The longest-running film festival in the nation’s capital faced a tough decision this month.
Filmfest DC was supposed to hold its 34th annual event this week at E Street Cinema, Regal Gallery Place and The Avalon, but the coronavirus shutdown changed everything.
“We had to postpone the festival, which means that we really don’t know when we’re going to do it,” Festival Director Tony Gittens told WTOP. “We have the films, we had the guests coming in, we’re good to go, but we’ve had to put it on hold. That’s just the way it is.”
Instead, Gittens has created “Filmfest DC at Home” for virtual viewing starting Thursday.
Rather than show this year’s intended slate, the festival will show “greatest hits” from previous years online, holding out hope of holding a physical festival later this year.
“What can we do as a gift to our audience while we’re all caught in this quagmire?” Gittens said. “We decided that we would reach back into our catalogs and find a few films that were very successful at past programs and present them free of charge on our website.”
Here’s a breakdown of this year’s online slate.
The lineup kicks off with “D.C. Noir” (2019) by novelist and filmmaker George Pelecanos, who wrote many episodes of “The Wire,” “Treme” and “The Deuce,” which he co-created.
“George is Washington to the core,” Gittens said. “This is a film based on four of his stories. The talent is local, the actors are local, the folks who directed the film and did the technical work are local folks. … We showed the film in our last festival and turned people away, so we thought this would be an excellent film to start off Filmfest DC at Home.”
It will be paired with Leland Hall’s comedy short “Driving Lesson” (2017).
“With each of the films that we’re showing, we have shorts called ‘Shorts Corner,'” Gittens said. “This film is about something that I think we’ve all gone through, which is being taught how to drive by your father. This is a short film looking at that in a humorous way.”
May 1 brings the free online screening of Sara Zandieh’s “A Simple Wedding” (2018).
“It’s a very light, very fresh, very new kind of comedy about an Iranian family and a young woman whose parents are constantly trying to get her married to a young Iranian man,” Gittens said. She just sabotages it all the way [and] it just becomes a funny experience.”
It’s paired with Alicja Jasina’s animated short “Once Upon a Line” (2016).
“It’s an animated short film, again on the lighter side,” Gittens said. “We wanted to use ‘Shorts Corner’ to show things like animation, so we think folks will enjoy that as well.”
May 8 brings filmmaker Gilles Lellouche’s unique comedy “Sink or Swim” (2018).
“It’s about these adult men who are out of work,” Gittens said. “They go down to the local pool and find a teacher who teaches them how to do synchronized swimming. It’s just a hoot because these guys are not very athletic and definitely not very synchronized, but they decide to enter this international male synchronized swimming contest in Norway.”
It’s paired with “Ten Meter Shower” (2016) by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson.
“It’s yet another film about swimming pools and people who like to go out there and swim in the pool, so it’s kind of a light comic film that we think folks will enjoy,” Gittens said.
The final block features “Tango Glories” (2014) by Oliver Kolker and Hernán Findling.
“It’s a beautiful, very moving film about a man who gets a job in a home for senior citizens in Argentina,” Gittens said. “He befriends one of the people there, and the only way this person can communicate with him is through reciting the lyrics from tango songs.”
It’s paired with José Luis Tirado’s documentary “NO, A Flamenco Tale” (2016).
“It’s absolutely beautiful and rhythmic,” Gittens said. “It’s about people doing daily things, but all of a sudden, they’ll break into dance across the street. … There’s a marvelous section of the film where a woman is just going up the steps and she’s dancing as she goes. All you see and hear is her feet as she goes up these wooden steps.”
Will Gittens himself learn some tango or flamenco during quarantine?
“I’d break my ankles,” Gittens said. “I go back to the twist. That’s about the best I can do.”
Even if you don’t get up and dance, the virtual festival is built for the comfort of your home.
“It’s sort of like going to the movie theater while you’re at home,” Gittens said. “Grab some popcorn and someone you really enjoy being with. … It’s not our full film festival, but it’s in keeping with the kinds of quality films and diverse films we’ve been showing for so long.”
It’s just the latest chapter in a storied history for Filmfest DC.
“We’re the oldest film festival and we’re the only international film festival [in D.C.],” Gittens said. “We always have a great representation of local filmmakers and local films. We just think movies are so entertaining, so much fun, and so much of an opportunity to learn about other cultures. We just want to keep doing it as long as we possibly can.”