Saturday, April 28, 2007

Conflict of interest at DC Filmfest?

The Washington Post's Desson Thomson has written an important and meticulously researched story about the Washington DC Film Festival that is respectful and understated, but raises disturbing questions about conflicts of interest and poor leadership of the annual event. Other regional festivals, including the DC area's own SilverDocs and Maryland Film Festival have surpassed it in measures like national (even international) reputation and budget, the DC Filmfest seems stagnant after more than two decades.

The Maryland Film Festival has tripled its operating budget in nine years, and is planning for a dramatic increase -- from about $350,000 to more than $1 million -- in the next two years. In its five years, the Silverdocs documentary film festival, sponsored by the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications, has evolved into a buzzed-about event that attracts filmmakers and media coverage from around the globe.

Yet Filmfest DC, a festival granddaddy after more than two decades, has seemingly refused to grow. Under the stewardship of its part-time director -- Tony Gittens -- its mission (bringing international films to Washington audiences), budget (about $410,000) and number of films (84 shorts and features this year) have changed only incrementally over two decades....

Does Gittens's status [as both festival director and executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities] present a conflict of interest? Is it self-dealing? At the very least, it presents an appearance of conflict, as the arts commission also provides grants each year to about half a dozen other film festivals, including the Environmental Film Festival and gay and lesbian Reel Affirmations.

Thomson concludes that the conflict of interest may be more one of appearances than reality, but that the real problem may be the limited time that Gittens has to devote to it because of his obligations at the Commission. Gittens receives no additional monetary benefit from running the festival, which has a more-than-healthy surplus in its bank account, though, predictably, other arts organizations in the city believe they are unfairly disadvantaged when they ask for money from the Commission. But as long as he has both jobs, it is difficult to ensure adequate oversight. He probably does not have the time to do the job right. He clearly does not have the vision, seeing no reason to expand the festival's reach and showing himself stunningly unaware of the needs and resources of the city he serves:

Washington, according to Gittens, is a city with unique challenges. "There's no private money here," he says, apparently discounting major corporations in the region such as Lockheed Martin, AOL, Sprint-Nextel, General Dynamics, Capital One and Marriott International. "There's not even any big foundations. . . . In Seattle you got the dot-com foundations. You go to San Francisco and you got [financier] George Gund and other sources to drive events."

Gittens says his mission is clear.

"A festival like ours serves a different purpose -- bringing great films to a great city. . . . We bring them in the spirit of celebration, to show films from around the world, stories of other cultures that never get seen in this country unless regional fests like us get them here. . . . It's a service we provide. People come back year after year. And we feel that we are doing some good."

And in terms of aspiring to the ranks of the higher-profile regional festivals, he says: "I don't have those thoughts."


mikelicht said...

Thompson is a film critic, so his emphasis is on the what the decade-long conflict of interest means for film exhibition in DC. But the impact of the issue is much wider. It is about the fair and effective use of the public's money in support of the arts.

Under current leadership, much of the funding provided by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has not been accomplished through peer-review panels, the recognized Best Practice in public (and foundation) arts funding. And who authorized Mr. Gittens to run a separate, private, nonprofit corporation out of a government office, assigning a full-time staff person (no matter how excellent) to this task? Mayor Marion Barry, while he certainly has had extensive legal experience, had no such authority.

The arts commission is given a substantial Federal (NEA) grant each year to support art and its creators in our city, not for the importation and consumption of art. There are other agencies that perform the latter function. But DCCAH takes the combined place of the city, county, and state public arts agencies in other jurisdictions. In terms of film, this would mean supporting DC film makers rather than exhibiting imported films. Although current DCCAH leadership has attracted public scorn for the trivial projects it funds with millions of discretionary (not peer-reviewed) public dollars, it is the neglect of the primary function of the agency that is the larger, heartbreaking issue.

Nell Minow said...

You are exactly right, Mike, and thanks for posting. The limited vision of Filmfest is the symptom of an underlying problem that does not even acknowledge that a conflict of interests exists. I hope this article and the support it has received make it impossible for Mayor Fenty to allow this set-up that benefits the insiders more than the artists or the community to continue.