Washington’s International Film Festival Celebrates 31st Anniversary

Films focusing on America’s broken education system, the power of independent journalism, and the Syrian refugee crisis are just some of the highlights of this year’s Filmfest DC. 

For more than 30 years, the annual event has been showcasing thought-provoking movies from around the world to a discerning audience in the U.S. capital, promoting discussion and debate. This spring, April 20-30, the festival celebrates its 31st anniversary with 80 selected films.

Tony Gittens, founder and head of the Washington, DC International film Festival, came to VOA to talk about this year’s offerings. 

Heightened issues

“These are films that look at issues that have been heightened with the new presidential administration [in the U.S.,]” he said.

He cites as examples films that examine the U.S. educational system, which according to the documentary Backpack Full of Cash, is suffering. Gittens says the film looks at the importance of public schools and throws light on the commercialization of education.

Another film that focuses on the United States is the documentary All Governments Lie, by Canadian filmmaker Fred Peabody. The film traces the history of “free, independent journalism and its significance to the pursuit of truth and preservation of democracy.”

Broad range

Throughout the year, Gittens visits international festivals like Cannes and Toronto to select films that reflect political, social and economic topics across the world. He says one of the advantages of an international film festival is that it also brings a foreign perspective to an American audience.

“We have a film from Bulgaria called The Good Postman, looking at immigration from a European perspective.” The documentary by Bulgarian filmmaker Tonislav Hristov, looks at people who live in an economically depressed village and have to decide, as Syrians enter their small community, how to deal with illegal migration. Is it going to help them and their economy, or is it going to hurt them in some way?

Gittens says the festival attracts 16,000 people into local movie theaters, as well as embassies and museums, which host films every spring. Many of these people work for think tanks, are political decision-makers, and generally are a politically involved audience.

Influencing the influencers

“Washingtonians spend a lot of time looking at TV news, reading the newspaper, and when we gather for social events after a while, a few pleasantries, politics come up. It is really hard to avoid that here,” he said. 

So when a harrowing documentary, such as Last Men in Aleppo by Firas Fayyad is screening in town, it may not only influence how people see the war in Syria, but it might effect change, based on what people of influence may sit through [during] this two-hour experience of human rights violations on Syrian civilians by the Assad regime.

The festival also offers a variety of films that look at social and cultural displacement from the viewpoint of the ethnic communities that exist as islands within other cultures. One example is A Wedding by Stephan Streker. This French-Pakistani production deals with the values of a Pakistani family living in France and ends in tragedy when one of the daughters chooses a new way of life over tradition.

One of the most visually impressive films in this year’s festival is Human. Photographer and filmmaker Yann Arthus-Bertrand uses breathtaking cinematography to deliver a film about humanity, weaving a picture of vast landscapes, the world as seen from up high with mankind dwarfed in it.

Arthus-Bertrand interviews people from all walks of life. 

“It’s about the world, the whole planet, the environment, people’s social needs, economic needs and interests showing how in a way we are different, but in fundamental ways we are very similar,” Gittens said.

Economic engine 

Filmfest DC’s leader says that on average, he watches 350 films a year to select the final 80 to bring to Washingtonians. He says throughout the 31 years he’s been doing this, it is a very rewarding process and the films are appreciated. 

The festival also has become an economic engine for the city, Gittens added. Thousands of people from the metro area and the U.S. come to the nation’s capital to attend the festival, filling up Washington restaurants, creating seasonal jobs, and providing a good time.

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