Daily Show" to play a prisoner facing a panel of Army officers).
Libowitz has already taken "The Response" to seven festivals, including the Los Angeles and Virginia film festivals, but sees Politics on Film as an ideal landing place for the movie.
"It seemed like the festival for us, and hopefully we're good for them," Libowitz says. "You can't believe D.C. didn't have one of these political festivals. . . . To be doing a film in your home town, that's a lot of fun. And to have all the stars agree to come in for it -- they're jazzed about it. We're excited."
Other festival fare includes "What's the Matter With Kansas?," which probes the liberal-conservative divide in the heartland; "The Other Side of Immigration," an on-the-ground dispatch from a Mexican town that's losing its community leaders to the relative prosperity of the United States; and "The Reckoning," a Sundance entry that profiles the actions of the Hague's International Criminal Court. The festival will end with an awards ceremony at the Hotel Monaco on Sunday.
At the heart of the festival's mission is bipartisanship, which is evident in its trio of founders. Johnson and Osterberg have worked for the Republican Party, and co-founder Philip Dufour, head of an event management firm in Arlington, was the social secretary for then-Vice President Al Gore.
"I've had good friends say, 'I hope this is not going to focus on liberal or conservative issues,' " Johnson says. "And I said we're not going to put ourselves in that position of making idealogical choices. That's for screeners and judges and the public to do."
Politics on Film runs tomorrow through Sunday at Landmark's E Street Cinema, the Navy Memorial Auditorium and the Marvin Center Amphitheater on the George Washington University campus. Visit http://www.politicsonfilm.com for screening schedules.