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The story of two Alabama sisters featured at Washington, D.C. film festival

Pat Duggins

Fans of documentary film making will gather in the nation’s capital tonight for the start of the annual DC DOX Festival. One short feature is titled “Christmas Every Day.” It focuses on two pre-teen Alabama sisters, Peyton and Lila Wesson, who promote fashion and beauty products as online influencers. APR News Director Pat Duggins spoke with Sky Sitney, co-founder and organizer of DC DOX about the Alabama based film which will featured in Washington, D.C.

Pat Duggins- How’s everything going with the DC DOX festival coming up so soon?

Sky Sitney, co-founder of the DC DOX Film Festival
Pat Duggins
Sky Sitney, co-founder of the DC DOX Film Festival

Sky Sitney-- We are moving a million miles an hour, putting the finishing touches on a very expansive program. We're showcasing 100 films over four days. But truthfully, things could not be going better. We're feeling really energized by the incredible enthusiasm from the community. And by community, I mean not only the local DC community, but the broad, if not global, community of documentary filmmakers who are embarking on our festival. And we're just kind of energized by all of that, getting us through these long hours.

Pat—As they say, all news is local, and I’d like to talk about a film that you're going to be featuring called “Christmas Every Day.” Were you in on the process of selecting that film, or what got that one onto the list of films to be included?

Sky-- Yeah, I'm so glad that you're raising the profile of this particular film. Even though our festival is two years old, the filmmaker represents one of our first festival alum, Faye Tsakas, was also part of our festival last year, and I think she is a remarkable figure, or filmmaker, you know, who's going to be an important name for years to come. It blew the entire programming team away. And "Christmas Every Day" is an interesting continuation of some of the broadest themes that Faye has been exploring. This film is about two young preteen influencers, a young woman named Peyton and Lila. They're 11 and 12 years old at the time in which the film was made, and they essentially perform their own benign, ubiquitous, daily rituals online for an untold number of fans, while they're putting on makeup and kind of playing dress up, all under the what you might call watchful eye of their mother, who, in some ways is participating the these transactional experiences and perhaps establishing some parameters around it. But we thought that this was a really important film to include.

Former NPR anchor Audie Cornish moderates a panel during the opening of the 2024 DC DOX Film Festival
Pat Duggins
Former NPR anchor Audie Cornish moderates a panel during the opening of the 2024 DC DOX Film Festival

Pat-- How rare is it from something based in Alabama or featuring someone from Alabama attracts the attention of people who do what you do?

Sky-- That's a great question. I mean, first and foremost, we absolutely are excited to program films coming from every nook and cranny of our nation and even the world, and we hope that the lineup is reflective, both behind the camera and also on screen, a diversity of voices and perspectives. I will say that having been in this industry for a very long time. It's not every day that we have a film about you know that that Alabama is the backdrop, although there are a number of major documentary filmmakers, I think of Margaret Brown as one who's originally from Alabama, who have done really, really important work that sometimes reflects Alabama on screen, but certainly always behind the camera. Alabama is not necessarily over each year, so we're really excited to have opportunity to do that.

Pat—So, in the age of streaming, in the age of online content, is that good for documentarians, or is it kind of like bad, because then they're kind of like, in the wilderness, trying to get attention. Or what do you think?

Crowds line up for the opening gala of the 2024 DC Dox Film Festival
Pat Duggins
Crowds line up for the opening gala of the 2024 DC Dox Film Festival

Sky -- Yeah. I mean, it's a very complex question. I think that a few years ago, many documentary filmmakers saw that. A tremendous interest that was coming from (video) streamers as something that heralded in what everyone called a golden age of documentary, where suddenly this form that had always been understood as peripheral to the film industry was suddenly becoming central and finding all these incredible opportunities. But I think that right now, many filmmakers are feeling a little bit of a crisis of distribution, and I won't go into tremendous depth in all of the reasons why I think the simple answer to your question is that it's a little bit of both. On the one hand, the streaming opportunities have democratized documentary. That is, they've been able to bring the nonfiction for many more people in the past, perhaps if you lived in Los Angeles or New York, you might be able to see one documentary a year in your local art house theater, and now you can see hundreds a day on any number of streams. That being said, I think there's perhaps now a little bit of confusion of what a documentary really is. There's so much content that lives in the realm of nonfiction, and we could include things like reality programming that. But I do think that the kind of documentary films that we would be showcasing at a place like DC docs are understood as having a lot more with, you know, cinema films that are that that are utilizing kind of unspoken promise between audiences and filmmakers of what we mean by something being nonfiction, a certain adherence to truth and truth values, whereas a lot of reality shows are very scripted and and really push up against the parameters of what we might define as nonfiction.

2024 DC DOX Program
Pat Duggins
2024 DC DOX Program

Pat-- Getting back to “Christmas Every Day” Did it give you a different perspective of Alabama? Like, another great filmmaker, taking something and making something out of nothing.

Sky-- I really think that what it's inviting us to look at is what it is to be a young girl, no matter where you are, at this age, who's provided the opportunity to have an unprecedented public profile, and the possibility of attaching that public profile to unbelievable amounts of resources that most 11- and 12-year-olds would not have access to. I mean, I can remember as an 11- and 12-year-old, if I was lucky, I got a few babysitting gigs, or could walk a dog around the block, certainly not make millions of dollars putting on makeup on a YouTube channel and having millions of followers, this is extraordinary. And so I think that in many ways the film, it could be Alabama, it could be Ohio, it could be New York City. I think there's a universality to what the filmmaker Faye is observing that that is not kind of geographically tethered. So, you know, I think that's kind of where this film really lands in terms of looking at what it is to be a young person today. And the complexity of this pre-teen age, which is so fragile, you know, there's, it's so deeply under the influence of adults. And, you know, they're not, they're not absolutely innocent children, either. They're kind of in this interesting quasi space between childhood and adulthood.

Pat—And, again how did all that lead the selection committee for DC DOX to select “Christmas Every Day?”

Sky-- I think that we all feel that the filmmaker has an incredible distinctive vision, and we're able to see what you might describe in film, auteur style. And by that, we mean, if one got to know Faye's work, you're seeing this. It’s the moment of young people utilizing this online world in ways that are both that they're able to kind of exploit in meaningful and important ways, but also the potential that they themselves might be slightly exploited. And I think that she (director Faye Tsakas) brings a very keen observational eye to these environments without any kind of judgment and allows a certain nuance. So, we felt like this film was incredibly mature and balanced and offered a lot of space to think about an issue that has unexpected complexity, and to do that without judgment and to recognize all of the like within this little moment. There's so much packed into it.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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