Art Works Blog

Now Showing in DC: Film Forward!

Washington, DC

The Film Forward filmmakers: (l to r) Debra Granik, Vikramaditya Motwane, Jennifer Arnold, Peter Bratt, Stanley Nelson, Cherien Dabis, Lixin Fan, Taika Waititi, and Mohamed Al-Daradji. (Not pictured: Havana Marking) Photo by Victoria Hutter

“To say you’re like another person in a different time and place allows for us to communicate in a better way politically and on a human level,” said Kerry Washington, speaking to an audience gathered this morning to celebrate the DC arrival of Film Forward.

A partnership project of the Sundance Institute and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), Film Forward presents outstanding narrative and documentary films to audiences, many of them underserved, in the U.S. and abroad. Even more important than seeing great films, audiences are able to connect with the filmmakers themselves who engage in post-film talkbacks, roundtables, and workshops in places as diverse as Wushen, China, Nashville, Tennessee, and the Chippewa Reservation in Northern Michigan.

The filmmakers, members of the media, and program partners (including the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services) gathered at the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue to meet the filmmakers and hear them discuss their Film Forward experiences. On hand to welcome the group was Deanna Horton, Canadian minister for congressional, public & intergovernmental affairs, who quipped that Canadians spend $2.6 billion in home video “probably because of our weather.”

Kerry Washington was up next, introducing herself as an actor and, “more importantly, a member of PCAH.” Washington acknowledged the importance of Sundance’s work to her own career, particularly as a person of color and a woman. “I have the career I have because of Sundance, because they stood behind the belief that many different types of stories deserve to be told.”

Washington went on to comment on the importance of film as a medium: “Really great films allow you to step outside of yourself into another person’s experience….[Film Forward] can do that on a global scale.”

Next to speak was Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam who applauded the 10 filmmakers, saying, “They help us to embrace a shared humanity.” As Putnam explained the program’s mission, she noted that the films were selected on the basis of “artistic excellence, diversity of point of view, and the ability to ignite dialogue.” Putnam also described the Sundance mission as twofold: “to support new storytellers around the world but also to connect to new audiences, especially communities underserved for this type of storytelling.”

Alyce Myatt---the NEA’s Media Arts director---then took the podium, relating that she’d personally seen the power of film. “I’ve seen film change hearts, change minds, and I even funded a film that became federal housing legislation. Film equals action.”

Myatt moderated a panel with four Film Forward participants: Peter Bratt, writer/director of La Mission; Cherien Dabis, writer/director of Amreeka; Lixin Fan, director of Last Train Home; and Stanley Nelson, director of Freedom Riders. Each spoke eloquently about the transformative experiences of filmmaking and of engaging directly with their audiences.

Peter Bratt said, “I am from one of those communities that don’t often have access. That inspired me to make films that reflect people I grew up with in my community.” He then related an encounter with a homeless young man who attended a showing of La Mission in Nashville. Despite living under a bridge, the boy wanted to know if he could find filmmaking classes in Nashville because “I want to tell a story.”

After acknowledging that Amreeka was semi-autobiographical, Cherien Dabis spoke about the connection audiences made to her film. “So many people come up to me after [a screening] and say, ‘You’re telling my story.’ And the beautiful thing for me is that they then tell me their story.” She related that she had been particularly affected by a question from a young film student in Turkey. “He asked, ‘How is it that you took an experience that was painful and made it into something gentle, light, and buoyant?’ I had to pause because I hadn’t really realized I’d done that.”

Lixin Fan said that as an immigrant filmmaker---he now lives in Canada---he “really felt how difficult it is to uproot your life and go somewhere else so I wanted to tell that story.” He also explained why he found his home country such a compelling subject. “China is such a big country, and there are so many stories happening there. As an immigrant living abroad, I felt an urgency to tell these stories for the world community.” According to Fan, it’s important to show films such as Winter’s Bone in other countries because they give international audiences “a perspective that there’s another side to American life.” In closing, Fan had this advice for fellow filmmakers, “You are the only one that can stop yourself telling the truth.”

The final speaker was Stanley Nelson who shared about his visit to China to screen Freedom Riders. “I was asked one of the greatest questions: Why was there segregation?...It’s such a beautiful, elemental question---and something no one in U.S. screenings ever asks.” Nelson expressed that the most important part of the trip to him was the audiences. “Someone said to me film was truth, and I really saw that….When I was making the film I never thought of an audience in Wushen, and now they’ll always be in the back of my mind. Film is such a powerful medium, it’s for this larger world community.”

Tonight all ten films will screen simultaneously at several venues around the National Mall, including the Smithsonian Museum of National History, the National Archives, and the National Museum of the American Indian. You can find a list of the films and available tickets here.

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