When the American Film Institute announced last year that it was merging AFI Docs, the organization’s annual Washington, D.C., documentary film festival, into the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest, Jamie Shor called Sky Sitney.
Shor, president of PR Collaborative, and Sitney, director of the film and media studies program at Georgetown, had both previously worked for AFI Docs. Shor’s publicity firm had done work for the former festival, previously known as Silverdocs, while Sitney served as AFI Docs festival director from 2005-2014.
“Sky and I were both thinking to ourselves that Washington, D.C., was not going to have a doc presence,” says Shor. “It collectively broke our hearts.”
So, the duo spent the last year and a half creating and building DC/Dox, a new nonfiction film festival based in the nation’s capital. The inaugural four-day festival kicks off on June 15 with the D.C. premiere of “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise.”
In all, 31 features and 21 shorts from eight countries will screen during DC/Dox in venues including the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Four films will be making their world premiere at DC/Dox, including Dawn Porter’s “Deadlocked: How America Shaped the Supreme Court.” Part one of the four-part Showtime series will screen on June 18. Nick Capote’s “Between Life & Death: Terri Schiavo’s Story,” as well as two short docus — “Bubjan” and “The Silent Witness” — will also premiere at the fest.
DC/Dox will also showcase notable films that previously debuted at various festivals around the country including Penny Lane’s “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” (SXSW) and two docs from Peter Nicks — “Anthem” (Tribeca) and “Stephen Curry: Underrated” (Sundance).
Variety spoke with Shor and Sitney about DC/Dox’s evolution, lineup and eventual growth.
Last year, on June 15, you held a one-day DC/Dox event where you screened seven films. What was the purpose of that event?
Sitney: It was both an announcement and a proof of concept. The proof of concept was both internal and to funders. It was also an opportunity for us to go out into the world with our intention.
Shor: After we screened those seven docs, what we saw in that one night only was a real hunger from people for those kinds of films. We immediately came off of that event and looked at each other and said, “I think we can make a festival work.”
Film festivals are keeping many docus alive, so to speak, due to the current marketplace, which is not proving to be a place for social issue films. In creating the lineup for the fest, were you thinking about keeping films “alive”?
Sitney: When I was thinking about programming that was definitely part of a much broader area of things that I was considering. I was really thinking about the ways in which these films are representing the form. The way they are pushing up against the boundaries of documentary. We are consistently recalibrating and redefining what documentary is because of the filmmakers who are at the forefront of that and bringing us into uncomfortable places at times.
Shor: We have a couple of Sundance titles that have distribution and some that don’t. But every film that is in this festival has a reason to be here. We feel like this market adds some heft to filmmakers’ mission to get out to as wide an audience as possible.
This year you did not have an open call for submissions. So how did you find the 31 features and 21 shorts that make up the lineup?
Sitney: It was a combination of attending different festivals, certainly a lot of soliciting from already existing festival lineups and talking to distributors and producers about what’s coming around the pike.
Will submissions be open for the 2024 festival?
In choosing the 31 feature docs that make up this year’s lineup, what were you looking for?
Sitney: We wanted to create a diverse slate that represents a lot of different approaches to the form. We also wanted to have different kinds of themes and subject matters being expressed. As a curator, I feel first and foremost that documentary is a parameter. It’s a boundary and I really think it’s interesting to explore that boundary and see the breadth and the scope of the things that can be contained within it. Over the years, we’ve all seen milestones in documentaries, like “The Act of Killing” or many, many years ago, “The Thin Blue Line.” Those films had the whole community talking and asking, is this a documentary or not? What are the ethical breaches if any? So, I like to be really expansive.
For a festival, 31 features is an intimate slate. Will you expand on that number next year for the 2024 edition of DC/DOX?
Sitney: When we think about growing the festival, it’s not about growing number of films. I really like an intimate slate. There’s a lot we can do for that slate. So, I think we’ll have to be very mindful as the years progress in terms of how much we want to expand the numbers.
Since the fest is in D.C., are you leaning towards politically minded fare?
Sitney: There’s no doubt that when there’s a film that’s dealing with politics or policy, this is a place where that film should be presented. We can create an incredible context for that film and are one-hundred percent leaning into that, but we don’t want that to be the entire program. D.C. as a living city is so much more than The Hill. It’s so much more than just politics. It’s incredibly dynamic and diverse with such rich arts and culture. So we want this festival to not just be something that represents a touristic view of Washington, D.C. We also want the community that’s here to feel that the festival resonates with the reality of the lived experience of being here.