By Elias Savada.
Eight years ago, the documentary film festival then known as Silver Docs was rechristened AFI DOCS, expanding out from the American Film Institute’s tri-plex in Silver Spring, Maryland, into multiple other venues throughout downtown Washington, DC. While the new format was connected by the area-wide Metro subway and bus system, any fest-goers generally had to pick one physical location over the course of any given day. Too much of a commuting hassle otherwise.
Last year brought the pandemic and a strictly virtual event, with the ability to watch more films from the comfort of your couch. This year (June 22-27), some live screenings have been added back in, all taking place only in AFI’s suburban complex. Unless you ready to share space with strangers in the dark — and watch the 22 films programmed at the AFI Theater — the entire program is online. You should visit https://docs.afi.com/how-to-fest/ if you’re planning to attend in person.
The easiest and most inexpensive way to catch all the 50+ films and some select events is with the $100 Film Pass. Individual features can be unlocked for $10 each, but cost $13 (discounted to $11 for AFI members) if you go to the AFI Theater. Online access is via the multi-device Eventive platform, which built the festival’s front end (https://docs.afi.com/). Just because most of the sparks may fly from the feature presentations, consider sampling the six wonderful short film packages covering 35 unique works from around the world, all free with the fest pass.
The Industry Forum, a series of eight panels packed with conversations between a multitude of producers, directors, and social impact pros to offer networking and professional development opportunities for filmmakers, industry professionals and documentary enthusiasts, will be livestreamed. These programs are $10 a la carte, but free with the fest pass.
Note that the festival is geo-blocked to the United States, and that all events will become available at the designated Eastern Daylight time. Pass holders should pre-order as many of the film they want to watch, but figure to watch 4-5 a day to take in all the action. Once you start watching a film (and you have 48 hours to begin doing so, once it’s available), you’ll have another 48 hours to finish watching. Technically, that means you can actually extend the festival past its official final day and stretch out watching some of the later available titles. Some of the special event screenings have stricter windows, including the Guggenheim Symposium (included with the fest pass), this year honoring filmmaker Dawn Porter. It’s accompanied by a free screening of her Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer, one of the capsule reviews cited below.
Three Special Presentations ($15 each) will be show at one-time only screenings followed by noteworthy Q+A sessions that start at 8 PM but can be activated over the up until midnight. Once you start watching, you have a day to finish. The world premiere of Naomi Osaka, a 112-minute feature from Garrett Bradley (Time), about the complexities of being a top tennis player, is the opening night film on June 22nd. Broken into its 3-part docuseries format, it will be available on Netflix starting July 13th. For the June 25th Centerpiece Screening, there’s Emmy®- and Academy Award®-winner Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (being commercially released by Focus Films on July 16th), a look at the uncommon life of the late storyteller, explorer and chef. Cusp, a coming-of-age documentary follows three teenage girls for one wild, life-changing summer in their small Texas town, from directors Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, closes AFI DOCS on June 27th (with Showtime making the film available on a date TBD).
Three free screenings constitute the Cinema’s Legacy portion of the festival. These are In Search of Our Fathers (1992), Sink or Swim (1990), and Stevie (2002).
AFI DOC’s Premium Sponsor is Apple Original Films, whose streaming platform Apple TV+ will offer the documentary Fathom just days after its festival presentation. (The service has the excellent Boys State and Dads available, shown on last year’s program.) SHOWTIME® Documentary Films, Netflix, WarnerMedia and HBO Documentary Films are screen sponsors, so expect to see some of the films on those outlets as well. Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) returns as Official Sponsor of the festival; its festival entry, The Neutral Ground, giving clarity to the Confederate statue removals since 2015, will air as the July 5th season opener on PBS POV.
Here are some capsule reviews:
Storm Lake This slice of American Pie journalism offers a light yet cautionary examination of a tight-knit, eponymous community in Iowa, and the newspaper that offers an important lifeline via its journal to area folks. And how their readers support it back. No commercial release set, yet.
My Name Is Pauli Murray Most folks probably haven’t heard of this trailblazer in legal, feminist, and civil rights, and you’d be astonished by all her unsung accomplishments expertly revealed in this film by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who made RBG. Amazon Studios will be releasing this in the Fall.
Rebel Hearts This one covers a cadre of California nuns who were fighting the good fight in the 1960s, especially on behalf of the downtrodden, while also bucking the uptight conventions of the Catholic Church foisted on their progressive Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. Opens in theaters June 25 and streaming on Discovery+ two days later. Directed by Pedro Kos, an award-winning editor who also wrote and and produced the Netflix Original The Great Hack.
White Coat Rebels Big Pharma is under the microscope as this compelling documentary takes a detailed look at how drug companies use their tentacles to influence America’s doctors into purchasing and prescribing their products. It’s an investigation into the huge, cutthroat lobbying campaign that finds many medical professionals caught in the drug reps’ headlights — and how some are fighting back with political wiles. Watch a group of young doctors duke it out with the industry goliaths. UCLA and Georgetown’s medical schools are highlighted in training their students how to deal with this issue. No surprise that Eli Lilly or Purdue are not a festival sponsors. World Premiere.
Courtroom 3H This is a hard film to preview. It isn’t much of writing and directing job (by Antonio Méndez Esparza), but more of a selection and compilation piece. At nearly two hours, the film takes hundreds of hours of raw footage the filmmaker’s team shot in 2019 at the Dependency Court of the 2nd Judicial Court in Tallahassee, Florida. As compressed into its cinema verité format, the film lays out a parade of broken family units, mostly due to neglect and abandonment. It’s mostly a run of folks with ruined expectations. Some of the children have their features blurred (not very effectively) to protect their identities. Some folks come with smiles, but most are in a state of confusion or just angry. A few sit quietly, until they stand up and the jail chains shackling them are revealed. Every few minutes the cast changes (except for the court personnel) and some of the main characters rotate back in during the course of the film. The first hour are about a half-dozen hearings, while the second covers two trials. Compelling stuff, even if it’s not a truly cinematic experience. North American Premiere.
Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer Another revisiting of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, expertly constructed by Dawn Porter, expanding on extensive material from Washington Post journalist DeNeen Brown. The Red Summer reflects on the White against Black violence two years earlier in cities across America. The film becomes especially emotional when covering last year’s discovery of the first mass grave with remains apparently from the Oklahoma bloodbath. It’s a racial horror story writ large and should be required viewing for all. Watch during AFI DOCS or catch it now on Hulu or National Geographic.
The First Step Charismatic CNN political commentator, author, progressive activist, lawyer, frustrated crusader, and would-be superhero Van Jones takes center stage in this in-depth examination of his efforts, via #cut50, at criminal justice reform, trying to straddled a deeply divided political climate to gain a bipartisan victory. Director Brandon Kramer, who, with his producing brother Lance, DC-based out of their Meridian Hill Pictures, created the Jones-hosted Webby-award winning series The Messy Truth in associated with the celebrity’s Magic Labs Media, and also the brothers’ first feature City of Trees (2015). [I was an associate producer on that film; I’ve known the Kramer family for many decades.] Their new feature, covering four years in Jones’s quest for prison reform, takes him to many diverse corners of the political spectrum, often setting up for than a few “strange bedfellows” moments. While the reform-minded film tries to remain awkwardly even keeled (A bizarre Jones and Jared Kushner interview! In the same room at the White House with former president! Is that Kim Kardashian West?), it can’t help but provide an absurd Tucker Carlson moment — although Carlson can’t help but be his own asinine self. But the film’s heart beats compassionately, especially when Jones gets California and West Virginia community activities together to discuss drug addiction issues, homelessness, and despair. The film’s a contemplative This Is Your Life piece that also seems to cover the major issues that have overloaded America’s prison system. Bipartisan success or conservative sell out? That’s your call.
There’s plenty more docs on hand, so get to work! Start picking what you want to see at https://docs.afi.com/.
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 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).