Born in Brooklyn, Tony Gittens came to Washington to attend Howard University, where he quickly became a leader in student protests against the Vietnam War. He was prominent in the Civil Rights Movement and traveled south with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Later he was the first manager of the influential Drum & Spear bookstore. At the University of the District of Columbia, he founded the Black Film Institute, his first foray into international cinema. Expanding his focus to important films of any origin, Gittens founded Filmfest DC in 1987. He also served as Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for 11 years under three mayors, heading up such efforts as the famous “Party Animals” donkey and elephant sculptures around town and supporting grass-roots efforts like the annual Artomatic showcase. Dapper, friendly, and totally approachable, Gittens talked with us about the Filmfest and his years in DC.
Washington Life: You came to DC in the 1960s. Have you been a Washingtonian ever since?
Tony Gittens: Definitely. I love Washington. It’s manageable and comparatively affordable. The people tend to be nice. I love the green of it, with all the parks and trees, and the cuisine. There are a lot of good restaurants out there. But what I really like is the cultural life. There’s so much diversity, and it’s so accessible. In fact, I wrote an article about this for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival a few years ago. I live in Adam’s Morgan and it’s a wonderful melting pot.
WL: How would you say that Filmfest DC draws on your experience running the Black Film Institute?
TG: Well, just as with Filmfest, the BFI addressed what I saw as a need at the time, showing films that would not otherwise be seen. It’s also where I learned my ropes: finding international films, getting them, and creating this transparent infrastructure where people can just show up to see the film. They don’t have to know what went into setting it all up.
WL: Do your experiences in the Civil Rights Movement affect your vision for Filmfest DC?
TG: Yes, definitely. It’s all about access. We’re very interested in diversity and a just and equitable approach. It’s about giving everybody a fair chance, not only in how we pick films, but the whole idea of exposing people to cultures that they may not know about, and that they may really want to know about. If we didn’t do it–or an organization like ours–people would not have access to these films. Even with scores of other festivals now, the vast majority of what we show, no one else is showing, for whatever reason. And we were the first. We showed that people in DC are interested in films other than Hollywood films, and are willing to go out and see them.
The Civil Rights Movement also taught me the notion of organizing: Getting people together to accomplish something, and getting supporters. I learned not to be afraid to ask people to participate and help out. That was very important, especially in the early days.
WL: There are more than 80 films in this year’s Filmfest. How involved are you personally in picking the slate?
TG: Totally. I’m totally involved in reviewing and selecting all the movies, with help from Shirin of course [Deputy Festival Director Shirin Gareeb]. Someone has to make the decisions. It can’t be a committee process.
WL: How has the Filmfest changed in 25 years?
TG: Well, quite a bit. For one thing, there’s all this new technology. Cell phone videos, animation, text from blogs–none of that existed 25 years ago. The festival’s content changes every year. That’s what keeps it exciting for us, and it seems to make it exciting for the people who show up.
WL: What is this year’s festival like? Any standouts?
TG: It’s a good year. It’s hard to pick just a few films… “Green Wave” is a great example of how things are different. Much of the footage is clandestine, shot with cell phones on the street. And twenty-five years ago, there was no film coming out of Iran.
There are also some amazing clips in “Rejoice & Shout,” like one of Mahalia Jackson on the Ed Sullivan show–so real–and this pure-voiced, Al Green-style a capella. I don’t know where he got these clips. I’d never seen them before, and I see a lot of stuff. We have the Children of the Gospel choir performing live before the screening, too, from the Washington Performing Art Society.
WL: Can you mention a few more?
TG: I enjoyed “Mozart’s Sister.” A lot of true feeling there. “Sound of Noise” is really off the wall. It’s about music–rhythm and drums–and the guys do some crazy things with their street orchestra. “The Drummond Will” is great. They did some really inventive things with not much money. So many great films.
WL: Tell us about the town meeting for “We Were Here.”
TG: Yes. This film focuses on the San Francisco gay community before and after the AIDS crisis–not just those who died, but the devastating effect on their friends, family, and community. We wanted to not just have a Q&A session, but to talk about it and what it means to Washington DC. This is also a city with a history of concern with AIDS. It’s not as bad as it was, but we still have a serious population of folks who are infected. We hope to have representatives from a lot of groups at the meeting.
The 25th Annual FILMFEST DC runs April 7 to April 17 and includes two international focus tracks: Nordic Lights, featuring nine films from Scandinavia, and five films representing New South Korean Cinema. Several films are North American premiers, and many filmmakers will be on hand to answer questions. Check out Filmfest DC’s website for more information on locations and times.