Festival Beat: Washington West Film Festival 2017

This D.C. festival is filled with films that provoke both reaction and change.

“Story can change the world” is Washington West’s motto—it’s emblazoned across their T-shirts, posters, red carpets, and advertising. It’s this sentiment of giving back and promoting change that pervades every second of this festival. Nestling into your seat with a big box of popcorn, knowing that 100 percent of the box office profits will go to struggling communities makes you feel actively part of that change.

It’s always a little daunting traveling alone, but from the second I landed in Reston, Virginia, I felt part of the Washington West family. Festival staff and volunteers were on hand to welcome me and to introduce me to other filmmakers and engaging members of the community. Virtually every day of the festival there were parties and red carpet events after the films, where everyone could come together and meet new faces—a particular highlight being the Masquerade Ball.

Filmmaker Chris King with Robert Duvall on the Washington West red carpet.

The programming team curated a fantastic collection of films that celebrated the transformative power of film with a wide variety of features, shorts, documentaries, dramas, and animation. What really stood out for me was the quality of the films. All diverse in subject matter and theme—some funny, some inspirational, some deeply moving and provocative, some bold and daring—but all provoking a reaction and discussion. There were insightful Q&As after the films with visiting filmmakers—a standout being DP/Director Bradford Young and the rapper Common’s conversation about the perception of race in today’s America after their powerful short “Black America Again.”

Something I found unique to Washington West is that the festival also organized panel discussions with experts from the fields on which the films touched. My favorite was the documentary AlphaGo, a film which chronicles a grandmaster of the ancient Chinese game Go taking on an AI challenger for the first time in history. Deep questions about technology, humanity and the future ethics of AI were explored in the film. The conversation afterwards gave the audience the ability to ask further questions of leading AI practitioners. A cool opportunity to gain a greater understanding, again feeding back into the festival’s ethos of wanting to educate and change the world through film. The festival also held a workshop afterwards where you could learn how to play Go.

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, about the legendary producer (pictured here with Whitney Houston) was featured in a spotlight screening. Photograph courtesy of Apple Music

It was the “Kids In The Spotlight” shorts program presented by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, however, which was the perfect representation of the festival’s ethos in action. KITS is a non-profit that trains young people in foster care programs to create, write, cast, and star in their own short films. It gives the kids the platform to have their voices heard and the opportunity to tell their stories through the medium of film. The festival screened their short films and then invited the kids on stage afterwards to talk about how KITS has impacted their lives for the better. Story really can change the world. MM

Carys Watford is a writer/director from London, England whose short film “Theatreland” screened in competition at Washington West Film Festival.

The Washington West Film Festival ran from October 25-30, 2017. This year’s fest will run from October 25–29. Submissions opened January 1, and run through June 30. Photographs courtesy of Washington West Film Festival.

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