Detroit: Film fest aimed high

The Detroit Docs International Film Festival is growing so quickly that organizers and sponsors believe it can become a regional or national draw in the coming years.
This weekend’s festival will feature 105 documentary films and have about 35 directors on hand from across the country for the screenings.
The movies will be shown at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Uptown Birmingham 8 and three auditoriums at Wayne State University, which is the primary host of the festival.
Chris Walny, a 35-year-old freelance film producer, started the festival in 2002 because she wanted a film festival in Detroit.
“I like documentaries a lot, so I decided if I was going to do all the work it was going to be all documentaries,” said Walny, who is the festival’s executive director.
That first year, the festival drew 30 films after Walny posted plans for the festival on the Web site. Until this year, the festival operated without grants or major sponsors, she said.
But WSU came on board this year as lead sponsor, allowing the organizers to use auditoriums for free.
And the festival has benefited from a reduced advertising rate from the Metro Times for an eight-week media campaign, an improved Web site, state funding of $4,800, the ability to use the Uptown Birmingham 8 at a reduced rate and the use of a theater at the DIA for free.
Organizers are expecting festival attendance to increase from the more than 2,500 who attended last year to 7,000 this year.
But that’s only a fraction of the event’s attendance and potential, said festival director Tod Hardin, who is also communications manager for Greektown Casino.
The event could become a regional draw with 15,000 to 20,000 visitors, Hardin said. It would be helped by a continued partnership with Wayne State, a more extensive partnership with the DIA and a budget that would allow for an advertising campaign that would last several months, he said.
Renowned local documentary filmmaker Harvey Ovshinsky, president of HKO Media Inc., said the event’s cultural and symbolic importance for the city of Detroit is far more important than the potential economic benefit.
“I think it’s important for Michigan that we celebrate a different reflection for ourselves because we don’t always do a good job of projecting a good image of Detroit,” Ovshinsky said. “This festival is so Detroit. They have no money, they have no staff, they just did it.”
The festival is attracting enough movies and filmmakers, Harding said. This year’s movies range from personal interest films such as “Girl Wrestler,” which is about a teenage girl who wrestles boys, to “Go Further,” which was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Ron Mann. In the film, Mann follows actor Woody Harrelson as he drives a biofueled bus down the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
Hardin, a self-de-scribed film buff, volunteered at last year’s festival and said he plans to stay on next year as festival director.
“I think this year is going to be key because I think it could be used as a springboard to get more extensive grants and sponsorships” Hardin said.
Harvey Hollands, Wayne State’s vice president for government and community affairs, said he has been inviting state and community leaders to attend the festival in order to raise awareness of it.
Holland said that with the right backing, the festival could rival internationally renowned film festivals, such as Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. The festival is North America’s largest documentary film festival. It attracted more than 32,000 people in April.
“This festival is so Detroit. They have no money, they have no staff, they just did it.”


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