Member Spotlight With Jay Elvove – American Film Institute


Member Spotlight With Jay Elvove

This month’s member spotlight is Jay Elvove, who has been a fan of AFI ever since he moved to the Washington, DC, area in the early 1970s. AFI had already opened a theater in the Kennedy Center that screened a wide range of older American and foreign films that were otherwise difficult to see at that time. Over the ensuing years, he was a member on and off, but when the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center opened in 2003 in its current location (which happens to be walking distance from his home) membership has been consistent – as has his presence at the venue.

We spoke with Jay about his volunteer work at the Silver Theatre, his love for documentaries and the advice he would give to Orson Welles.

AFI: For those who aren’t familiar with the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, can you share a little bit about the theatre and your volunteer work with the Educational Screening Program (ESP)? 

Jay: Silver Spring was undergoing a rapid transformation at the time, and the AFI Silver opened to great fanfare with Clint Eastwood in attendance, just one of the luminaries who participated in the event. Although the theatre is widely regarded for its diverse programming of American and international cinema, few people are aware of the ESP, which focuses on teaching students about film and its language, its construction, as well as its ability to elicit emotion and to change lives. Students usually arrive via a retinue of bright yellow school buses, which when parked end to end at times has spanned the entire block.

After learning a bit about the history of AFI, the theatre and its historic preservation, students enter one of the three theatres and are introduced to the film by either an AFI staff member (usually Matt Boratenski, who ran the program since its inception until he retired last year), an educator affiliated with the school or occasionally, even by me. The students might be there for a deep analysis of a classic film, to supplement a particular topic in the study of history, social studies or science with a related film, or, in the case of the county’s Learning for Independence (LFI) program, designed for students with learning and cognitive challenges, simply to have the experience of watching a film in a darkened theater.

The ESP also provides opportunities for budding student filmmakers to share with friends and family their capstone media assignments on the big screen. And though consistently given high marks by students and teachers alike, I’ve always felt that the ESP was never sufficiently promoted nor publicly touted for its contributions and achievements in support of education in the arts. I hope that this will change and that the program will be encouraged to grow once the theatre reopens.

AFI: Over the past year, what films or screening series in the AFI Silver virtual screening room made an impact on you and why?

Jay: During the pandemic, my participation in the AFI Silver virtual screening room has largely focused around online festivals. Highlights include the European Union, Latin American, Capital Irish and Spooky Movie film festivals. And, of course, there was also AFI FEST, which I was thrilled to be able to access remotely this year. The ability to screen films from home allowed me to watch a much greater percentage of festival offerings than I could ever have done in person. Completist that I am, I challenged myself to see if I could screen every festival offering.  In some cases, I actually succeeded, and in most I came very close. I’m hoping that in the future, both in-person and online screenings will be available, which will let viewers decide which option works best, which could lead to a much larger festival audience. I understand that this may raise the bar for the AFI Silver and other theatrical venues as they will need to entice audiences from the comfort of their homes. But it should also help filmmakers reach a wider audience.

AFI: In addition to your support of AFI and its programs, you are a board member of the Silver Spring nonprofit Docs in Progress. How did you first become involved with Docs in Progress, and what is it about documentary film that resonates with you? Was there a particular film that inspired your love of documentaries?

Jay: Thanks very much for asking about Docs in Progress. We’re a small nonprofit in Silver Spring that empowers individuals to tell and share their stories using documentary film as their medium. Our constituency consists of both seasoned and novice filmmakers, as well as a general audience interested in documentary film and how and why those films are made. We do this through a combination of classes, workshops, our fellowship program and interactive screenings of completed films and works in progress – hence our name.

I became involved with the organization because I am passionate about building community, and sharing stories is an important way to help make that happen. Since retiring from the University of Maryland where I worked in IT for nearly 37 years, I’ve become heavily involved in local civic activity, and this includes serving on several local advisory and nonprofits boards (one of which is Docs in Progress). Documentary filmmakers exhibit a passion for their work that I marvel at. Like all filmmakers, they need to entertain and hold an audience’s attention, but more so, they create works to educate, inform, advocate for a cause and elicit a call to action. Over the years, I remain one of the very few Docs in Progress board members that has no vocational training or experience in filmmaking, and so I contribute where I can by creating relationships within the local community at large. This, of course, includes the AFI Silver, which Docs in Progress joins forces with each year in conjunction with AFI DOCS. We have hosted many events at the festival over the years, which we intend to continue in the future.

AFI: Why do you feel it is important to support film/arts education? 

Jay: Americans are reading less and watching more, so rather than try to reverse course or even stem the tide, I think we need to better accommodate the shift and devote more quality resources to the creation and critical understanding of digital media. If we can get individuals educated and excited about a given topic, perhaps that will stimulate their seeking out additional information, and that may take a completely different form, visual or written. I’d like to think that part of the shared human experience is the desire to create. The educational system should help us develop practical skills, but it should also help us hone our natural creative sensibilities and make us more sensitive to the world around us. The best art provokes, raises questions, provides new perspectives and challenges our preconceptions. Exposure to new and different topics should energize and lead us to want to develop skills in support of the creative process, which in turn would lead to a greater appreciation of the vibrant, stimulating, at times dangerous, but always awe-inspiring world in which we live.

AFI: With AFI DOCS coming up in the next few months, how are documentaries uniquely poised to tackle the hard-hitting questions of today and create progress in our society?

Jay: If there’s one thing we can probably all agree on these days, it’s that what’s “true” for me or you is not necessarily self-evident to someone else. Abuse of the power of visual media to persuade and polarize is not new, but it is now omnipresent. AFI DOCS and other documentary film festivals are wonderful opportunities for individuals to gather together, not only to screen films, but also to discuss how they and other forms of media manipulate us for good or ill.

I’m a firm believer in media literacy. It’s especially important in helping us assess objectivity in documentary films, which often purport (or are mistakenly assumed) to reveal unvarnished truths. My favorite part of AFI DOCS is the post-screening Q&A, which is when audiences actively engage with filmmakers on their form and content-related choices. The type of Q&A that I find most stimulating occurs when the audience is comprised of individuals with widely divergent, but also well-articulated insights and opinions. I wish there were more of those types of audiences. So I would ask festival organizers what they’re doing to attract broader audiences so filmmakers are less likely to be screening to the choir. If we can do a better job attracting individuals with different points of view to sit down together and watch a documentary, preferably on a somewhat controversial subject, there’s a chance that what at first may seem to some a black and white issue – i.e., “true” –  will become more nuanced and, just possibly, open to reconsideration.

AFI: If you could have lunch with a filmmaker or artist alive or dead, who would it be and at what point in the artist’s life?

Jay: That’s a tough one, but I think it would be Orson Welles. I wonder if you asked David Fincher that same question today whether he’d have the same response. In my case, I would love to meet Welles during the tail end of the making of CITIZEN KANE or shortly after its completion. And if after a few glasses of wine Welles would be willing to take a tip from me, I’d strongly suggest that he stick around to help with the editing of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and curtail, or at least postpone, plans to travel to South America to work on IT’S ALL TRUE. In another corner of the multiverse, that very scenario actually may have taken place.

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