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It's Not Just Mr. Smith Who Goes to Washington

Documentary magazine, June - July 2006 by Jim Romeo

The SS United States heading outbound from New York CityWoodrow Wilson once lamented that things get so lonely in Washington, DC because the violence of the people gets drowned in political rhetoric. "You hear politics until you wish that both parties were smothered in their own gas," said the nation's 28th president.

Despite an omnipresent overtone of political rumble, the Washington, DC region, and all that goes with it, seems to have become an epicenter for the documentary filmmaker.

It was on the Capitol Mall that Lila Lipscomb, whose son was killed in Iraq, empathized with a foreign street protestor in Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11, when a suspecting woman approached and proclaimed, "This is all staged!" The film crew captured an emotional exchange, and Libscomb retorted, "My son is not staged!"

It's a scene out of the landscape when one knocks around Washington, DC with a camera, and directors and producers love it.

Filmmaker Tim Phillips, vice-president of the DC-based Rock Creek Productions, Inc. (www.rock-creek.com) is quick to point out that the capital region is and ideal location. "Our home base is what we know, and though we've produced programming all over the world, we cannot really make comparisons," says Phillips. "We can say that Washington, DC is a great place from which to develop documentary films."

The resources are many in the region. These include the many foundations, organiza-tions and agencies that support and sponsor filmmakers. "There are so many outlets for documentary filmmakers in DC, from National Geographic Television to the Discovery Channel Network, to small independent companies like JWM to government work," says Judith Dwan Hallet of Judith Dwan Hallet Productions. Inc. "This makes for a very deep bench of excellent producers, DPs, editors, writers and executive producers."

Andrea Kalin, president of SparkMedia (www.sparkmedia.org), concurs that the Washington, DC region has much to offer for a film production company, "I know filmmakers who have fled Los Angeles and New York and come to Washington," she says. "But DC is still a small enclave and while the community is dynamic, it needs more support in terms of work to sustain these filmmakers, editors, cinematographers, etc. Generally, independent filmmaking still centers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. But independent film has taken root here and it can only grow."

Andrei Kirilenko, the Bethesda, Maryland-based producer/director of the independent documentary TechnoStorks (www.technostorks.com), believes that an independent documentary fiim producer needs a home base with some properties and talents that include "availability of a large and diverse set of technical talent: DPs, shooters, sound mixers/boom operators, gaffers, PAs, editors," he explains. "By diverse, I mean technical talent with different levels of skills, experience and desire to work on a wide variety of projects. A large and diverse set of technical talent helps a producer to put together more optimal crews for a given budget/financing package."

The talent pool is only one part of the equation. Washington, DC boasts some of the greatest archives and repositories of information, as well as a strong wealth of intellectual capital - all in close proximity to documentary film production companies here.

"For us being able to stroll over to the National Archives and gather film, video, stills and newspaper and magazine source material for our historical documentary on the ocean liner SS United States is huge," says Phillips. "For us, it's free. Of course, we'll have to pay for high-quality film-to-tape transfers, but obtaining draft quality source materials is free. What an incredible resource!"

Phillips adds that in addition to the content-related advantages of being in Washington, the city offers an involved community from which to learn and obtain substantive feedback, "We actively participate in several different organizations, and the insight gained through them has been invaluable to our ability to develop our film in the thorough, accurate and scholarly way it demands," he maintains.

Of course, there's always politics. "I became involved in US politics over 20 years ago, and it has been my passion ever since," explains Dave Bossie, president of Citizens United and the Citizens United Foundation (www.citizensunited.org), and executive producer of the documentaries Celsius 41.11 and Broken Promises: The UN at 60. "Most importantly, I get to put my passion into action.

"Being located on Capitol Hill allows my organization to be minutes away from the Capitol of the United States and of global politics," Bossie continues. "Similar to other producers, I have a limited budget. Our location on Capitol Hill is beneficial as it cuts down on travel expenses and makes last-minute interviews with congressional leaders possible."

Getting that last-minute interview and tracking down the right footage; being on the Capitol Mall at the right time to capture something invaluable on film; having the intuition to interview the wacky subject with the unbelievable perspective - these are factors of not just the landscape but of the players who populate that landscape.

"Everything required to make world-class documentary films is right here," says Phillips. "National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, NPR all live here. But the real strength lies in the capabilities of the small companies and in individuals. They make the difference. They make it all work."

All said, Washington, DC not only meets the needs but poses some great opportunities in front of the camera and behind the scenes in production and research. But there's one thing to keep in mind about the fine art of the documentary film that Gerry Wurzberg of State of the Art, Inc. (www.stateart.com), smartly points out: "It is not about the place, it is about the content."

Jim Romeo (www.JimRomeo.net) is a freelance writer, researcher, marketing consultant and aficionado of documentary film.

Article originally published in Documentary magazine. (www.documentary.org)

SS United States Documentary Film - The Big U - The Story of the SS United States