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Success Story

The AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs documentary film festival just wrapped up its 10th year of programming, and its recent lineup of films shows that the operation based in Silver Spring, Md., has retained its quirky pedigree and its penchant for addressing some of Washington’s thorniest political issues.

“What I think is particularly fruitful is our proximity to D.C.,” said Sky Sitney, Silverdocs’ festival manager. “Silver Spring creates an unexpected, campus-like feel that we couldn’t necessarily get in D.C.” or other festival venues. And that “slight distance” from the capital allows the festival and its distinct but overlapping audiences — filmmakers and the film industry, policymakers and Mid-Atlantic filmgoers — to retain their identities even while exploring the broader political and cultural life of the United States.

The inaugural Silverdocs festival launched in June 2003 at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in downtown Silver Spring, just a short time removed from the theater’s March opening. Success was anything but guaranteed, particularly in an urban area that had been moribund for years.

“When we first founded [it], we asked, ‘Who needs another film festival?’ But there wasn’t a documentary film festival in the nation’s capital. And we had these two media giants, AFI and Discovery, and we were just ready to go,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, the initial festival director who is now director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University’s Center for Innovative Media.

Seavey, who went on to be the festival’s executive producer, said the early years were sometimes lean and the festival staff had to rely on some “stunts” to spread the word. 

As an example, she cited the festival’s securing permission in 2003 to shut off Georgia Avenue so it could set up a skateboarding half-pipe for Tony Hawk, who was there to promote his “Boom Boom HuckJam Tour.” After that screening, he performed a live demo in downtown Silver Spring.

“Now there are lines down the street” for premieres and other high-profile films, Seavey said, some of which have opened before, some of which may never open and some of which might be headed for television or other venues such as video on demand. 

Center of Power

But as the festival grew into its own, Washington power brokers took notice and helped spur it on.

“When I saw [former Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor pull up and get out of a limo, I knew we had arrived,” Seavey said. That kind of proximity to the nation’s political power center is something other festivals can’t match.

“It does something that no other film festival can do,” she said.

From its earliest days, the festival has featured documentaries that address political and policy issues, whether it was “Only in America” in 2003, a film that explored Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s selection in 2000 to be the first Jewish vice presidential nominee; “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” in 2006, about a long-shot Congressional candidate, Jeff Smith; “14 Women,” in 2007, about female U.S. Senators; or “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” in 2010, which tackled No Child Left Behind and the state of the education system.

For this year, the festival pulled off a two-fer in showing not just one, but two documentaries on the U.S. health care system. “The Waiting Room” and “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” screened the week before the Supreme Court voted to uphold the 2010 health care overhaul. 

Seminal political documentary works are celebrated also, such as a retrospective in 2011 on filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker that featured two of his more famous films: 1993’s “The War Room,” which vaulted James Carville and George Stephanopoulos to near household name status, and “Al Franken: God Spoke,” which helped cue up the one-time “Saturday Night Live” writer’s successful 2008 Senatorial campaign in Minnesota. 

Talk of the Town

And it’s not just political Washington that sees itself reflected on the Silver Theatre’s silver screen. 

Silverdocs has made a point of showcasing films that are about the cultural and municipal life of Washington that goes on outside Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court and the White House.

In 2009, “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” had its world premiere at Silverdocs. The one-time Washington mayor and current city council member was on hand, arriving to cheers from one side of the sidewalk and jeers from the other, encapsulating his unique effect on the civic and cultural life of the capital city.

This attention to D.C. as a place people live, not just work, shows up in other films the festival has featured, including “Children Will Listen” in 2004, about public school kids in Washington staging a Stephen Sondheim production at the Kennedy Center; “930 F Street” in 2005, about the original 9:30 Club music venue; and “The Other City” in 2010, which explored Washington’s HIV and AIDS epidemic.

“We’ve always had certain films or filmmakers where there’s a direct connection,” said Jody Arlington, the festival’s longtime public relations guru. 

And aside from what it offers Washington, the festival seems to have a little something for everyone, not just local activists and national power brokers, but punks and cricket aficionados, paraplegic rugby players and sushi chefs, aging sexual exhibitionists and New Orleans’ post-Katrina diaspora.

“We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into one definition of excellence,” Sitney said. 

Others have noticed.

“It’s definitely one of the best festivals in the country. The programming is never filtered,” said Brian Liu, a documentary filmmaker and founder of Toolbox DC, a creative agency in Washington.

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