AFI Docs: A New Name, New Venues, and a Mission to Make You Think

The festival formerly known as Silverdocs is bringing a slate of topical movies to downtown DC this year.

By: Sophie Gilbert

The documentary festival formerly known as Silverdocs has undergone quite a facelift for its 11th year, with a new name (AFI Docs Presented by Audi), a new sponsor (see previous), and a new presence downtown. This year, June 19 through 23, the festival is branching out of the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to screen films concurrently at the AFI and in downtown DC, with venues including the Newseum, the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Archives, and the Goethe-Institut.

Another notable difference this year is the number of films being screened. Just 53 movies will be on the slate at 2013’s festival, compared with 118 in 2012. “In many ways, the AFI is framing this as a relaunch, a combination of year one and an 11-year start,” said festival director Sky Sitney in an interview last month. “We’ve all made an important decision that we have to be more ambitious in terms of the events we’re doing, but they’re going to be scaled back in terms of the scope of the festival this first year. What this year represents is the incredible opportunity to have a campus in DC and set the foundation for the next decade of the festival.”

This means movies such as Documented, a film by former Washington Post journalist Jose Antonio Vargas about his experiences as an undocumented immigrant living in the US, will take place less than a mile from the Capitol, offering the opportunity to host discussions and Q&As that festival organizers hope will offer new ideas and insight to lawmakers. One new AFI Docs feature is an initiative called the Catalyst Sessions, which will build on the festival’s tradition of hosting post-screening discussions to offer focused debates with filmmakers, politicians, nonprofit leaders, and others in the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center.

As befits the new format, many of this year’s films have Washington-centric themes. The festival opens with Letters to Jackie, a movie by Bill CouturiĆ© that features actors such as Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum reading some of the hundreds of thousands of notes sent to Jacqueline Kennedy following the death of her husband. The movie’s gala screening is Michael Stevens’s Herblock: The Black & the White, which explores the 55-year career of the Washington Post editorial cartoonist. The closing night feature is Caucus, A.J. Schnack’s nonpartisan look at the highs and lows of the 2012 Republican leadership race. “It’s a refreshing look at a side of politics that’s seldom seen in documentary film,” says Sitney.

Other highlights include Lotfy Nathan’s 12 O’Clock Boys, about a dirt bike gang in Baltimore; Freida Mock’s Anita, which looks at the 1991 sexual harassment suit against Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill; Inequality for All, a film by Jacob Kornbluth featuring former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich discussing the economics of inequality in America; Mistaken for Strangers, a movie by Tom Berninger about his brother, lead singer of indie band the National; and Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, which features rare home movie footage of the 37th President of the United States.

Reich will be on hand for a post-screening discussion of Inequality for All, and the June 20 screening of Muscle Shoals, a film about the remarkable influence of a small Alabama town on popular music, will include a performance by Candi Staton and the Washington Performing Arts Society gospel choir.

For a full lineup, and more details on this year’s festival, visit the AFI Docs website.