WASHINGTON — It’s the biggest of films; it’s the smallest of films. A tale of two film fests. One accepts movies from around the world. The other focuses strictly on D.C.-area filmmakers. We’re talking about…
David Vollrath, a native of Annandale, Virginia, is making his Sundance debut with the world premiere of his new documentary, “Fresh Dressed,” about hip-hop’s influence on fashion throughout the 1990s, from fat-laced Adidas to Kangol hats to Cazal shades.
The 82-minute film is directed by Sacha Jenkins, who landed interviews with insiders such as Pharrell Williams, Damon Dash, Karl Kani, Kanye West, Nas Jones and Andre Leon Talley.
Vollrath served as director of photography, after developing a love for the lens in the photography darkrooms of middle school. He honed his skills during a two-year film program at Annandale High School, graduating in 2005, before studying cinema at Elon University, in North Carolina.
“It was an evolution moving from still photography [to] moving images,” Vollrath tells WTOP.
A week after graduation in 2009, he moved to the “happening spot” of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and began cold-calling production companies to find work on film crews.
“It was a very long grind. A lot of long hours,” Vollrath says. “There was a time where I would work 20 days straight or so as a production assistant, just to get my foot in the door.”
He now lives in Prospect Heights, near the new Barclay Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets.
“I would definitely say Brooklyn has influenced my work,” Vollrath says. “I shoot a lot more hip-hop in general. Also, just musically what I listen to, I listen to a lot more hip-hop these days. I tend to listen to music that reflects my surroundings. If I go on a hiking trip with my friends, I’ll switch to bluegrass or folk music, but just being in New York, there’s kind of this gritty nature that you tend to adopt.”
He recently shot a music video for the Queens rapper Action Bronson, as well as a series of “Artists to Watch” for MTV. His favorite experience came eight months ago, when he came back to D.C. to shoot the 20th anniversary of Nas’ “Illmatic” with a 72-piece orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
“That was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,” Vollrath says. “It was so much fun to shoot.”
This passion for hip-hop carried into his Sundance debut.
“‘Fresh Dressed’ basically tells the story of hip-hop from its inception to present day through fashion,” he says. “It follows all the clothes that everyone was wearing, and how these huge hip-hop brands like Fubu and Echo and Sean John and Rocawear all blew up in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, and how it was a bit of a bubble that burst, and why that is.”
The world premiere at Sundance will be Vollrath’s first time at the festival. He has rented a place with four friends and will stay for eight days juggling film screenings, festival parties and snowboarding.
“I’ll definitely be a wreck and looking for all the possible problems I can see,” Vollrath jokes. “The film is great. I’ve seen like three or four cuts of it. … The movie looks great. I’m just going to have to keep telling myself that when I notice very minor things.”
Back here on the East Coast, Vollrath’s family is gushing with pride in Annandale.
“My mom and dad, and my sister and her husband, they’re all thrilled about it,” he says. “It was definitely the talk of Christmas. My mom won’t stop bragging about me. She works it into every conversation. She’s my biggest publicist.”
“Instead of this being your Sundance, where you’re going to get these big-budget commercial films, we really do look to find unusual, experimental, deeply personal films that we can bring to the public,” says festival director Kevin Sampson, who accepts films strictly from D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
“To me, it’s being able to take a film festival that tries to champion the underdog,” Sampson says.
This year’s edition will feature a red carpet with step-and-repeat interviews. The filmmakers will also appear on Sampson’s local cable show, “Picture Lock,” produced by Arlington Independent Media.
Like Vollrath, Sampson is no stranger to hip-hop videos, having directed his own music videos and shot a concert for both Arrested Development and Wale in Richmond, Virginia. This first-hand experience as a filmmaker has affected the way he’s constructed the festival.
“I’ve gone to film festivals where … they tell you your film is going to show at this time, and then it doesn’t,” Sampson says. “I think that’s what I’m trying to infuse: respect for the filmmaker, respect for the community at large that loves cinema and wants to come see some cool movies.”
This year’s slate includes some spine-tingling entries. “Dark Therapy” is a short horror comedy based on the ironic premise of a vampire seeking treatment for hemophobia. “The Goblin Baby” is a supernatural thriller with a feminist take on the first year of motherhood. And “Ta” is based on the filmmaker’s own uncle, who performed a series of exorcisms over the years in Thailand.
The festival received close to 70 submissions, which a panel of judges whittled down to 20 finalists. The top five will be honored Sunday during the awards ceremony from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Clarendon Ballroom, where yours truly will open one of the envelopes.
As for the screenings, it’ll be your last chance to experience Rosebud at its usual location, the Artisphere in Rosslyn, Virginia, from 1 to 6 p.m. A few months back, Artisphere announced it would be closing due to a lack of funding, making this weekend a swan song of sorts.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet, last hurrah that we’ll be in the beautiful dome theater,” Sampson says. He insists, however, the festival will find a new location next year. “It’s definitely going to keep going.”