Take a cursory glance at the Investigative Film Festival’s preliminary lineup and local film fans will see some parallels between its selections and the documentaries screened at a larger festival over the summer: three of the eight films, Drone, Cartel Land, and The Storm-Makers, showed at the AFI DOCS Festival last June; a fourth film, 1971, showed at AFI DOCS in 2014. But despite the overlap in offerings, the new festival has managed to secure a screening of a film most peons won’t be able to see for another six weeks. The IFF opens tonight at the National Portrait Gallery with a screening of Spotlight, the new film that follows the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Investigation Team as it investigates decades of child abuse claims within the Catholic Church and has already been called a Best Picture front-runner.
Bringing the film, which has shown in Toronto, Venice, and Telluride and will be released nationally on Nov. 6, to D.C. didn’t involve involved deals or begging Hollywood producers, according to founding director Diana Jean Schemo, a former New York Times correspondent who now runs the journalism nonprofit 100Reporters. It was simply a matter of fit. “When I started this, I knew they were working on the film and I said, ‘Maybe I’m demented but I really want to see Spotlight open the festival,'” she says. “The subject was perfect.” Through the festival’s work with Participant Media, the production company behind Spotlight, they were able to convince executives that the film would be well received in a town full of journalists. That Martin Baron, the Globe editor played by Liev Schrieber in the film, left Boston to take over the Washington Post, only helped sweeten the deal.
After tonight’s screening, director Tom McCarthy and the original Spotlight team (reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, editor Walter Robinson, and Baron) will discuss their experience with former investigative journalist and Wire creator David Simon. Most tickets to the sold-out screening and reception went to VIPs culled from the Rolodexes of organizers but a few seats were released to the general public at the not-so-small cost of $150. Schemo doesn’t expect the festival to turn a profit this year but the proceeds from ticket sales will offset the event’s $300,000 budget, covered in part by grants from the McArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Beyond film screenings and the accompanying panels with directors, which will look at the films from a storytelling perspective, the next two days will be filled with discussions of journalists and filmmakers as part of the festival’s accompanying symposium. Covering everything from encryption to censorship to adapting print journalism for the screen, the symposium is meant to be a place where practicing investigative journalists can learn from practicing documentary filmmakers and vice versa. For Schemo, this all goes back to the fact that people are no longer reading long-form investigative journalism with as much attention as they did before. “We have amazing journalism going on that a lot of people only may hear about if they watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight,” she notes.
Many people now learn about under-reported stories through documentaries, though many filmmakers hesitate to call their work journalism. By bringing practitioners of both forms together, Schemo hopes to foster relationships and future collaborations between the groups, which will help the festival as it continues to grow in the years to come. With Spotlight drawing comparisons to All the President’s Men, a film that pushed a generation of young viewers to pursue careers in journalism, perhaps the next generation of game-changers will come out of this festival.
The Investigative Film Festival runs Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 at the National Portrait Gallery and other venues throughout D.C. Admission to film screenings costs $15; admission to the symposium costs $225.