First ever DC/DOX FEST kicks off; we were there

Last Updated: July 4, 2023By Tags:

It’s always great to be first.  This weekend the nation’s capital saw the premiere of DC/DOX, a new film festival dedicated to truth in filmmaking.

Opening night kicked off at the National Portrait Gallery, where festival founders Jamie Shor and Sky Sitney spoke about the necessity of founding a new venue for documentaries in the capital in the wake of AFI DOCS, which used to be in D.C., having moved west to Los Angeles.  Shor, president of the D.C.-based public relations firm PR Collaborative, spoke about the importance of the capital city hosting such an undertaking.

“When a void opened up in D.C. and there was not going to be a doc festival in the summer, I told [PR Collaborative vice president] Renée [Tsao], I’m going to text Sky.  We had a meeting of the minds [regarding] how passionate we were about the Washington film scene and how much documentaries mean to this market.”

“We both felt the urgency and absolute clarity of purpose to build it,” added Sitney, associate professor of the Practice and Director of Film and Media Studies Program at Georgetown University.  “To build a film festival is altogether different, especially building it from scratch.  I adopted a mantra: ‘Let it be possible.’”

Sitney added that her own brother made the first donation to DC/DOX; she went on to thank other supporters of the new event, including National Geographic Documentary Films and founding media sponsor the Washington Post.  (Disclosure: I work part-time at The Post as a copy editor.)  She also acknowledged the Native cultures of the Piscataway, Nentego and other Tribes upon whose ancient lands the District of Columbia now sits.

Sky Sitney

“Like the film tonight, [we] seek to shine a spotlight on people who are seeking to change the world for the better,” Sitney said before introducing the premiere film, “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise.”

“I Am a Noise” is less a travelog of Baez’s amazing six decades in music as it is an exploration of her personality, her hopes, her tragedies, her triumphs and her losses, and her well-known political advocacy on behalf of the cause of peace.  In addition to the notable music she made early on with Bob Dylan, the film tells of Baez’s difficulties with anxiety—as well as her later-in-life wish to confront her parents about what she viewed as unacceptable behavior in her youth.  It’s a fascinating, sometimes excruciating, watch—and a portrait in empathy.

A post-screening Q&A was moderated by Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday, who was joined by director Karen O’Connor and, bringing the crowd to its feet, Baez herself, who bounded upon the stage—at 82, still imbued with the spirit that first got her notice as a teenager.

Baez shared with the audience that she has watched “I Am a Noise” several times thus far, and each time, beholding O’Connor’s take on her extraordinary life is a highly emotional experience.  One crucial scene shows O’Connor’s camera following Baez into a storage unit containing her memorabilia, personal recordings and other ephemera collected over a half-century, much of which she has never looked at.

“It started out being a film about the [final concert] tour, and then they got into the storage unit.  They had no idea what was in there,” Baez said, adding that she essentially handed O’Connor the keys to the kingdom.


O’Connor purposefully avoided the trap of including other talking heads in “I Am a Noise”; it was to be Baez’s narrative alone.

“Joan’s guts and bravery to be as revealing as she is about everything in her life [show through] as never before,” the director said.   

It was Baez’s wish to leave behind an “honest legacy,” which she felt easier accomplishing with her parents and siblings all having passed.  (Baez has one son, Gabriel, who worked on her final tour and is seen in the film.)  This meant admitting to her own traumas, but simultaneously acknowledging her love for her family.

“I think probably my Quaker training when I was little was a lot about forgiveness,” Baez said.  “None of it was easy; all of it was work.

“Even the term ‘passive resistance’, it’s a tremendous force.  You have to be ready to fight.  The difference is you will be ready not to inflict suffering; you will accept it but you won’t inflict it.”

Although she is seen working with a vocal coach in “I Am a Noise” as her voice isn’t as strong as it once was, Baez nonetheless let loose with some mellifluous vocalizing from the stage, which drew another hearty round of applause.

“We rarely see an aging woman on the screen,” enthused O’Connor.   “I was struck by the history and hearing about the March on Washington and thinking, ‘Oh my god, she was 18; she was 21’—and lived a life that was fiercely creative and committed from the beginning on.”

Baez said that while she is not an optimistic person by nature, she was once told it is a waste of time being a pessimist.  Thus she tries to hew to this advice when continuing to work for social change into her ninth decade.

“I was lucky to have people who mentored me lead me to understand ‘we shall overcome’ didn’t mean overnight, or even in my lifetime,” she said, adding “otherwise, we would have been very discouraged.”

“Most of our lives are complicated and deep,” added O’Connor.  “To make a doc that was layered and challenging to viewers…I was impressed that [Baez] meant it when she said she was with us.”

“Kokomo City”

Another film playing at DC/DOX was “Kokomo City,” which details the lives of four Black trans sex workers who not only face the harsh glance of a society that doesn’t necessarily understand them, but also the opprobrium of an often unaccepting Black community.  The director of “Kokomo City,” D. Smith, herself a trans woman, spoke with me this week about the film.  A version of our conversation follows.

How did you decide to make this documentary?

To do something like this, you really have to understand the culture.  Even if it’s not about transgenderism, there is kind of a thin line between really provocative and entertaining [filmmaking].  It’s also very informative in a non-forceful, non-condescending way.  Because even for me, as a trans woman, a lot of LBGT films could really feel preachy and really traumatizing.  I wanted to do something that felt fresh and that I thought the culture really needed—something fun and cool to watch.

Did you know any of your subjects beforehand?

I basically went to Instagram to high-profile or more popular trans women, if you will.  I did find a couple online, but then some were recommended, like Daniella [Carter], who I had never met.  I was completely blown away by her TED Talks.  I thought there was something very, very special about her being a part of “Kokomo City,” and we hit it off immediately.

Why did you opt to make the film in black-and-white?

I wanted to do something refreshing, and not the normal kind of transgender narrative.  I wanted to do something artistic and filmic.  Black-and-white to me represents elevation.  You could film anything in black-and-white and it just makes it classic.  And it brings this timeless elegance to it.

And I thought the girls’ rawness and boldness with black-and-white could really be something cool to watch.

What type of direction did you give the girls?

I insisted that they didn’t wear makeup most of the film, so there’s no glam.  They were completely vulnerable, and this is why they are badasses and they will go down as icons.  This is where the magic came [because] they were able to be as vulnerable and relatable and tangible and approachable as possible so that people could feel OK watching this.  They are so proud and empowered.

Have you shown Daniella and the other subjects the film yet?

The first night it premiered, let me tell you, it was the highlight of this whole process.  And the first time they saw it, you have the anticipation of the audience and the girls and me seeing the film for the very first time on the big screen.  It was very intense.

I had the girls sit on my row because I had to stare at every single reaction.  I didn’t know how they were going to react.  Imagine filming something three years ago and forgetting what you said.  So I was a little nervous, even though I stand behind every frame that I shot.  I wanted the girls to feel really safe and recognized and represented in the best, dignified way.

Are you hopeful that people beyond the film festival circuit will be able to see “Kokomo City”?

I think my biggest meter has been social media.  People that are not in the film world, they are absolutely dying to see this film.  I think that…people will generally want to watch this and celebrate it, and it’s something the culture really needs right now.   

One sign is that I’ve had a lot of Black women come and applaud me and congratulate me personally.  They were actually very emotionally moved by the film.  It was just something that I knew had to happen: I had to have Black women feel that this was not a competition—not feel that they were being attacked or excluded.  I wanted them to really understand that this is not villainizing Black men.  This is a Black story, not a transgender-against-Black-men-and-Black-women story.  So I was able to [achieve] that balance where everyone should be able to watch this and pull something from themselves in this film.

Have you experienced any unpleasant backlash on social media because of the film?

This is going to sound really, really, really, really weird, but I am telling everyone on my team, from [distributor] Magnolia [Pictures] to my boyfriend: I welcome those comments.  Not everything can be rainbows and umbrellas, but it has been that.  I mean you get a couple [negative comments] here and there, but it’s silly because most of the time they have four or five followers.

At the end of the day, what I want is for people to be in their feelings.  I want feathers ruffled and I want people to be uncomfortable, and I want people to be agitated or confront the truth regardless of where their perspective is on all of this.  Just them talking about it is what we need to happen.

What are your hopes for “Kokomo City” going forward?

I want everybody to know this film came from a place of vulnerability.  I hope that people will call their friends and parents, their boyfriends, their girlfriends, their parents, cousins and just have a night out and go watch it as Black people.  Obviously I want everyone there, but it will just mean the world to me if I see groups of Black people, people of color, watching it together and able to laugh and be able to support [the film].

I really do want people to create a dialogue online…about our community and who we are.

I am looking forward to continuing this journey of telling the stories and finding souls and people that deserve the opportunity.  I want to be able to support those who are underprivileged and that have remarkable talent that just needs an opportunity.  One day that will happen.  I don’t know if I can do that right now, but that is what this is all about (“Kokomo City” [Magnolia Pictures] will come out in theaters on July 28th).

In addition to being on the ground this week, I was invited to moderate several panels with filmmaking participants, including “Shorts Program 3: Out/Spoken,” whose aim was to explore “the diversity, complexity, and vibrancy of queer lives and experiences.”  At that panel Saturday, participants Jess Devaney (“How to Carry Water,” “MnM,” “The Script,” “It’s Only Life After All”), director Luchina Fisher (“The Dads”), and director Twiggy Pucchi Garcon and participant Mermaid of “MnM” answered questions about the short documentary form, as well as fielded questions from participants at the Eaton DC’s intimate theater.

Later that afternoon, I spoke with “Puffling” director Jessica Bishopp and Adam Sekuler, director of “Really Good Friends.”  “Puffling,” Bishopp said in our moderated discussion, was a labor of love, made on a remote Icelandic island where teen girls try to save puffin chicks.  Sekuler’s short doc presents an older woman in a hotel room, whom we gradually learn is there to meet a married gentleman caller in a years-long affair.  Sekuler, who is also a professor at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, told me his aim is to stretch out “Really Good Friends” into a full-length doc—although the face of his subject’s lover will never be seen.

In the evening I moderated a discussion following the screening of Irene Lusztig’s full-length “Richland,” about the community in Washington state whose nuclear reactors produced fuel for the atomic bomb—and where the young people of that town are perhaps seeking a new identity, and one that perhaps isn’t quite so tied up in the destructive force unleashed upon Japan at the end of WWII.

Although Lusztig was unable to attend the screening, cinematographer Helki Frantzen and consulting editor Todd Chandler shared stories about the challenges of completing a film amid the challenges of covid.  Frantzen graciously fielded my questions about filming in the incredible landscape of the Tri-Cities of Washington—which I have visited—as well as indulging my inquiry about filming the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, which performed Reg Unterseher’s “Nuclear Dreams” at a decommissioned nuclear power plant (my friends Chuck and Mark performed in that choir in the past).

“The body politic”

For those seeking a deeper dive into one of America’s most troubled communities, DC/DOX presented the North American premiere of “The Body Politic,” a wide-eyed view of Baltimore, located just 40 miles north of the nation’s capital. This feature-length documentary reminds us that decades and centuries of inequality have made this amazing, diverse, vibrant city an ongoing hotbed of violence—particularly in the Black community. But one of Charm City’s native sons sees a potential way forward for change.

Director Gabriel Francis Paz Goodenough follows Baltimore’s mayor, Brandon Scott, then just 37 years old but already a veteran of the trauma so often visited upon the city. He relates seeing his first shooting as a child, but says the next day was “back to normal.” He asked his mother why nobody cares, and was told “If you want to see change, you have to do it yourself.”

“Baltimore is worth fighting for because the people of Baltimore are worth fighting for,” Scott says. It’s a paean to hope and possibility. It’s a rather tall order, especially in the summer of 2020 when the city’s streets explode in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. And complicating things for Scott, once in office violence actually increases under his watch, thus threatening to derail his optimistic vision for his city—and providing fuel to his opponents.

A friend of mine once joked darkly that Baltimore is great “if you avoid the north, south, east and west sides.” He was once jumped on the street by a group who didn’t even rob him but rather left him injured and bleeding on the sidewalk. It’s this type of anecdote that has made the city a word often whispered quietly. Brandon Scott, still in office today, won’t give up on his city, his community, his vision for a better tomorrow. Nor should we.

news via inbox

Nulla turp dis cursus. Integer liberos  euismod pretium faucibua