The Kramer brothers, Brandon, left, and Lance, grew up in Bethesda. Their father, Mark Kramer, designed the 13 aluminum B sculptures that pop up around the community’s arts venues Credit: Photos courtesy Brandon and Lance Kramer

For two filmmakers, like American cinema, 1999 was a transformative year. Movies such as The Matrix, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense weaved anxiety and excitement as the country nervously headed into the brave new world of Y2K.

Brandon Kramer, 12, sat mesmerized at the Bethesda Theater Cafe, watching one of the year’s groundbreaking films. “Being John Malkovich changed my life,” he says now. “It was so imaginative and threw out every single rule about the world, about film. There’s nothing as powerful as creating an entire world and experience in 90 minutes.” 

 For brother Lance, 15, it was Magnolia. “It was the bible of all the emotions a human could experience that I had not yet experienced,” he says. “Since then, there’s been no film that’s created quite that sense of awe in me.” 

Now 36 and 39, Brandon and Lance Kramer are documentary filmmakers, and their latest, The First Step, is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. As we talked at a Starbucks in April, the brothers realized we were between their second homes during their film-centric childhood: the old United Artists theater and the long-shuttered Bethesda Avenue Blockbuster video store.

When their sons watched the same films 10 times, Mark and Marjorie Kramer recognized the difference between a fleeting interest and obsession. So they bought the boys a camera and sent them to film camp. Their basement regularly served as a screening room where friends gathered to take in their early filmmaking. 

 The Kramer brothers are fourth-generation Washingtonians. Their great-grandfather Isadore led the family migration from Russia early in the 20th century and started the butcher shop Kramer & Sons in the original Union Market. Over the years, Kramer family members owned a plumbing business, hardware store, liquor stores and a chain of car washes. There’s a political branch, too. Their great-uncle, the late Sidney Kramer, served as Montgomery County executive. His son is Maryland state Sen. Ben Kramer, and daughter Rona Kramer was Maryland secretary of aging.


Marjorie Kramer has taught kids with learning disabilities. Mark Kramer is a residential architect and artist whose steel sculpture Lyrical Lady sits outside the Bethesda Metro station. He also designed the 13 red aluminum B sculptures that are sprinkled around Bethesda’s arts and entertainment venues.

Seeing their father “build a business and raise us off of art” inspired the boys, Brandon says.

After several jobs post college, some film-related, the brothers returned home and discovered a supportive filmmaking community in the District. They started Meridian Hill Pictures in 2010, and in 2015 released City of Trees, an official selection at more than 20 film festivals. The documentary follows two years in the lives of trainees and staff at a federally funded green jobs program.

Credit: Photos courtesy Brandon and Lance Kramer

In The First Step, the brothers accompanied liberal activist Van Jones as he crossed the political divide and got the support of Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, then-President Donald Trump, to pass rare bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation. In 2021, the movie had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuted in the D.C. area at AFI Docs. It won best documentary feature at Boston GlobeDocs and at the Oxford and Bozeman International film festivals.

Jones appreciated the persistence of the Kramer brothers and said in an interview, “I admired their desire to try to use media to show messy nuance and truths to bring people together at a time when so many documentaries seemed to polarize people.” 

For The First Step, the brothers took a page from the filmmaker they most admire, the late Robert Drew, a father of cinéma vérité, ensuring their film about policymaking in Washington, D.C., didn’t overshadow the real people in West Virginia and South Los Angeles who were affected by the policies. 


 “We grew up in the center of politics, but with a deep exposure to art, community and education,” Brandon says. “A lot of filmmakers are making films about big political issues, but not that many are tackling politics in this very emotional, complicated and personal way. That’s a direct result of being raised in Bethesda, into the family that we grew up in. That’s what actually gave us the DNA of our storytelling.”

This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.