AFI Docs 2016

Fourteen years and counting as the prestigious AFI Docs keeps merrily rolling along.  What began in 2003 as AFI Silverdocs based solely at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring Maryland outside of DC, continued its expanse into the nation’s capitol for the fourth  consecutive year.

AFI Docs 2016

AFI Docs 2016

As the President and CEO of the American Film Institute Bob Gazzale pointed out in this year’s program, the decision to expand into DC was made, “to bring together leading storytellers with world leaders – filmmakers with policymakers – those wishing to effect change with those who have the power to do so.”  To that end, I am certain that bringing the festival into  the political heart and soul of our country is one of the best ways to effectuate change by presenting the various issues expounded by the documentarians.

The always fluid D.C. venue locales changed once again from those in 2015.  Gone were screenings at the National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center – all replaced with an extra auditorium utilized in the Landmark complex.

The festival presented 94 films from 30 countries and included three world premieres, seven North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, twelve East Coast premieres and one international premiere.  Most notable were the outstanding opening and closing night films:  Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days” and  Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Norman Lear:  Just Another Version Of You”, respectively – both scheduled for theatrical release in July.  (Each made my Top Five list and are reviewed below.)

Included in the impressive programming: an ESPN produced baseball biopic on Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden by Hollywood directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfigli entitled “”Doc & Darryl”; the first film by Ben Lear (Norman’s son) – a hard-hitting juvenile justice doc entitled “They Call Us Monsters”; “Sonita” about a teenage Afghan refugee and aspiring rap artist living in Iran – which won this years Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary.

And the annual Guggenheim Symposium honored one of cinema’s most iconic filmmaker:  the great Werner Herzog.  The discussion, led admirably by director Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), lasted over 90 minutes, which, thankfully, extended past its allotted time as the affable director shared entertaining anecdotes and experiences spanning his nearly 65 years of distinguished fiction and nonfiction movie-making.   At one point, the prolific filmmaker mentioned that he was currently completing three films that were already “in the can”.  Sprinkled throughout the interview were several clips from his abundant catalog.  The evening concluded with a screening of his excellent “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” which is due to be released theatrically in August.

Finally, despite the overall excellence of this years festival, two significant changes had many of the patrons grumbling.  For the first-time since 2003, only two of the three AFI Silver Theaters were utilized.  This absence of programming in the largest Silver venue meant fewer film choices and ticket availability for the paying public.  I heard many folks lamenting whether this portended a total move to DC in the future – leaving a wonderful venue where the festival was born and consistently flourished, and whose location was a total convenience for the Silver Spring locales and those not wanting to venture inside the Beltway.   Also, for the first-time, no screenings of the Audience Awards or Best Of Festival films were shown at the AFI Silver on the day after the festival concluded –  leaving an empty void for those not able to attend a screening during the five days.  Here’s hoping the AFI Silver will continue to be a viable festival location and that additional presentations return post-festival.

NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Maya Angelou:  And Still I Rise”, which was directed by U.S. directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack.  The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Snails” directed by Grzegorz Szczepaniak (Poland) which told of two friends whose dreams of becoming millionaires lead them to snail farming.  (Neither film was screened by this reviewer).

MY TOP 5 AT THE 2016 AFI DOCS

(1-Tie)  Norman Lear:  Just Another Version of You  (**** out of 4 – 91 minutes)

Film Image - Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Film Image – Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for Jesus Camp.  Their latest has an excellent chance to make the Academy’s short list as well.  Their documentary on the life of the television icon, whose ground-breaking comedy series in the 70’s (including All in the Family, Good Times and The Jeffersons) were landmarks in the industry, is nothing short of superb.  The creator, writer and producer at one point had six shows in the Nielsen top 10 rating.  His All in the Family (1971-1979), which started it all, was so influential in the American consciousness that it’s lead character’s chair has been placed in the Smithsonian Institute.  Using a somewhat unconventional approach, the directors utilize a child actor (Keaton Nigel Cooke) to recreate Lear’s “child’s-eye view” as an analogy throughout the biopic- a device that is quite effective as the images jump back and forth covering his life and career.  Lear, who is now approaching 94 years of age, as a youth growing up in Connecticut, was strongly influenced by his environment consisting of a detached mom and a bigoted father (an inspiration for All in The Family‘s “Archie Bunker”?).  He eventually was raised, beginning at age nine, by uncles and grandparents and later abandoned education for the military.  Ewing and Grady cover Lear’s early Hollywood years including his start with early TV variety show writing credits that lead to screen-writing (The Night They Raided Minsky‘s and an Oscar nominated script for Divorce American Style) and directing (Cold Turkey).  When his partner, Bud Yorkin, viewed the British Comedy series Till Death Us Do Part about a married working-class conservative and his clashes with a son-in-law, Lear had an inspiration.  The revelation became the landmark CBS show that raised this country’s social consciousness by satirizing issues never before addressed on a weekly basis on television.   Ewing and Grady included some classic comedic bits from Lear’s series, but also unearthed a fascinating interview with Good Times lead Ester Rolle who was continuously bothered by Lear’s portrayal of J.J., played by Jimmy Walker, yearning for “comedy without buffoonery”.  Other clashes are revealed indicating that not all were beds of roses behind-the-scenes.  Also covered were Lear’s two marriages (he left television after he and his first wife separated),  his geriatric turn at fatherhood and his founding of the political left-wing People For the American Way in response to the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s.  Of particular note is the professional editing work of  J.D. Marlow & Enit Sidi along with a well rendered jazz score by Kris Bowers.  The film, which Lear stated during the symposium that he was given no artistic control, had its North American premiere at the festival and was given a limited theatrical release on July 8.  It will eventually be presented on PBS’ American Masters series sometime this fall.  Not to be missed.

(1-Tie)  How To Build A Time Machine  (**** out of 4 – 82 minutes)

Film Image: How To Build A Time Machine

Film Image: How To Build A Time Machine

Rob Niosi viewed George Pal’s 1960 adaption of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as a youth and from that experience his fascination with time travel led to an obsession on building a full-scale replica of the time machine prop used in the classic sci-fi film.  Trying to recapture the nostalgia of his viewing experience, Niosi, a stop motion animator on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, spent over nine years and thousands of dollars on his compulsion to complete his project at his wooded upper-state New York home.  (When asked during the Q&A how much he spent, he sheepishly declined to reveal the actual cost.)  Ron Mallett, a PhD physicist at the University of Connecticut, also took in the film as a child with his dad and brother.  When his beloved father passed away unexpectedly when Ron was 10 years old, devastated by his passing, Ron began a life-long quest to calculate the feasibility of time-travel in order to reunite with his father and warn him of his impending heart attack-and also to tell him how much he loved him.  Cheel  juxtaposes each story beautifully.  You’ll observe the overly meticulous Niosi and the extreme, at times comical, measures he takes to recreate, in the minutest detail, the symbol of time travel embedded in a memory from his youth.  The director was obviously influenced by the great documentarian, Erroll Morris.  He effectively utilizes Morris’ Interrotron (a variation of a teleprompter) to interview Mallett as he relates his educational journey exploring the possibility of time travel using Einsteins’ theories and the science of black holes.  Most interesting are the questions that time-travel raises such as the grandfather paradox, as well as social and ethical issues of traveling to the past or future and making changes.  The movie also confirms the notion of the power of cinema and how it can shape the life journeys of its audience.  Would Mallett have ever devoted his life to physics and  a determination to prove the possibility of time-travel if he didn’t attend that screening early in his youth?  Director Jay Cheel shot his film over nearly five years and includes a wonderful soundtrack by composers Ohad Benchetrit & Justin Small.  Cheel whimsically develops both of the story lines in such an entertaining and informative way that the documentary will have you emotionally involved in each character’s quest. Coming in at a crisp 82 minutes, I actually wished the film lasted much longer.

(2)  Following Seas  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 94 minutes)

Film Image: Following Seas

Film Image: Following Seas

Following Seas is both an adventure story and a love story on many levels.  Nancy’s  first love was life on the high seas.  Bob Griffith gave up his successful veterinarian practice after a heart attack to devote his life to sailing. When he pulled into a Hawaiian harbor in 1960, Nancy first fell in love with his 53-foot cutter, and then ultimately with Bob.  Over the course of their relationship they embarked on 13 major voyages including circumnavigating the world three times.  And their shared love of exploring the world on the open seas is well documented with over 28 hours of Bolex 16mm film footage and a multitude of 35mm slides.  With a wonderfully fluid narration provided by Nancy in her 70s, and skillful editing by co-director Araby Williams, their perilous voyages without radio, radar, and modern navigational aides, will have you in total awe.  Their circumnavigation of the Antarctic (a first) in a small boat encompasses a good portion of the film.  This exploit took them 111 days and earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.  Included is a spectacular segment when their boat, the Awahnee, crashed on a nearly deserted Pacific Island of Vahanga where, with the help of a couple of Tahitian prisoners, it took them nearly two months to rebuild.  Also included was an incident involving Nancy falling overboard without a life preserver in shark infested waters.  Directors Tyler J. Kelley and Araby Williams complemented the amazing visuals with recent footage and the use of a terrific soundtrack provided by All Them Witches, Woodsplitter, Teho Teardo, Luke Tromiczak and Christopher Lancaster.  The doc serves as a fitting tribute for two of this country’s finest sailors.  As Nancy lamented, the English honor outstanding sailors with knighthood while the French bestow ribbons of honor.  Unfortunately, America largely ignores them.  This film provides a long overdue acknowledgment of two of the most courageous adventurers that you will not easily forget.

(3)  Obit (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)

Film Image: Obit

Film Image: Obit

Who would have thought that a documentary about obituaries would be interesting, or, for that matter, fun.  However, director Vanessa Gould accomplishes both in spades.  Gould became interested in the subject when she was contacted by a member of the NY Times obit staff for information on the late French sculptor Eric Joisel, her friend and the subject of her 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Between the Folds.  Making a doc involves hard work and a lot of luck.  Once filming begins, a film’s success or failure often depends on being in the right place at the right time.   Here, success was achieved at the time director Vanessa Gould was given full access to the New York Times obituary staff writers which consists of obit editor William McDonald as well as past and present writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello.  It turns out there are only a few editorial obit writers in the world.  Of course the demise of celebrities, politicians, or anyone who made news in their life would be worthy candidates.  However, as McDonald pointed out, “We look for people who changed the way we live.” And about 70 percent of obituaries cover the lives of folks no one has ever heard of.  The director offers many examples including the inventor of the Slinky, the pilot of the Enola Gay, an exotic dancer with ties to Jack Ruby and the last surviving plaintiff from Brown v Board of Education.  Besides including interviews and archival material, most of the film covers the anatomy of a single day.  When Goald arrives for filming, Bruce is in the process of constructing an obit for William P. Wilson.  His subsequent research, done over the course of several hours reveals that he was the first television consultant whose decision in 1960 to apply makeup to a youthful John F. Kennedy before his milestone debate with Richard Nixon could have possibly led to JFK’s election.  Also, time is given to ad exec Dick Rich who was responsible for several landmark commercials in the 60s including Alka-Seltzer and Benson & Hedges.  But it is the time the filmmaker spends with Jeff Roth, the quirky eccentric sole caretaker of  “the morgue” (which consists of thousands of file drawers containing old photographs, weathered clippings, and advance obits) that elicits the most joy.  The overseer of the newspaper’s history was so memorable that the audience clapped when his visage appeared over the closing credits.  In the end, you’ll realize that Obit is more about the celebration of life than the morbidity of its subject matter.

(4)  Tower (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)

Film Image: Tower

Film Image: Tower

The country has become somewhat numb to the seemingly constant barrage of mass shootings whether at a mall, workplace, campus, etc.   Long before the words “active shooter”, “SWAT teams” or “grief counseling” were a usual part of the vernacular, there was the shooting 50 years ago by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin.  That day, the 27-year-old Whitman mounted the campus clock tower and, after 96 minutes, the shooter lay dead but not before randomly murdering 16 and wounding 32 innocent victims.  Director Keith Maitland spent 10 years creating an extraordinary document.  Its genius is in the film’s presentation and the techniques he used to convey the horror of that day.  Using brilliant rotoscoped animation by Minnow Mountain (think Richard Linklater’s 2001Waking Life), actors using scripted words over the action, archival footage and live action, Maitland creates a disturbing emotional suspenseful experience one will not soon forget.  Shifting back and forth from these narrative styles, and concentrating almost totally on the memory of the surviving victims instead of the shooter’s motive(s), Maitland recreates in the first hour a minute-by-minute account of the events on that fateful August day from their viewpoint.  And the constant barrage of gunfire heard over the soundtrack creates an unnerving milieu that, despite the animation, will ultimately have viewers feeling as if they were there.  As in all of these situations, several examples of individual heroism are illustrated as well as one “survivor remorse” and one of cowardice.   The stories are riveting and beautifully rendered throughout.  The compelling standout is the first person shot.   Claire Wilson was pregnant and forced to lay on cement in the hot sun next to her deceased boyfriend for an hour while onlookers, including news cameras, looked on.  Her heartbreaking story and how she survived is nothing short of amazing.  The last half hour is less stirring as it concentrates on the present day appearance of the actual survivors portrayed earlier, relating the aftermath up to the present and the inclusion of reunions.  The film also ties in more recent mass shootings as it tries to put in historical perspective this event which quite possibly started mass shootings on college campuses.  And most disturbing, depending on one’s point of view, is the final pronouncement that, coincidentally, on the 50th anniversary, Texas law will permit open-carry of firearms on the Texas campuses, which is vehemently opposed by the shooting victims.  Tower, a PBS Independent Lens production, will have a limited theatrical release beginning October 12.

(5)  Zero Days (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 114 minutes)

Film Image: Zero Day

Film Image: Zero Day

The latest from prolific Academy Award winner Alex Gibney is perhaps one of his most chilling.  Computer hacking, as with mass murder (see above), is becoming an almost daily frightening reality of our modern times.  However, this activity is not confined to individuals or groups of individuals intent on stealing information as governments are using the capability to conduct cyberwarfare.  After a brief history, Gibney concentrates on the 2008 joint action of the U.S. and Israel  (although neither will confirm it) to introduce a computer malware into the Iranian nuclear facility computers at Natanz intent on destroying centrifuges in order to shut down their nuclear capability and growth.  What follows was its initial discovery of the “worm” (self-replicating malware meant to spread from computer to computer) which was named “Stuxnet” based on 2 syllables uncovered in the code.  How it was uncovered by antivirus experts Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu of the cyber-security company Symantec Research Labs, is one of the more fascinating aspects of the doc.  The unfortunate consequence was that the initial damage was merely temporary as Iran’s nuclear program came back stronger than ever.  Worse yet, the worm opened a Pandora’s Box by ultimately spreading around the globe.  After we are presented with a long series of on-camera denials of the covert operation from a multitude of government officials (at one point Gibney frustratingly proclaims “This is really beginning to piss me off!”), the director begins presenting testimony from a number of anonymous whistle-blowers.  To protect their identity he combines their information into a script and utilizes an actress (Joanne Tucker) to read it showing her onscreen by using an eerie digital filter effect.  What clearly comes into horrifying focus is that cyberwarfare is now readily available to all the powers.  Each has the capability of controlling nuclear power plants, disabling power grids, and creating total chaos to such a degree that the end result would make the damage done by an atom bomb seem like a pipe bomb in comparison.  Gibney deploys effective graphics throughout to illustrate the technicalities involved as well as employing a terrific soundtrack.  Zero days (the term refers to the time between a computer’s vulnerability is discovered and the first cyber attack) is part investigative journalism, part spy thriller and part science fiction, and will have you hoping that its implications will be addressed by the candidates in the upcoming election instead of our government’s continued secrecy and silence.  The film, which had its North American premiere at AFI Docs, opened in limited released on July 8.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World (*** 1/2 out of 4) – The East Coast Premiere of Werner Herzog’s frightening essay on the increasing technology and its past, present and future affect on humankind.

The Islands And The Whales (*** 1/2 out of 4) – The East Coast Premiere about the people from the North Sea’s remote Faroe Islands and how their centuries-old subsistence for food from native birds and whales is being threaten by changes in their environment, mercury in the whales and anti-whaling activists.

Jay Berg lives in Baltimore, MD.  His blog “Jay Berg’s Cinema Diary” can be read at http://jayberg.blogspot.com/. He can be contacted at jaybergscinemadiary@gmail.com

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