D.C. Indie Film Fest (DCIFF) 2021 Recap

2021 has been my year of film festivals…and I’m not mad at it. Where else can you get that much exposure to such a diverse array of filmmakers and works?! And some really cool and interesting panel discussions and Q&As — and sometimes I even get to chat one-on-one with these cool folks. With that said, I couldn’t let another day go by without doing a recap of this year’s DCIFF (March 30 – April 8). Now that I’ve moved back to the area, I wanted to make a point of immersing myself in the film world here (for both professional and personal reasons). So I signed up to volunteer and I’m so glad that I did. It was my first time actually working with a film festival so I was excited to dive right in. I worked on coordinating all of the panels and seminars which was so cool because I got to meet so many interesting and distinguished filmmakers and professionals from so many facets of the industry (and it connected my business and creative sides — win-win). And I’m not just saying this because I worked on them, but I think we had some really great panels — from the legal issues of streaming to ethics and accountability in documentary filmmaking to indie distribution and tricks of the horror trade. Thank you again to all of our panelists — I learned a lot!

Like many other festivals this year (and a handful last year), DCIFF had to adapt to our new reality and hold a hybrid festival. There were a handful of in-person screenings (according to CDC and local guidelines of course) and online screenings and Zoom panel discussions and seminars. DCIFF also was able scratch my itch and allow me get back into a movie theater (shout out to the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse!) It was kind of a surreal experience — we were capped at 15 people, socially-distanced and had to wear masks — but I’m not complaining because it felt good to be back in a theater (as someone who had (has, idk) an AMC Stubs A-List membership, I was going to the theater at least 3 times a month — not counting my trips to my local arthouse cinema outings — pre-pandemic so I’ve been going through withdrawals). But enough of my ramblings…lets talk movies!

“Funeral of a Nation”

This was the first film of the festival for me. I love films that are super creative and involved in terms of their format and Funeral of a Nation: A Musical Essay was right up my alley. It was a video essay with a spoken word/conscious rap feel over the footage. Directed by Keith Nixon, Jr., this work integrated the cultural and social influences of funerals (Black funeral, in particular), tradition, music, and excellence. The title came from a sermon in the 1970s that later became a gospel recording. The film was stirring and emotional yet hopeful and joyous at the same time. The soundtrack was amazing and the archival footage of sermons and Black history makers and their speeches were moving. It really was a testament to the power of the spoken word. There was also the story of a songwriter woven throughout this film. It really goes in-depth about the power and impact of a funeral — it is where we can laugh, cry, sing and pray all in one setting — it is a time of reflection, not only reflection on yourself but the world around you. Overall, this video essay was a celebration of life and a wonderful way for me to start my festival viewing. If you ever get the chance to watch it, I highly recommend.

Our nation is in the casket, but its funeral will lead to the birth of another…

“Juliet Must Die”

Next up, was the German film Juliet Must Die directed by Marco Gadge.

Lya laces her father’s tea with sleeping pills to secretly attend the acting audition. Caring for her father for eight years is enough. But, of course, the plan is blown.

This was a fun watch and I see why it won “Best Narrative Feature.” It seemed like the cast was having a great time and as a viewer you really get swept up in the almost madcap feel of the story and pacing of the film. Its about finding your voice and coming into your own and doing what you’re passionate about. There were also some cultural differences undertones and gave a little glimpse of the German (I think Berlin specifically) creative scene. Lya has to take care of her wheelchair-bound father while putting her dreams of acting on the back burner as she yearns to break out and follow in her late mother’s footsteps. It’s a family drama, but also a buddy comedy about an unlikely trio and their misadventures. Like I said, this was a fun watch.

“Origin of the Species”

Documentaries about artificial intelligence (A.I.) and where technology is going have been making the rounds at this year’s festivals. And I’ll be the first (but I’m sure I’m not) to say it — it’s mind-blowing, inspiring, and scary all at once. I think I’ve seen too many movies about A.I. and robots taking over the world (and I just watched The Mitchells vs the Machines — which was super fun by the way) — and as these robots start to look more and more like us (there’s still the whole uncanny valley thing), those movies stick in the back of my mind. This was a great mix of the science and the social elements of these technologies and social intelligence. This doc made sure to touch on the interaction between humans and machines and the ethical implications of the research in this area. I’m sure as the year goes on, there will be more and more documentaries about this area of technology (I’m in the midst of Hot Docs right now and there’s one screening as we speak).

“The Bears on Pine Ridge”

This was the documentary that I ventured out into the world to see live and in person. And I think it was a solid choice. The Bears on Pine Ridge, the winner of “Best of Fest” (directed by Noel Bass) tells the story of a respected elder who leads the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s only suicide prevention team while working with a group of suicide survivor teenagers to create a performance group, called the BEAR Program. This film opened my eyes to the plight of teenagers and their families on the reservations here in the U.S. — the isolation and hopelessness were heart-breaking. I’m a crier and this one definitely turned on the waterworks. At times it was even frustrating and hard to watch — the lack of resources and assistance from our government (the same government that put them into these situations) was disheartening and embarrassing, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

They need our help and after all, its the least we can do given our history of treatment of Native and indigenous peoples. But I will say that it was inspiring to see the work of this elder and her passion for her people and trying to saving their youth — but there’s only so much one person can do without running themselves in the ground. But in the end, its a story of resilience — that is the story of our Native peoples. I really hope that this film gets out there to bigger and bigger audiences because it shines a light on a subject matter that should get people riled up to combat it. And it was super cool to have the elder and her family in person at the screening for a Q&A with the audience. This is a poignant film that I recommend everyone watch, and if I could just suggest one thing, its that the filmmaker adn team should make this more of a social impact film and at the end before the credits roll, add a slide showing viewers how they can get involved and help…create an awareness campaign around the film. But be sure to check out the film’s website for more information.

“Leave the Door Open”

Those who know me, know that I am fascinated by history — especially pop culture history (music, film, etc.) — so this was another documentary right up my alley. And it was cool because it was a story that takes place right here in the area where I currently live. It’s always cool when you see somewhere you know on the screen. This documentary (winner of “Best Documentary”), directed by Umran Safter, takes us into the world of Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, founders of Atlantic Records who hosted jazz jam sessions with artists such as Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Teddy Williams, Johnny Hodges, and Count Basie at the Turkish Ambassador’s residence in Washington DC during the 1920s and 1930s. At its heart, it’s a film about the power of music to unite and bring people together no matter your race, religion, or background. The two brothers broke all barriers of racial prejudice and hosted Black musicians at a diplomatic facility during a time when that wasn’t really the looked favorable upon. Using a mix of interviews with a host of people including historians, experts, music producers and musicians, and archival footage, Safter weaves an awe-inspiring story. Overall, this was very well done and lively and the film had the same aura and feel of the jazz jam sessions it depicted — it was upbeat and joyous and inspiring in spite of the cruelty and discrimination outside the doors of the embassy.

Overall, the DCIFF was a great experience — both working on it and viewing the diverse selection of films. Smaller, regional film festivals are great for exposing you to works that sometimes don’t make it to the larger festivals or you might not be able to catch anywhere else. The creativity and storytelling of these filmmakers should be celebrated and noted and it’s thanks to the DCIFF team and other smaller film festivals that they get their props and help to extend the lifecycle of these films. Being my first time experiencing DCIFF and the fact that they had to pull off a festival during a pandemic, I have to give them a round of applause 👏🏽 for a successful event. The programming selection was great and diverse (gender diversity, cultural diversity, and subject matter diversity) and the panelists were thoughtful, fun, and insightful. So if you’re in the area next year, be sure to check out DCIFF — and here’s hoping we’ll be back in person fully so that we can continue to build a sense of community around these films and the wonderful filmmakers!