DC/DOX returns for a second year, putting the documentary filmmaker front and center

Last Updated: June 26, 2024By Tags:

DC/DOX only started a year ago. Still, judging by the enthusiasm, breadth of films and the high-wattage filmmakers and guests who descended on the nation’s capital this past weekend, the festival has a long and happy future ahead.  Festival founders Sky Sitney and Jamie Shor once again curated a program of films offering diverse viewpoints and often untold stories.  Filmmakers, decision-makers, journalists, hopefuls and the merely curious came to Washington to celebrate the pursuit of truth-seeking.

I was happy to again lead several filmmaker Q&A panels, including Friday for a round of short films called “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and one panel Saturday evening for “Emergent City,” a film about a multilingual Brooklyn community’s efforts to halt redevelopment of a waterfront property, which they believe will lead to gentrification and rent rises rather than economic opportunity (capsule reviews of both films are included in a follow-up story for Screen Comment).  As a documentarian myself, it was intriguing to attend a panel on the oh-so-difficult question of raising money (the response I often get is simply, “It’s hard”).

At the opening screening held Thursday at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater, Shor said that some 200 filmmakers had come to “the center of the universe” or, as she observed, “some call it crazy town.”

Sky Sitney

In her own opening statements, Sitney, a film professor at Georgetown who was festival director for the AFI DOCS and Silverdocs festivals, said that in addition to quite literally being a new festival, DC/DOX is seeking to create an identity that is perhaps unique from the established festival paradigm—and one that exists at a time when the industry remains so uncertain (she also pointed to the fact that the first film festival in Venice in 1932 was started by Mussolini).

“A film festival emerges from a tradition that has been around nearly since the beginning of cinema,” she said.  “I do find something profound about advancing a tradition rooted in the belief that film is a distinctive artform—and its value to bring people together around [the medium] of visual storytelling.

“It takes us to places, opens up new perspectives…and invites us, the audience, with people, experiences and communities we may have never encountered before.  All documentaries are an invitation to enter a new world… to challenge our own self-beliefs… no filmmaker makes a film without the hope of being seen, and with being seen, leaving an audience in a different place from where we started.”

That mission statement was certainly true of the opening-night film, “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story,” about the actor who famously continued to work even after being paralyzed in a horse-riding accident while at the same time becoming an advocate for spinal cord injury funding and research.  Executive producers Connor Schell and Libby Geist introduced the film by saying they were fascinated by the notion of what a “hero” is—and not necessarily one who flies around in a cape.  They thanked Reeve’s three children—including D.C. local Alexandra Reeve Givens, who attended the event—for trusting the filmmaking team.

Libby Geist

At a post-screening Q&A moderated by CNN’s Audie Cornish, Alexandria said she was only ten when her dad was permanently injured.

“Vulnerability is a part of life, and persistence through that is the definition of strength,” she said, adding that she and her family had no input into the artistic choices made by the filmmakers.  (“Super/Man” was directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, who earlier made “Phoenix Rising” about the Paralympic Games).

The film relies a great deal on Reeve’s live read of his own autobiography.

“It makes me proud that my dad is creating art even now,” Alexandria said of hearing her father’s writing read in his own voice.

Because 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of her father’s passing and Reeve’s children are all now adults, Alexandria agreed the time was right for the documentary.

“When you reach the age your parents were…you learn your dad could hurt people and break a heart,” Cornish said of Alexandria seeing her own father on screen in both his heroic and humane moments.  (I sat one row behind her, beholding her smile often during the screening).

Producers Schell and Geist said one of their aims was to juxtapose Reeve, the man, and Superman, the powerful alien from another world who was all but invincible.  Accordingly, the documentary features an animation of a godlike figure who turns green, as if struck by Kryptonite, to indicate Reeve’s physical failings.

The film is doubly tragic in that Alexandria’s stepmother, Dana, died of lung cancer not long after Reeve succumbed to his injuries (Alexandria’s biological mother, Gae Exton, is also featured in the doc, tearfully recalling the man who fathered her two children).  Indeed, Schell called Dana a hero, not only for caring for her paralyzed husband but for carrying on his mission to research spinal injuries in the little time she had left after Reeve’s death.

“My daughter wears Dana’s hair clip in her hair,” Alexandria added.  “Hopefully, this gets people to reflect on their own lives.  …  My god, every minute is a gift.  You do not take for granted the people in your life.

“Sometimes it takes a movie to bring you back to first principles,” she said.  “It was so nice to get to spend a couple of hours with my parents.”

An attempted coup took place on January 6th, 2021, and a second try will likely occur on January 6th, 2025 when Congress meets once again at the Capitol to certify the election results.  In “War Game,” directed by Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss, serving and retired politicians, as well as defense and intelligence officials, play a rather sweat-inducing scenario in which elements of the armed forces and Capitol Police take up arms against the legitimate winner and his supporters.  One “team” plays the president (portrayed in the exercise by former Montana governor Steve Bullock) and his advisers, while another tosses out social media grenades on behalf of the fictional “Order of Columbus,” telling their followers to disregard the results and continue their attacks.

And they only have six hours to “solve” the crisis.

None of it is real, not even the rather convincing actor hired to portray a renegade general inducing the armed forces to come and follow him—which, we learn in “War Game,” was a key missing ingredient to a successful coup in 2021.

The entire operation is overseen by an organization called Vet Voice, comprising retired military personnel dedicated to preserving the cause of American democracy.  In a nod to that noble goal, the thespians they recruit served as both Republican and Democratic administrators (keep an eye out for a one-time presidential candidate, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, as the ex-president’s defense secretary).

Alexander Vindman

“[We] pointed our cameras at something that is acknowledged as fake or not real…but becomes more real than real,” co-director Gerber said at the post-screening panel Q&A at the Navy Memorial’s Burke Theatre.  He added that even though the culture may have a certain fatigue about Jan. 6, their film “doesn’t deliver conclusions [but rather is] a provocation for a conversation.”

“We can’t make full sense of [Jan. 6] and the imagery is triggering,” added co-director Moss.   “We flipped the script: something potentially worse but [from] the perspective of the president and his advisers…and watched decision-making in crisis.”

The panel also included Janessa Goldbeck, CEO of Vet Voice Foundation and a retired Marine.  In the film, she discusses being in the first class where it was possible to be an open lesbian and how she and the other members of Vet Voice remain devoted to this country, which is why running the war game was so important.

“We put together something that really [allowed] us to stress-test the norms around the” election, Goldbeck said.  “We didn’t know that Trump was going to be the nominee when we made this in 2023 [we designed the game] in a way that didn’t plant bad ideas in the head of people who want more harm to our democracy.”

“The military game out scenarios before we carry out operations.  It’s actually second nature in senior levels of government,” added retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was fired by Trump after agreeing to provide the House with information for Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2019.  Vindman added that the military has long been concerned with extremism within the ranks, but it faces a simultaneous PR problem in that it will be difficult to properly identify and root it out, given how political the issue of what constitutes “extremism” can be.

[Our 2023 coverage: “First ever DC/DOX FEST kicks off; We were there”]

“War Game” nonetheless provides “a peak into a properly functioning government,” Vindman said.

Panel moderator Kara Swisher told Bullock she was convinced his fictional president would invoke the Insurrection Act (as Trump himself threatened to do on Jan. 6, 2021), but Bullock, the former Montana governor, reminded the audience that the prospect of turning weapons on American citizens is all but too terrifying to deploy into action—even in pretend.

“And what about the day after?  Are we going to start figuring out how to heal the day after the election?” Bullock said of his choice within the simulation.  His goal as the phony president, he added, was to see if he could solve the crisis without invoking the act, passed in 1807 and seldom used.  Bullock said it was key to listen to his advisers to game every possible avenue to avoid doing so.

“When you’re asking for your National Guard to be deployed in these types of situations…the question is do you want your sons and daughters fighting against your sons and daughters?” added retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, another panel participant seen in “War Game.”  “How do we pull this back?”

Former senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who was actually inside the Capitol on Jan. 6, said that when it came time for the simulation, she pressed for the people’s vote to be secured and arrests of insurrectionists to commence immediately who might try to disrupt the count.

“Many of the Capital Police were my friends,” she said, then offered praise of the governor of her state’s western neighbor in showing restraint during the exercise.  “The fact that Steve [Bullock] came from state government and I was [North Dakota’s] attorney general, [we] have a different perspective of what Washington’s involvement should be.”

“As a former Republican and conservative, I love states rights, but I’ve spent twenty years doing homeland security,” added participant Elizabeth Neumann, who served in the administrations of both Donald Trump and George W. Bush.  Neumman said that often, the federal government is criticized if it doesn’t react fast enough, as happened during Bush’s mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  “One of the principles of managing crises…is that it’s difficult to communicate as often as possible [but] you communicate what you do know,” she said, adding that interagency connection is important at every level.  “It is reassuring to the average American.”

The filmmakers shared that the Red Team, the ones trolling the government in the simulation (and headed by an Army veteran who suffered from PTSD), made a phony video of the government “attacking” protesters in under two minutes.  It’s perhaps a foreshadowing of the echo chamber of false information to come in the lead-up to and aftermath of November’s election.

“I’m scared, but I met some of these folks, and they inspired me,” said “War Game” co-director Moss.

Sometimes, films bring people together in unexpected ways.  A case in point is Elizabeth Ai’s “New Wave,” a documentary about the children of Vietnamese American immigrants embracing New Wave music as well as the personal journey of Ai, whose parents have been largely absent from her life (interesting anecdote: Ai and I attended the same college. This screening was the first time we’d seen one another in almost twenty-five years).

After being introduced by DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival board vice president Renée Tsao, Ai told the Saturday afternoon screening crowd that it took six years to make her film.  She noted that 2025 marks the 50th anniversary of the end of “the Vietnam-American War,” which was not coincidental with her film coming when it did.

“I grew up in this country, but I never saw representation of people like me.  My people were always the villains,” Ai said.  “I carried around so much shame growing up because those were the images I always saw.  … What I was avoiding was the pain that I was carrying around.  It was important that I faced my truth, and that’s what you’re going to see in the film.”

“New Wave” is a fascinating combination of history lesson and anthropological investigation of a subsection of American society.  Historical footage shows the frantic evacuations as Saigon fell, with U.S. diplomatic and military personnel getting as many civilians out of the country as they could.  They were brought to a new country, taught a new language and culture, and essentially left to find their own way.  Their trauma was never addressed; no wonder it rubbed off on their American-born children, such as Ai.  Her father left the family at a young age, and her mother was almost never around; even as Ai married and became a mother, Ai’s mother had yet to meet her own granddaughter.  We also learn about Lynda Trang Đài, a prominent New Wave singer who left home as a teen to pursue her career, but even now, as a success has a day job running a deli.

Underneath it all, somehow, remained the positive spirit of the music.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as the lights went up.  Ai was joined by producer Rachel Sine for a conversation moderated by Melissa Bisagni, festival director of the DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival.  Ai said that she spent the first year of production combing through the archives while pregnant with her daughter and engaging in deep research on the music scene.  It was only later that she leaned on Sine to help her dig deeper and make “New Wave” more than a history lesson: Ai needed to step in front of the camera and share her own story.

“There was something deeper missing from the story: your deeply personal connection to the story and what you went through growing up,” Sine said, adding that Ai’s vulnerability made “New Wave” come alive in unexpected ways.

“I never thought I would see myself on camera.  I really resisted that,” the director said, adding that she has undergone years of therapy.  “It started to shift when people said it would be so much more powerful and meaningful….  I guess I’m a bit of a masochist.”

Elizabeth Ai

Ai said she didn’t even realize she was, in fact, pretending she was OK and not dealing with that collective trauma.  She bought into the “model minority” myth that she should be grateful for being better off than her parents.  And with the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War coming up next year, she said she was also keen to create a document for her daughter—what she called making a “strong maternal thread” linking back to previous generations and the sacrifices they have made.

A companion book of the various photos she unearthed from both her family archive and from the New Wave scene is due to be published by the Los Angeles Public Library.  Meantime, Ai said her mother has seen her film and been affected by it.

“I’m working on having a relationship with her,” Ai said.

Saturday evening saw one of the most unusual films play at DC/DOX.  “Intercepted,” by director Oksana Karpovych, takes audio from Russian soldiers sent back to the homeland captured by Ukrainian counterintelligence services—and places them as a counterpoint to the destruction wrought in that country by Vladimir Putin’s war.  The effect is jarring, with some soldiers boasting openly of committing war crimes as Karpovych displays static shots of abandoned flats, destroyed homes and civilians somehow still going on about their lives.

It’s an intriguing cinematic experiment and certainly a dangerous assignment for the English-born cinematographer Christopher Nunn, who stayed for a post-screening discussion led by Julian Borger, world affairs editor at the Guardian.  Nunn, who has Ukrainian heritage, said that he had worked for a decade in the country on such projects as covering the conflict in the Donbas region.  He was once injured in an artillery attack in Donbas—and said the town where that happened has essentially been wiped from the map.

Nunn and Karpovych filmed in the summer of 2022, mostly around Kharkiv and newly liberated territory on Ukraine’s eastern front.

“Oksana talks about the quiet of war.  A lot of the time, nothing is happening.  It’s just very quiet, and the tension of that is something we tried to translate in the images,” Nunn said.  “We also just didn’t want to film in a way that was news reporting.

“We decided this was everywhere and nowhere in Ukraine. Nowhere’s safe.  That’s why there is no indication of location” in the film’s scenes—save for one involving a Russian POW camp.

Nunn said that the still-life shots throughout the film were done both to allow the damage of the war to sink in as well and for audiences to have appropriate time to read the translations.  It also acts as a kind of counternarrative to what is spewed from the Kremlin.

“We’re trying to show the reality of Ukraine and what you hear from the Russian soldiers, and they don’t really match,” he said.

When I asked if he ever felt unsafe during the making of the film, Nunn paused for a moment before offering a one-word response.


“I don’t recommend making movies about trials,” the documentary filmmaker Clay Tweel told me this weekend about working on his latest, “The Bitter Pill,” for the better part of a decade.

Sometimes, you have to stop even if it’s not necessarily the ending you imagined.

Tweel has made some fascinating documentaries in the past, be it “Gleason” about former NFL player Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS, the docuseries “The Innocent Man,” based on John Grisham’s non-fiction novel about a gross double miscarriage of justice, or “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” which aired on CNN last fall.  He was gracious enough to sit down with me for a quick conversation about “The Bitter Pill,” which follows a crusading lawyer named Paul Farrell Jr. who is suing the pharmaceutical companies whose opioids have ravaged his rural West Virginia community.  The film played at DC/DOX this weekend, including once at the Center for American Progress.

Tweel, whose family hails from Virginia, says that his uncle worked in the same West Virginia law firm as Farrell, and told him the story “might be a good film.”

“I talked to [Farrell] on the phone and immediately understood him as a very complex, passionate, interesting character,” Tweel told me.  “And [as a filmmaker] who likes to tell character-based stories, that’s kind of like my guiding star as far as what I look for.”

Tweel said that, in law as in film, justice may mean that everyone walks away somewhat frustrated.  That is certainly true of Farrell’s situation, as shown in the film, though he vows to continue fighting even as he empties his bank accounts.  But still, Farrell tries to reach some kind of common ground with the other side.

“That’s part of the foundation I think of what this nation is—trying to find places and ways to compromise to build a better society,” Tweel said, adding that he had been primed by years of enjoying legal thrillers such as “The Verdict” and “The Parallax View” to imagine a trial documentary would follow similar narrative threads.  But he kept the cameras rolling to document Farrell’s quixotic quest to get some acknowledgment—and hopefully some money—from Big Pharma for the horrors they wreaked upon Appalachia.

Tweel says Farrell has watched and given his approval to “A Bitter Pill,” which the filmmaker described as “a big sigh of relief” for distilling a yearslong legal process down in a 90-minute film.  More importantly, he hopes that the culture will continue to hold Big Pharma’s feet to the fire, considering that the number of deaths continue to climb.

“If you really think about it, I think the last four or five years, more people have died of opioid overdoses than the entirety of the Vietnam War—every year,” he said.  “It touches all socioeconomic [classes], races, and genders; it does not discriminate.

“And I hope [my film brings] more awareness around who was actually a part of this flood of pills.  I think there were many people up and down the chain of distribution of opioids that are to blame for this.  So this is just a sliver of who we should be looking at.”

Featured image: “New Wave,” directed by Elizabeth Ai

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