‘We were the first’: Filmfest DC remains the OG of Washington film festivals

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Filmfest DC (Jason Fraley)

The nation’s capital boasts countless film festivals, but only one can stake a claim as the O.G.

The 33rd annual Filmfest DC triumphantly returns as the city’s longest-running film festival, screening a collection of 80 films at AMC Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights, Landmark E Street Cinema near Metro Center and Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW from April 25 to May 5.

“We were the first — we were the first film festival in Washington D.C.,” festival director Tony Gittens told WTOP. “Our initial success showed other people that it could be done, that it could be fun, and that it could contribute to the vitality of the city. … When it first began, we had an audience of about 5,000 people and we were very pleased. … Last year, we hit 16,000 and this year ticket sales have been very strong, so we expect that we might exceed that.”

Not only is it the city’s oldest festival, it’s also represents 45 countries with international flavor.

“We’re an international film festival, so we don’t have any theme except what we see to be reflected in the kinds of films that people around the world are making,” Gittens said. “We see hundreds of films every year, put together a program that we think is suitable for Washington D.C., then we go at it, we present it, and so far people have been responding. … We’ve been doing this for 33 years and I think the group of films in this year’s festival is special.”

This year’s slate is once again broken down into various thematic categories, including “Foodflix,” featuring six international films about master chefs and restaurants worldwide.

“It’s not just food porn; it’s not just pretty pictures of food,” Gittens said. “We are bringing in major chefs in D.C. to talk about what it’s like to run a restaurant. … We have Aaron Silverman who owns Rose’s Luxury. We have a woman who is the head sommelier at the Inn at Little Washington and a film called ‘The Best Sommelier in the World’ where there’s a contest to win that prize. She’s gonna talk about what it takes to be a sommelier beyond the taste of wine.”

There’s also a category for mysteries and thrillers called “Trust No One.”

“We have a very special D.C. film called ‘DC Noir’ by George Pelecanos, a highly recognized D.C. guy people know from writing for ‘The Wire’ [and] New York Times best-selling books,” Gittens said. “He did this film that is a very Washington D.C. thriller about the streets of Washington D.C. and the young men and women who find themselves ensnared in the crime underground of D.C. … It’s really interesting and George is going to come talk about the film.”

You can also tickle your funny bone with “The Lighter Side” category.

“There’s one comedy called ‘Simple Wedding,’ a very fresh American film about a young lady who’s Iranian-American, first generation,” Gittens said. “Her family is upper-middle-class and feels it’s time for her to get married and keeps trying to set her up with nice Iranian boys, but she really is in love with an American guy who’s she’s living with. The family finds out about it and insists that she gets married, so this wedding gets set up and on and on.”

Music fans will enjoy the “Global Rhythms” category with a special concert at Lincoln Theatre.

“One of the premiere films is a film called ‘Echo in the Canyon’ … about the Laurel Canyon, California area in the late ’70s,” Gittens said. “This was a time when there was a merge between folk and rock called folk rock. It’s about the rise of groups like The Mamas & The Papas, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield. … This film is executive produced by Jacob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, so we’ve arranged for Jacob and Cat Power to do this concert after the film.”

Finally, there are social change movies in the “Justice Matters” category.

“We’re showing a film called ‘Rafiki’ from Kenya about two young ladies who find out that they really love each other … but lesbianism [is] banned in Kenya. So not only do their families turn against them, the authorities turn against them, the pressure on them to try to maintain the relationship. … It’s [about] another culture that has problems and how they handle them.”

Such films allow D.C. audiences to experience new perspectives from around the globe.

“The film exhibition scene in the United States is dominated by Hollywood films,” Gittens said. “If you just have a diet of explosions, people being shot, silly romantic comedies and that’s all you ever get, it’s like eating at McDonald’s every day. … What festivals like ours do is we go and find films outside of the United States that might not have mass commercial appeal, but would appeal to thoughtful people who are aware that there are other people in the world, other cultures in the world, want to learn about them and appreciate their point of view.”

In the age of streaming, it’s important to maintain this shared moviegoing experience.

“There is nothing like going to a movie theater with an audience,” Gittens said. “That can’t be matched by watching a film on a cellphone. In the festival environment, you begin to talk to people about what you’ve just seen. … You’re slightly different than when you went into the movie theater. A festival like Filmfest D.C. that shows 80 films over a short period of time, people come regularly and have this conversation, this dialogue. … That’s a very special gift.”

Find more details on the festival website. Hear our full conversation with Tony Gittens below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Tony Gittens (Full Interview) (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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