By Elias Savada.
One of the premier documentary film festivals is back for its 18th year. Unlike all previous iterations of the event it started life as Silver Docs but was renamed in 2013 when it expanded beyond the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and ventured to various venues throughout downtown Washington, DC – you have to watch from the comfort of your couch. Weather.com predicts rain/thunderstorms during a good portion of the festival, June 17-21, so you’ll also stay dry this year, except for that craft beer your drinking with self-made popcorn. In previous years the wide distances to hike, bike, Metro, or drive between the multiple screens around the National Mall and the three in AFI’s Silver Spring (Maryland) location, it was necessary to select one general location vs. the other because of travel and time constraints. Not anymore, but you might have to figure out which hours you’ll want to sleep, eat, or – if you’re back at it – work.
This year, like so many other festivals, AFI DOCS has gone virtual, one of the many causalities of the novel coronavirus. AFI Silver has been presenting online links for its art house fare for several months now, so moving the festival online seems like a natural progression. Plus, you don’t have to hassle with lines, masks, or other issues related to the current health crisis. Frankly, I don’t think many of us are truly ready to pack movie houses just yet, but there’s plenty of room at home – and some really good films – awaiting you there, to share with family. The AFI DOCS website even proclaims “The Best Seat Is In Your House!”
The price is right, too. Individual tickets are just $8, but most folks should seriously look at the virtual Screening Pass at just $50 (one-third of last year’s pass cost). A few caveats: film views are limited, the Special Ppresentations are add-on events, some programs can actually sell out, and the “screenings” are only available to ticket holders in the United States. If you join the AFI (disclaimer: I worked there for 14 years many ages ago, I am not a member) as a Two-Star member or above, you’ll get a complimentary festival screening pass.
With the support of its many business supporters – for the seventh consecutive year AT&T is the Presenting Sponsor and hosts the Opening Night (June 17, 7:30 PM) presentation of Boys State – much of the AFI DOCS program remains the same. A live Q+A (some films have pre-recorded post film sessions). The film is an fine up-close look at the annual leadership program that gathers 17-year-olds in state-by-state American Legion-sponsored gatherings to give them a taste of how the election process works. It comes complete with some of the same issues that are dividing the country today. The film covers the 2018 Texas gathering of 1,200 boys (there are also Girls State editions) and is a compelling program (notable alumni include Cory Booker, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Roger Ebert, Michael Jordan, and many others). The film excellently captures several of the participants, many who seemed destined for a future in politics.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), is the Official Sponsor of Cinema’s Legacy at AFI DOCS, a special archival/retrospective film section, which includes two public media films that are part of a special focus on Women and the Vote timed with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. CPB is also sponsor of the Special Presentation event featuring the world premiere of Portraits and Dreams, which revisits photographs created by Kentucky schoolchildren in the 1970s. It will air on PBS’s POV series on September 7th if you miss it here.
CPB is also sponsor of the AFI DOCS Forum, five days of panels, conversations and meetings for filmmakers, industry personnel and documentary enthusiasts. The Forum Pass – with access to the online panels and discussions outside of the film Q+A sessions, costs another $50.
Primary Media Partners for the 2020 festival are NBC News’ Meet the Press with Chuck Todd and The Washington Post. Meet the Press also sponsors the festival’s Short Film Section, as well as a panel discussion during the AFI DOCS Forum. The Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership will sponsor the special presentation of A Thousand Cuts (about Filipino President Rodrigo Duerte’s attack on his country’s free press) and a forum panel discussion about the film.
Saturday, June 20, at 7:30 PM there’s a special presentation of Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise, with a post-screening discussion with the director and the film’s subjects Michelle John and Steve “Woody” Culleton. The film chronicles the effort to restore the town of Paradise, California, which suffered tremendous damage on November 8, 2018 from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive fire in history.
This year’s Guggenheim Symposium (Friday, June 19, 6 PM) honors Lee Grant and offers a viewing of her 1986 Oscar-winning documentary Down and Out in America. The actress/director/activist will have an in-depth conversation with Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday.
Two other Special Presentations are of note. Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President, from award-winning director Mary Wharton is the Closing Night selection (Sunday, June 21, 7 PM). The film, focusing on the 39th President’s fascination with music, just had its North American broadcast rights acquired by CNN. This film, originally set as the opening night of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, now becomes a world premiere at AFI DOCS. Also check out the Centerpiece Screening (Friday, June 19, 8 PM) of The Fight, a brilliant, inspiring look at several ACLU attorneys as they battle efforts to crush freedoms that are being tested by the current U.S. Administration. This one is scheduled for theatrical release via Magnolia Pictures on July 31st.
The breakdown for AFI DOCS features 59 films from 11 countries, with 12 virtual world premieres. The percentage for directors by gender and persuasion is an impressive step in the right direction: women (61%), POC (25%), and LGBTQ (14%).
There’s just too much for me to highlight. Do NOT forget the short film programs, which like the Cinema’s Legacy and Episodic titles, are available to view anytime between June 18-21. The Special Presentations are one-time-only screenings. Features are available for 24-hour viewing, with a different slate every festival day.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).