Double Exposure Film Festival
Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney at Double Exposure opening night, 2019; Credit: Carolina Kroon

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Last week, the Double Exposure Film Festival, which showcases investigative documentaries, returned to Washington, D.C. after being held virtually for the past two years.

The event, which ran from Oct. 13 through 16, highlighted documentaries by filmmakers from around the world and included a symposium where aspiring and established documentarians could hone their craft. Double Exposure was conceived of in 2014 in response to a gap founder and co-director Diana Jean Schemo perceived in the festival circuit. She reached out to Sky Sitney, then overseeing the AFI Docs documentary film festival. “I was really excited to create a space for filmmakers that I knew was missing, that didn’t exist,” Sitney tells City Paper during a phone call.

When the two met, they “found immediate synergy,” Sitney says. Schemo brought her journalistic sensibility while Sitney lent her curatorial eye to the project. 

A year later, the festival debuted in D.C. with a recognizable headliner: Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s account of how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team uncovered the infamous sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The festival never has a theme, says Sitney: “We feel that a film festival that’s looking at the integration of journalism and documentary in particular already has a theme.” The point is to reflect back to the audience where journalists’ heads are at. And from the looks of this year’s programming, all eyes are on Russia.

The festival unofficially kicked off Wednesday, Oct. 12, when CNN hosted a screening of Navalny, a film about Russian anti-corruption activist and political candidate Alexei Navalny before, during, and after he was poisoned by Kremlin operatives in August 2020. The film follows Navalny as he and a crack team of investigators—including Christo Grozev, lead Russian investigator for Bellingcat, and Maria Pevchikh, chief investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation—try to uncover who administered the nerve agent that almost killed him.

During the introductory speeches, CNN Films director Amy Entelis described it as a “top secret project.” CNN’s former Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty then announced that Navalny has been in and out of solitary confinement since he landed back in Moscow in January 2021.

“I am convinced that they’re trying to bring him to the edge of destruction,” she told the audience. “The Kremlin wants you, and me, and everybody to forget about Navalny.”

It’s hard to watch the film divorced from the unfolding conflict in Ukraine—and that may not have been a coincidence. Between cheeky scenes of Navalny making a TikTok while investigating his own assassination attempt and addressing his association with known Russian Nazis, one could come away thinking of it as a campaign film quietly advocating for regime change rather than a character study of a political prisoner.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict reappeared in the festival’s official opening night pick. The Grab, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite of Blackfish fame, chronicles a wide-reaching investigation by three journalists who uncover that world powers are participating in a mass land grab of African farmland to ensure their countries don’t run out of food in a future hit with climate catastrophe. 

The film is more about the neocolonialist ambitions of mercenaries like Erik Prince (no spoilers), but it closes with a hypothesis that Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine at least partially to reinforce his country’s food and water supply.

There were at least two more films weighing in on the region’s politics: Anna Shishova-Bogolyubova’s The New Greatness Case and Mantas Kvedaravičius’s Mariupolis 2 both examine Russian aggression from the citizen’s perspective. The former catalogs a Moscow teen’s legal battle after she’s put on trial for engaging in a chat room for social issues; the latter is a sequel to a film following Ukrainian citizens as they try to maintain their day-to-day lives during the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Mariupolis 2 took the Lithuanian filmmaker back to Ukraine to film the war—where he was killed in April “with a camera in his hand.”

Sitney notes that while the focus on Russia wasn’t intentional, it’s also not all that surprising. “When there’s multiple geopolitical crises, we’re going to see work reflecting that,” she said. “We’re not just pulling work made by filmmakers, but also journalists.”

The goal of the festival is to highlight “what has been deemed important by the people on the ground doing this work,” she says. 

But the festival wasn’t just the Putin Show. Some of the films delved into American issues as well. American Pain, for example, examines the lives of Chris and Jeff George, the masterminds behind the largest oxycodone trafficking network in U.S. history; Into the Weeds, follows groundskeeper DeWayneLeeJohnson as he tackles Monsanto after one of their products gives him terminal cancer; and Body Parts takes a close look at how sex scenes in Hollywood are filmed post-#MeToo. 

There was also a symposium aspect to the festival, which was designed to provide filmmakers with resources and tools they may not have received in school. “You’re largely learning about cinematography and lighting and editing, but you’re not necessarily learning about how to keep yourself safe from defamation or libel,” Sitney says, “or how to do thorough fact-checking.”

One such panel was “Reframing Representation,” which focused on how filmmakers can maintain the delicate balance between themselves and their subjects in complex social environments.“Whistleblowers and the Creator Economy” focused on how to work with a whistleblower in order to turn their story into various forms of media including films, TV shows, podcasts, and books.

“This symposium has become a space where peers can have kind of 30,000-foot view conversations, but also do deep nuts-and-bolts workshops,” says Sitney, who will be departing the festival after this year. While she’s headed for new opportunities, she hopes Double Exposure will continue to flourish in her absence.

“It’s really about elevating the visibility of this work and creating a place for this quick cross-cultural exchange between filmmakers and journalists,” she says. “That really doesn’t exist elsewhere.”