By Gary M. Kramer.
The AFI Docs film festival showcased more than 50 feature and short length documentaries in Washington, DC, and Silver Spring, MD venues. Here is a rundown of two World Premieres from the fest—1st and 17 and The Three Hikers—as well as reviews of several documentaries from the four shorts programs.
Members of The Washington Post made the enjoyable First and 17, about a year in high school football. This documentary chronicled the parallel stories of De’Shawn Hand, age 17, who is ranked first in the nation in high school football by the website Rivals.com and his coach Karibi Dede, who is starting his first year as the football director for De’Shawn’s team, the Woodbridge, VA Vikings. De’Shawnn has to decide which college football scholarship he will accept (he has narrowed his 96 offers down to three). Meanwhile, Karibi deals with issues including the murder of a player, a string of losing games, and, in a happy situation, a female kicker. First and 17 touches on the importance of academics and football and the fact that college ball may not translate into an NFL career. If the film is less about the cutthroat nature of college recruiters, it certainly provides a strong portrait of both Dede and Hand. The coach displays his skills motivating and managing his players as they cope with loss and disappointment as well as victories on and off the field during a tough season. Viewers will root for him to succeed, especially when the odds are not in his favor. De’Shawn is also immensely likable, whether he is visiting an elementary school classroom, or asking the clerk at a sporting goods story if he can return the baseball caps he is buying from the colleges he does not choose to attend. First and 17 does not break new ground in the sports documentary genre, nor does it deeply explore the issues it raises. However, the film certainly has affection for its subjects and appreciation of their trials and tribulations.
The Three Hikers, directed by Natalie Avital, presents the case of Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer, three Americans who accidentally hiked across the Iranian border and were held hostage in an Iranian prison for two years. The film explains how the three hikers planned their trip and ended up on the wrong side of an unmarked border, their subsequent imprisonment, and the resulting diplomatic efforts of various nations, including Switzerland and Oman, to assist in securing their release. Avital is best at recounting the detainees’ experiences, from how they passed their time in jail (Shourd in solitary) to their various trials, which were agonizingly delayed. The film shows the campaigning done by the detainees’ families, which caught the attention of celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Sean Penn. Yet too little of the film looks at the human rights abuses at stake in the case. While there are some very emotional moments, curiously this important story about injustice only touches on the real traumas experienced by the hikers and their families, as when Shourd, who was released early, says she felt trapped in a different kind of prison when she was back in America. In addition, the diplomatic efforts of the Swiss representative in particular, are under-explored, as the case receives international attention. Avital briefly introduces the context and impact of the Arab Spring—a possible impact on the hiker’s fates—but the point is soon abandoned. Perhaps because the fate of the hikers is known, simply recounting their experiences is not enough; Avital avoids getting at the deeper story here, one that The Three Hikers may not be able to tell. As such, this documentary is unsatisfying despite the undeniably powerful emotion of the hikers being released.
The short film program at AFI Docs was consistently strong. The films were broken down into four showcases, linked thematically by the topics of “time,” loss (the “what remains” program), “parental guidance” and “under water.” However, the shorts in the “Time” and “Parental Guidance” programs could have been rearranged into topics such as work and food. Two observational documentaries, Cobbler and Katsuo-Bushi, depicted men performing labors of love. In the former, it was an elderly man teaching his son his shoemaking business in Spain, a dying craft; in the latter, the art of making umami is revealed. A complex process, the Japanese film shows the way fish are boiled and dried before they are coated with mold and then dried in the sun. It’s a time-consuming and delicate process, lovingly shown. Food also was key to Sandorkraut, an engaging portrait of Sandor Katz, who has become an expert fermentor. His story about dropping his job in New York to go live in a commune in Tennessee is as interesting as his work making his own sauerkraut. Crooked Candy was an excellent short about Chocolate Kinder eggs, a European treat that the film’s Romanian subject enjoyed as a boy, on the rare opportunities the candy was available to him. While nostalgia has prompted him to collect Kinder eggs as an adult living in the United States, the chocolate is illegal in America because the toys are choking hazards. The film chronicles, with bemusement and wonder, the hundreds of toys the nameless, faceless collector has amassed illegally over the years.
Unusual hobbies were the subjects of several shorts, such as the nice documentary Hanger B about a group of elderly men who restored an old airplane. The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers, concerned a much more interesting topic, that of a group of Milwaukee teens who, in 1983, tapped into computers at Sloane Kettering hospital in New York and the Los Alamos computer catching the attention of the FBI. The film shows the media frenzy that followed and how three of the teens responsible fared at the time of the event and decades later. Arguably, the most amusing short at AFI Docs was Born to be Mild, which profiles various members of the Dull Men’s Club. The gentlemen’s hobbies include photographing mailboxes, collecting bricks or milk bottles, and riding escalators. The film, which is thankfully without irony, celebrates the achievements of these individuals who find happiness among the mundane.
One of the best shorts in these programs was Midnight, Three & Six, about a woman who cares for her teenage daughter who is suffering from Type I Diabetes. In 12 minutes, this life-affirming film shows with remarkable compassion and sensitivity how both parent and child work together to monitor the young girl’s levels and appreciate the small things in life. Equally moving was A Conversation with My Black Son, a fantastic short (it won the audience prize) that featured a variety of parents discussing how—and sadly why and when—they need to have “the talk” with their male children about how to handle being pulled over by the police. The film, comprised of a series of stark but warm interviews, is incredibly powerful as each subject’s testimony captures the emotion and the pain of having to have this discussion.
In the “What Remains” shorts program, several films stood out. Body Team 12, directed by David Darg, puts viewers on the ground in Liberia as the film urgently and effectively presented the life and work of Sumo, the only female member on a team charged with recovering the bodies of Ebola virus victims. Shunned by her friends, and often berated by the victim’s families, who prefer to bury the dead, Sumo confronts challenges that range beyond the difficulties of her dangerous job. Yet, she explains, she wants to improve conditions in her country and provide a better world for her young son. Her courage is laudatory and Darg films Sumo with a compassion that magnifies her dignity. His film is undeniably gripping. Dear Araucaria was also a poignant meditation on death, as The Guardian newspaper’s crossword creator includes clues in his puzzles to indicate his poor health to his longtime readers. Even more emotionally stirring was A Strong Heart, a romantic documentary about two people who meet under a most unusual circumstance—a heart transplant. The love that develops between the donor’s sister and the recipient surprises both of them, but it makes for a deeply moving story about the healing power of love.
The shorts in the “Under Water” program showcased lives of ordinary people doing small but great things. In Water Lilies, ten senior women in Ireland talked about their lives and why they came late to learning how to swim. As they describe having raising families and other responsibilities, they explained that now they have time to do something for themselves. Their stories, while all similar, are equally empowering. And the film’s crisp cinematography helps put their experiences into sharp focus.
Likewise, Giovanni and the Water Ballet features a young boy practicing to be on the Dutch water ballet team to fulfill his dream of competing in the synchronized swimming championships. His determination is admirable even as his coach urges him to concentrate. A subplot involving his going steady with Kim (who is not a swimmer) is amusing. Even though this short feels as if there is more to the story than being told, it is nevertheless charming. Lastly, Women in Sink features filmmaker Iris Zaki filming the Arab and Israeli women getting their hair washed in a Haifa beauty salon. Their views on marriage, race relations and politics are recounted during the course of a shampoo. While the views of the cross section of women are all interesting, Women in Sink does feel a bit long, with a little too much rinse and repeat.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.