WASHINGTON — It’s the longest-running film festival in the nation’s capital.
“Thirty-one years bringing wonderful films to The District,” festival director Tony Gittens told WTOP. “We spend a lot of time watching a lot of movies to get what we think are some of the best films made around the world. … It’s great to bring these films that normally would never see a screen here in Washington D.C. People have come up and said, ‘Fifteen years ago, I saw a film that changed my life.'”
During its first year, the Washington, DC International Film Festival screened 20 films for 5,000 people. Now, it’s expanded to 80 films from countless countries, including Syria, Russia, South Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Belgium, Serbia, Canada, Iceland, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.
“I was present at the beginning in 1987, and I think I’ve attended almost every opening night of Filmfest DC,” said longtime D.C. movie critic Arch Campbell, who now serves on the film festival board. “When I pretty much stepped away from television and [became] semi-retired … I went on the Filmfest DC board because I think it’s a valuable part of our city … that ushers in the spring season.”
This “spring season” provides the festival a unique niche against the blockbusters at the multiplex.
“We’re in the spring and early summer movie season, which means basically the commercial films are pretty much going to be sequels and remakes,” Campbell said. “At Filmfest DC, you see this garden variety of unusual movies from all over the world that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Filmfest is where the interesting stuff is. Not to knock commercial films, but this is where the unusual things are, and these days in entertainment, it’s the unusual, out-of-the-ordinary things that people are attracted to.”
Campbell will host this year’s opening night screening at 7 p.m. Thursday in Friendship Heights.
“Your opening night film has a really great track record,” Campbell said. “‘Il Postino’  was your opening night movie; that’s one of the great classics. ‘La Vie en Rose’ , which went on to win an Oscar [for Marion Cotillard], that was an opening night film. Last year, you had ‘The Dressmaker’ [starring Kate Winslet], which went on to a pretty nice run. I admire your sense of picking movies!”
This year’s opening night selection is the North American premiere of France’s “This is Our Land.”
“[It’s] about a small town in northern France, where the people are concerned about job security, concerned about immigrants coming in,” Gittens said. “This right-wing political party comes in and takes full advantage of that, trying to run someone for mayor. I’d say it’s a familiar story these days.”
After the film, the opening night reception is an annual favorite, held this year outside of Mazza.
“The party beforehand and then afterward is one of the best parties in D.C.,” Campbell said with a hearty laugh. “Over the years, it’s just been one of those electric affairs where everybody’s buzzed about the movie, everybody’s buzzed ’cause there’s a little Champagne, people have met each other, you’ve even had a couple of marriages as a result. It’s like the dating game for international film!”
After opening night, stick around for 10 more days of films from an impressive slate. The movies are divided into thematic blocks, such as “Division & Debate” (politics), “The Lighter Side” (comedies), “Rhythms On & Off the Screen” (music) and “Justice Matters” (social justice). Most thrilling is “Trust No One” (espionage, crime, thrillers), which includes Argentina’s new film “At the End of the Tunnel.”
“It’s about this guy who lives by himself in this big house in a wheelchair,” Gittens said. “This woman shows up with her little girl and says she wants to rent a room there. So he finally takes her in, only to find out that these thieves are digging a tunnel under his house to get to the bank not too far away.”
Among the music section, check out Paul Calori and Kostia Testut’s French musical “Footnotes.”
“[It] will remind folks of ‘La La Land,'” Gittens said. “It’s a French musical with dancing and singing.”
You can also check out Geremy Jasper’s “Patti Cake$,” which recently played at Sundance.
“It’s about a young woman in New Jersey, [who] wants to be a rapper, how she and her crazy friends push her toward that,” Gittens said. “It’s a lot of fun, poignant, a young film for a younger audience.”
Various movie stars have attended over the years, including Charlize Theron, John Malkovich, Peter Bogdanovich, Gabriel Byrne, Morgan Freeman, Cicely Tyson, Kelly McGillis and Sydney Pollack.
“We have a lot of guests this year,” Gittens said. “We have filmmakers coming. There will be a guy coming from Syria. His film is called ‘Last Men in Aleppo,’ about the White Helmet folks in Aleppo who go into the bombed areas to try to find [survivors]. He’s gonna try to come in; we’ve gotten his ticket and hope he will be there to talk about his film in Syria. I don’t know where else you can see this stuff.”
Individual tickets cost $14 at the door and $13 online. If you plan to come more than once, you might consider the Director’s Package (10 films for $100), the Weekday Pass (four tickets for $45) or the Star Pass ($600 for front-of-the-line access to all of the film screenings, parties and special events).
“That’s the ‘Eat and Sleep’ pass,” Campbell joked, before ending on a serious note. “Support Filmfest DC. It’s one of the really great things about living in Washington, D.C. It’s a wonderful film festival.”
Click here for more information. Listen to the full conversation with Tony Gittens and Arch Campbell below: