Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
The Washington D.C. International Film Festival kicks off this week with a smorgasbord of more than 80 films from around the world, playing at theaters across the city. Now in its 27th year, the festival runs April 11-21. We hear about the year-round process of selecting the films and explore the themes featured this year, from comedy to conspiracy.
- Anthony Gittens Founder and Festival Director, Filmfest DC
Filmfest D.C. Catalog Of Films
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about international and independent films. Want to take a trip to Beijing, Paris, or Seoul, South Korea? Get a glimpse into the private life of a headline maker like Julian Assange, or the quite but no less compelling days of an Austrian nurse or Canadian couple? You could spend countless hours and dollars on travel and awkward visits with strangers, or you could get an insider look at these places and stories for the of admission, popcorn not included, at this year's film fest D.C. International Film Festival.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to share some highlights and insights into how the festival is put together is Anthony or Tony Gittens. He is the founder and director of Filmfest D.C. the Washington D.C. International Film Festival. Tony, always a pleasure.
MR. ANTHONY GITTENSAlways my pleasure. How are you?
GITTENSYeah. Yeah. When Film Fest D.C. started, you were using faxes, international money orders, waiting for screeners to arrive in the mail, but the last time we spoke, we talked a little bit about the changes that have come online since the festival began, but technology can only do so much. How do you choose these films today?
GITTENSWe spend a lot of time looking at movies. We go to other festivals, people send screeners to us for their films, and now, you mentioned technology, we're able to stream some of these films. Their professional websites, in other words, you have to be working in film in order to get permission to go there. But we don't even have to go to festivals in some cases. We can just tap our computer and there for film is for us to stream to evaluate and decide whether we want to bring it to Washington D.C.
NNAMDIOne of the advantages of going to festivals is because you get to look at the films with an audience. Why is that important?
GITTENSFor a number of reasons. One is, we don't run this festival for us. In other words, it's not for us, it's for the audience, and often I will go and see a film, particularly a comedy. On my own I wouldn't find it funny, but if I'm sitting with an audience, and they're just rolling in the aisles, it makes me think about it as something to bring here to Washington D.C. Plus an audience just gives you all kind of feedback. You can see how they react to the film. You see how many people show up for the film.
GITTENSYou see if a film that I might think might not be all that accessible, and I look around and there are hundreds of people in the audience, that tends to change my mind.
NNAMDIIf you're planning to attend any Filmfest D.C. screenings yet this year, you can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Do you regularly seek out foreign films, or are subtitles a nonstarter for you? What's your favorite place to take in independent or foreign films? 800-433-8850 is our number. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. There are a number of themes for the festival this year. Are those themes something you identify in advance, or do they kind of emerge organically?
GITTENSThey emerge. We don't start with a premise and then go out to prove our premise. That doesn't work. What we wind up -- when we've done that in the early days, and we found we wound up putting films in the festival that might not be our first choice. What we do is we go out, we see what's available, what is the reality, what are the themes, the types of films that international filmmakers are focusing on this year. And then we look at what we're interested in and we draw some conclusions, some categories, a way to present these films to an audience.
GITTENSWe don't want people to be overwhelmed by all these new films so we put them in categories so they can get a handle.
NNAMDIYour focus is primarily feature films, but there are a handful of documentaries on offer as well. Do you try to strike any kind of balance between the two?
GITTENSNot particularly. We go for feature films. We're a feature film festival, and in Washington, there are festivals that focus on documentaries and even shorts. So we don't do that. We -- in our Justice Matters section, which is a section that looks at issues of social justice, primarily those films, because they're very strong message films and position films, they do tend to be documentaries. But overall -- and our music series, Global Rhythms, because the films are about music, that they tend to be documentaries. But by and large we're a feature film festival.
NNAMDIOur guest in Anthony Gittens. He is the founder and director of Filmfest D.C., the Washington D.C. International Film Festival. Some of the feature films echo real life, and this year, you're avidly courting a bit of controversy here. One film that may spark some is "Underground: The Julian Assange Story." What might be learned from this film that we have not so far learned from the headlines about Julian Assange?
GITTENSThis is a film -- it's a feature film, not a documentary, that focuses on Julian Assange's teenage -- his formative years. It's a film from Australia, an Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly, whose films we've shown in the festival for many years, and it looks -- it's a drama that looks at what happened to this person to eventually have him evolve into the person that we know today. And, as a matter of fact, we've confirmed we very much expect to be able to do a telephone interview with Julian Assange following the screening on Thursday.
NNAMDIJulian Assange is still living in the embassy of Ecuador in London it's my understanding.
GITTENSIt's in the in the embassy of London in Ecuador. He's in London in the embassy of Ecuador. Correct.
NNAMDIOf Ecuador. Yes, I'm sorry.
GITTENSAnd he's there and, again, his -- I'm not an expert, and the film festival is not about...
NNAMDIHis current political...
GITTENSHis current -- yeah. That's not what we're about. But he is a controversial polarizing figure. Washington is a place where so many folks are controversial and polarizing.
NNAMDIThat's what we manufacture, yes.
GITTENSHe fits right in. He fits right in and we're just happy to have the American premiere of the film about him.
NNAMDIPlease put on your headphones because I'm getting ready to go to the telephones where Mrs. D. in Washington D.C. awaits us. Mrs. D., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MRS. D.Hello, Kojo. Hi Tony.
GITTENSHello, how are you?
D.Good. I'm great. I just wanted to call and say that I have -- I'm a native Washingtonian, but I have been living in Holland, and I came back to D.C. I think during the year you had your first film festival, and I remember you had the opening...
NNAMDIThat would have been 27 years ago.
D....you had the opening night part over at the Kennedy Warren.
GITTENSYes. That's true.
D.Oh, my God. We had so much fun, and I've been so proud and I've been trying to go to at least see so many films ever since then. But I will tell you that I'm a CPA, so your films have always been around April the 15th. So either I've gotten my work done before, or I had to slip out, you know, to see them. But it's just been great, and I'm so proud, and every time I look forward to seeing what you're doing.
GITTENSWell, thank you so much.
NNAMDIGive her the dates of the festival this year.
GITTENSThe festival runs April the 11th, this coming Thursday, through April the 21st. April 11 through 21st, and folks who are interested in detailed information about the event can go to our website, filmfestdc.org. Filmfestdc.org.
NNAMDIAnd you can find a link to that website at our website kojoshow.org, Mrs. D., so thank you very much for your call. You too can call us 800-433-8850. Usually there's a delayed gratification when it comes to trilogies, but you'll be screening a trio of films from the so-called "Paradise" series. What stands out for you about these films?
GITTENSThese films are adult films. Again, you mentioned that we're a little edgier this year than we have tended to be in the past.
GITTENSThese films are by an Austrian filmmaker, Ulrich Seidel, and they've been controversial wherever they've played. One is called "Paradise Love," another "Paradise Faith," and the final, "Paradise Hope." They look at -- they're raw. They're raw. They're passionate. They don't necessarily show human behavior at its best, but it's real. It's real. So for example, the first one, "Paradise Love," is about middle-aged women who go to Mombasa in Africa...
GITTENS...and the go there to have sex with African young men. The young men, of course, are just doing it for money. It looks at both sides. So it's not a healthy relationship, but it's a real relationship. Anyone who's traveled to these countries and in the Caribbean knows that this is a fact of life there. So these -- all three of these films look at these types of relationships that people have with each other.
NNAMDIThey may be uncomfortable, but they are real. Sometimes when the world is too much with us, we just need to laugh, and this year, you're looking once again at the lighter side, but humor is often very tied to culture. Do you ever worry that jokes in a foreign film just won't make it with a U.S. audience?
GITTENSAbsolutely. That is why we go to see films with audiences, and why we see a lot of films. And your point is very well taken. Since everyone, every culture wants to laugh and have a good time, they find time to do that in every culture, but that -- their humor might not be appreciated across cultures. So we have to find these films, and I think the ones that we've collected for our lighter side series it do do that. We have films from India, from Denmark, we have American films. We have a film from Nepal, the first film that we've ever shown from Nepal, and the filmmaker will be coming in for this film.
GITTENSIt's called "Highway." And we have films from Serbia. "The Parade" about a gay rights parade that's taken place, and they seek out the motorcycle gangs to help protect them during the parade, and how that happens you've got to see the film to get there. But we -- as we like to say that now in Washington, politics isn't the only funny thing going on.
NNAMDIWe got an interesting tweet from growov who says, "Love subtitled films, important for deaf families like us. Going for the 'The Parade,' love E Street Cinema for foreign films." That means he will probably love Filmfest D.C. this year.
GITTENSWell, that's good. And you know, when people do show up, that encourages us. I mean, we do about 23,000 people every year, and because folks like your listeners who do show up every year, it makes us feel good about it and encourages us to go forward.
NNAMDIBut like I said, you've been doing Filmfest D.C. for more than a quarter of a century, and it seems to be -- how can I put this, the hub around which revolve a whole mushrooming set of film festivals that come to the Washington area now every year.
GITTENSThat's absolutely true. We were the first. We were the first, and we showed that you can have success with this kind of cultural event in Washington D.C., and other festivals have modeled themselves in a lot of ways around our success, which is a good thing. I live in Washington. I love the culture of Washington D.C., so the more of us merrier.
NNAMDID.C. has a number of official sister cities, and this year you're highlighting films from about three of them, Paris, Beijing, Seoul. Why is it important that the city itself have a star role in some of these films?
GITTENSWe're doing this project in cooperation with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Washington, like most major cities, have relationships, official relationships with a number of other cities around the world. These films, they have characters in them, there's a plot. But the real star of the films that we're showing in this category is city. So we're showing a film called "Paris Underground," and it's a thriller, but the folks in the film move throughout the city. So you begin to see the city in a way that you might not normally see it.
GITTENSWe're doing a film about Beijing, and so it's Beijing, but the characters move within the city and meet other people in the city, and the merchants of the city and their friends. So the city itself becomes a character in these films. That's just another way of us presenting fascinating films from around the world.
NNAMDIIt's like reading a George Pelecanos novel...
NNAMDI...and finding out -- finding your way around Washington as a result of it.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Tony Gittens. He's the founder and director of Filmfest D.C., the Washington D.C. international film festival. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Bob in Arlington, Va. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBHello. Hello. Kojo, I enjoy your show, and I was just calling to say that about 25 years ago I volunteered two years in a row in the Filmfest. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and over the years, I've been to several to see some of the screenings. I wish I had more time. Unlike your guest, I wish I could have seen all of films, and I do plan to see at least two, maybe three, this year.
NNAMDIWell, good for you, Bob. You can...
BOBAnd I think it's a very healthy thing for Washington D. C. to have these Filmfests. I know other cities have had them for a longer period of time, but I do think Washington indeed is a premier location for such a venue, and for such a program, and I'm glad you've done it.
NNAMDIAnd continuing to do it. You should that Tony Gittens spent 11 years as executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He left that in 2008, and it has enabled you, I assume, to focus more on Filmfest D.C.
GITTENSYes. It's enabled me to do that, as well to do -- as doing other things, like resting occasionally. But it has allowed me to focus more and to work more with our staff and our team. Bob mentioned he was a volunteer. But yeah, we have like two, 300 hundred volunteers every year. People who come and help us and work with the public, and without them we just could not do this event. So it's a hard work, of course, it's a labor of love. We're passionate about what we do, and we think that if -- if folks just sort of limit their diet of films to Hollywood films, they're just missing so much entertainment from around the world.
NNAMDIFilmfest D.C., one of the cultural hubs around which this city revolves. Tony Gittens is the founder and director of it. Tony Gittens, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIYou can find more information at our website kojoshow.org, where you'll find a link. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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