AFI DOCS documentary festival kicks off with new name, new locations

WASHINGTON – New name. New venues. Same great documentaries.

SILVERDOCS has earned a reputation as the largest documentary film fest in the country, attracting more than 27,000 people.

Now, it’s re-branding itself AFI DOCS, presented by Audi, and expanding beyond its usual hub of Silver Spring, Md.

“The AFI Silver Theatre is indeed one of the greatest theaters, not just in this region, but quite frankly, in the United States,” festival director Sky Sitney said.

“There was a sense of wanting to, on the one hand, hold onto the extraordinary legacy of the festival, but also mark … a much more direct presence in the nation’s capital.”

That presence includes a number of new locations on the National Mall and in Penn Quarter.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be working with some extraordinary venue partners downtown, including the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, the Newseum, the Goethe-Institute and significant programs at the National Archives,” Sitney said.

The 11th annual festival runs from June 19 to June 23.

It kicks off Wednesday at the Newseum with a gala and screening of “Letters to Jackie,” a collection of sympathy mail sent to the first lady after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The letters are read in voiceover narration by celebrities, including Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams.

Documentary enthusiasts should circle Friday on their calendars with the annual Guggenheim Symposium for the festival’s honorary guest. Previous honorees include Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Barbara Coppel, and this year is no exception.

“This year we’re honoring Errol Morris, who many people will know for his Academy Award winning film ‘The Fog of War,'” Sitney said.

“But those more versed in documentary will certainly know his work in ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ which actually exonerated a wrongfully accused man on death row. The film itself had that impact.”

The late Roger Ebert described Morris as being “like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.” He’ll be available for a free public question and answer sessopn at 6 p.m. Friday at the National Archives.

Friday also brings the world premiere of “Documented,” written and directed by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in 2011. The film screens at 8 p.m. Friday at the National Portrait Gallery.

Saturday and Sunday bring some local flavor with the East Coast premiere of “Life According to Sam,” the latest doc from Chevy Chase,Md., filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine. The pair is just months removed from winning an Oscar for the documentary short “Inocente.”

The festival closes Sunday with the U.S. premiere of “Caucus,” which Sitney called a non-partisan look at the 2012 Republican primary.

Full the full schedule, check out the AFI DOCS website.

Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog at The Film Spectrum or listen every Friday morning on WTOP Radio 103.5 FM.

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