Sundance. Tribeca. South by Southwest. These film festivals popularly define the independent film movement in the United States, the launching pad for new films reaching high for the Palme D’Or, and even higher for commercial success. For the last 25 years, a new movement has worked to establish itself in the festival circuit, celebrating independent cinema in the U.S. Capitol. FilmFest DC marks its silver anniversary in April this year, when the cherry blossom’s are blooming and the nation’s east coast awakens to the spring.
A visit to FilmFest DC will not only provide an immersion into the latest and greatest of international cinema, but a tour of one of the United States’ most culturally dynamic cities. FilmFest DC is spread across nine theaters in the district, from the Avalon Theater in Chevy Chase, D.C. to the Landmark E-Street Cinema downtown. Our friends at Saab invited us to experience the festival first hand, sitting in on a long list of films from Sweden, Iran, South Korea and more.
During our visit, FilmFest DC began at the far reaches of the Metro subway system, a stones throw from the Friendship Heights station in Chevy Chase. A short walk from the station passes through hilly and historic reaches of The District, where old English brick architecture is laced with dark green ivy, fresh-faced tulips and the cherry blossoms that are commonly celebrated at this time of year. Throughout the two week festival, the Avalon Theater of Chevy Chase was home to some of the event’s best films, including TheCoolist’s favorite of all 73 pictures shown. Easy Money, Flamenco, Flamenco, Pure and Happy, Happy called the Avalon home during this event, and its old theater styling made for an ideal festival environment.
It was the Washington Metro that connected one theater to the next, an arrangement of subway trains that comprise what is the United States’ most iconic underground transport system. A few stations and a transfer would take a festival visitor from the Avalon to the Landmark E Street in a heartbeat, but the trip was as thrilling as the destination. If you’ve never seen the Washington Metro with your own eyes, you’re missing out on one of the world’s most striking landmarks of transit. For us, a ride on the metro served as the perfect intermission between films.
While we didn’t catch all 73 films at FilmFest DC, our personal favorite was Pure, a Swedish film written and directed by Lisa Langseth. Pure tells the story of 20-year-old Katarina, a lost soul whose discovery of Mozart inspires her to fight for a better world. Katarina’s hopes rise quickly only to be dashed when family, class, sexism and arrogance conspire to drive her to a tragic end. The story quotes Kierkegaard, stating that “courage is life’s only measure”, and Katarina is nothing if not courageous. While the story approaches the beautiful tragedy of a Darren Aronofsky film, it rights itself at the climax for a happy and fitting end. Look for this one at festivals in the future or for a wider release.
When we weren’t sitting in on a screening or attending an event, we took time to enjoy the city at large. Countless museums, top-rated restaurants, shopping and bars dot the D.C. landscape. We took a break from the film fest and walked a few blocks from the Landmark E Street Cinema to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. That visually stunning sandstone formation above sits just a few feet away from all 45.5 carats of the famed Hope Diamond. From there, a trip on the Metro red line brought us back to Dupont Circle, our home for the trip.
If you can attend FilmFest DC next year, Dupont Circle is a prime location to stay, centrally-located between theaters and filled with entertainment. We had to visit the famed Bistrot Du Coin in Dupont during our trip, a well-known and well-reviewed French restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. The Navarin d’agneau (lamb stew) above was a thrill ride, as was Le Steak Maison, a thin cut of peppery steak served with pomme frites. We’re not ashamed to admit that we visited Bistrot Du Coin twice during our stay.
A few blocks from the Dupont Circle metro station was our home for the film fest, the Hotel Palomar on P Street. The Palomar is a contemporary gem in DC, a modern environment that provides a careful balance of style and comfort. That’s not empty praise or pretty wording– the rooms were designed with modern furnishings that were stylish, inviting and ultimately comfortable. We’ve visited a few too many hotels that feature a nice, progressive environment, but we wind up leaving with back pain and general discomfort. Getting us out of the Palomar’s bed was a feat, and we seriously contemplated finding a way to take that bed home with us. The Palomar might carry a cost upgrade over other hotels in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, but we’re thrilled we paid the difference.
For us, FilmFest DC was both a celebration of film and the environment of Washington D.C. Between great films like Pure, Dog Sweat and Happy, Happy, visitors to the fest experience an amazing city firsthand. We’ll be sharing more about our experience in the week ahead, including a review of the film Pure, a list of our five favorite films from the festival and a deeper look at the iconography of the Washington Metro. It was pretty special to join in the celebration of FilmFest DC’s 25th year, and we’ve already marked our calendar for the event next year…