‘Arch Campbell & Friends’ help celebrate 30 years of Filmfest DC

December 11, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Happy birthday to D.C.’s longest-running film festival.

The prolific Filmfest DC celebrates its 30th anniversary this week from April 14-24.

“When we started, there was no Internet, there was no Netflix, there was no DVDs or anything like that, so the festival was a way for a lot of Washingtonians to see these films from around the world that otherwise they might not have a chance to see,” founder and director Tony Gittens told WTOP.

During its first year, the Washington D.C. International Film Festival screened roughly 20 films for 5,000 people. Now, it’s expanded to 75 films from 45 countries for more than 16,000 people.

Various moviestars have attended over the years, including Charlize Theron, John Malkovich, Peter Bogdanovich, Gabriel Byrne, Morgan Freeman, Cicely Tyson, Sydney Pollack and Kelly McGillis.

“I was at the very first Filmfest DC … and it was pretty impressive,” legendary D.C. movie critic Arch Campbell told WTOP. “In the early days, the parties around Filmfest DC kind of turned into singles events. I think people have actually met each other and married because of Filmfest DC.”

This year, Campbell will host “An Evening with Arch Campbell & Friends: The State of the Movies” on Thursday, April 21. The panel discussion will include local movie critics Nell Minow of Beliefnet’s Movie Mom, Travis Hopson of WETA Around Town and Jason Fraley (Yours Truly) of WTOP Radio.

“Now that I’m semi-retired, or at least not on television anymore, Tony Gittens was very kind to invite me on the board … I asked him if we could use the festival to try to connect to the city (with) a panel on the state of the movies in Washington, and where the movies are in our culture,” Campbell said.

As for the films themselves, they’re divided into various thematic blocks: Thrillers (Trust No One), Comedies (The Lighter Side), Social Justice Films (Justice Matters), Films from Cuba (Cine Cubano), and Films on Music (Rhythms On and Off the Screen) featuring live pre-screening performances.

“When (Filmfest) started, foreign films were still being screened in Washington,” Campbell said. “There was a time when a Truffaut movie opened, a crowd showed up. It was a big deal … And over the 30 years, seeing foreign, subtitled films is getting harder … That’s the need that Filmfest DC fills.”

If you’re looking to prioritize which films to watch this week, you might want to check out one of the six nominees for the festival’s top prize. The Circle Award is named in honor of Ted and Jim Pedas, founders of Washington’s former chain of Circle Theatres, and will be awarded to one of six films:

“A Good American” (Austria)

“(It’s) a documentary … about an American computer inventor guy who invents this system that is better in detecting terrorists than what’s currently being used, but the government of the United States pushes back on it. The guy who made the film and the guy who did the invention, they both will be there to talk to the audience,” Gittens said.

“How to Tell You’re a Douchebag” (USA)

“I think that’s a first for WTOP,” Campbell joked about WTOP’s duty to report the edgy title of this next nominee, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s about modern dating in Brooklyn … It’s about a guy in Brooklyn who has a blog and has these relationships, but he meets this one woman who has a blog. It’s really very modern … We got it out of Sundance … I thought it was a young film for a young audience,” Gittens said.

“A Patch of Fog” (UK)

“It’s a good thriller where you’re really on the edge of your seat … about a guy who’s an author … but he has this quirk where he likes to go into supermarkets and steal petty things … A security guard catches him on screen … then starts befriending him, and the only reason the author accepts him is this guy has this tape of him doing this, and he knows his career will be over,” Gittens said.

“Tanna” (Australia)

“It’s a film set in the jungle. It’s this aborigines village, or community, several tribes there, and it’s about a young girl whose family wants to marry her to the prince of a neighboring tribe … But she’s in love with someone else, a commoner in the tribe. So she has to figure out whether she’s going for what’s best for her family and the tribe, or going for what’s best for her heart,” Gittens said.

“Viva” (Ireland, Cuba)

“We’re doing a section on Cuba … We thought these films would be a way for our audience to see day-to-day life in Cuba, and that it might break stereotypes,” Gittens said.

“3000 Nights” (Palestine, France, Jordan, Qatar, UAE, Lebanon)

The final nominee follows a young Palestinian schoolteacher who gives birth to her son in an Israeli prison. She must then fight to protect him and secure their survival.

After you check out the six Circle Award nominees, stick around for the closing night screening of “My Internship in Canada” with an in-person appearance by director Philippe Falardeau.

“What Filmfest provides is a place to see a film, go out and talk about it with a bunch of people afterward. To me, going to the movies is about talking about it after you see it,” Campbell said.

This year’s screenings are held at AMC Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights and Landmark’s E Street Cinema near Metro Center, as well as events at the Embassy of France and National Gallery of Art.

“We can cook at home, but people still go to restaurants,” Gittens said. “Films are the same. You can sit on your couch and watch Netflix by yourself or your immediate family … But it doesn’t compare to the experience where you go and there are lots of other people there and you can talk about it. There’s just that difference that going to the movies offers, and going to a festival compounds that.”

General admission tickets cost $13. Click here for more information. Listen to the full interview below:

December 11, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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