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DC's International Film Festival Offers Window to World

Americans get a steady diet of slick, high-budget movies designed for mass audiences. But recently at the 21st International Film Festival in Washington, D.C., audiences had a chance to feast on an assortment of diverse and intimate films from around the world.

A young woman raised in dire poverty sings in the streets of Paris for her daily bread. She is destined to reach international fame, but later meet a tragic fate. She is none other than the internationally acclaimed chanteuse Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan's French film "La Vie en Rose."

A naïve but talented entertainer gets himself in constant trouble in the bittersweet Turkish comedy "The Magician."

A group of wild girls live in the streets of Cairo defying the social mores of their society in the Egyptian documentary "These Girls."

These were just three of the movies showcased at the 21st annual International Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

The movies come from 30 countries. "We are focusing on France this year, but we are showing some 70, 75 films," says Anthony Gittens, the festival's director. "We are looking for geographical diversity, so people will get a sense of what's going on throughout the world."

This culturally diverse film event opened here, at the historic Lincoln Theater. Once the premier African-American theater in Washington, it served the city's black community when segregation kept African -Americans out of other venues. From the 1920s until the 1960s, the area called Black Broadway was frequented by famous African -American artists such as Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

Next to the theater there is another historic landmark. Ben's Chili Bowl was the city's first silent movie theater. In 1958 it became a restaurant, and ten years later became a hub of the city's Civil Rights Movement.

This area, called the U Street corridor, is going through an artistic revival. So it feels natural that the D.C. International Film Festival opened here.

Anthony Gittens says the event attracts about 30,000 filmgoers each year, and it plays a positive role in the development of the city.

"We view very seriously art and culture as a means of economic development in our city," Gittens says, noting that cultural activities in Washington generate $600 million. "The festival might play a smaller part, but of course people come to our festival, they stay in hotels, they come to this event, they eat in nearby restaurants, they park in nearby garages, they take cabs here. All of this helps develop the economy of our city."

The festival also helps many up-and-coming directors to jump-start their careers in their home countries.

Gittens says filmmakers from Africa, Argentina and from India who have participated in the D.C. International Film Festival "get attention by the press here that they were able to go back home and use that as a credential to help get financing for their future films."

But there are also many established filmmakers who contribute their work to the festival. Director Olivier Dahan's highbrow drama about Edith Piaf is a good example. French actress Marion Cotilliard delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the internationally acclaimed singer, and Gerard Depardieu offers a short but poignant interpretation of Piaf's mentor, Louis Leplee.

The rest of the films this year were as evocative as Dahan's "La Vie en Rose."

Anthony Gittens nodds in agreement. "It's good films. It's good films. They make you laugh; they make you cry, they entertain you in some way."

The films showcased at the International Film Festival in Washington did exactly that.