Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Top Picks for AFI DOCS 2019

Just over a month ago, I published my interview with AFI DOCS director Michael Lumpkin and now it’s time to give my must-see recommendations for this year’s festival. AFI DOCS is an annual showcase of documentary cinema in Washington, DC. Below, in alphabetical order, are some films I think people should see (though there are plenty beyond these that are worth watching). AFI DOCS runs Wednesday, June 19, and ends on Sunday, June 23. Check out the festival’s website for full details.

American Factory (Steven Bognar/Julia Reichert) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2019 Maryland Film Festival coverage]: What happens when a Chinese company takes over an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio? Hint: nothing good.

Gay Chorus Deep South (David Charles Rodrigues) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2019 Tribeca Film Festival coverage]: The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus undertakes a concert tour that doubles as outreach mission through the states of the “deep south” with the most repressive anti-gay cultures and legislations.

The Great Hack (Karim Amer/Jehane Noujaim): Think your personal data is private and could never be used against you to influence how you vote? Think again, thanks to this comprehensive portrait of some of the players behind the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica.

Maiden (Alex Holmes) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2018 Toronto International Film Festival coverage]: Looking for an inspirational story of women battling against the odds (and men) to prove they are powerful? Check out this chronicle of the all-female crew that competed in a round-the-world sailing competition in the late 1980s.

Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen): A powerful condemnation of a health-care system crumbling without public infrastructure, this film follows the Ochoa family in Mexico City as they struggle to make ends meet driving a private ambulance. Nobody wins in a society that refuses to invest in public health. Let’s hope we’re not next …

Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin): Using only archival footage, director Avi Belkin gives us a marvelous, in-depth profile of the legendary newsman in all his glory and muck.

One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang/Jialing Zhang) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2019 Sundance Film Festival coverage]: For years, China had a “One Child” policy that mandated that couples could not have multiple children, but people are people and love to create more people, so things didn’t quite work out as planned. This is the story of the tragedy and nightmare behind inhumane officialdom.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Matt Wolf) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2019 Maryland Film Festival coverage]: For 30 years, Philadelphia resident Marion Stokes obsessively recorded television, 24 hours a day, resulting in over 70,000 tapes. This is the story of why that’s important, beautifully told through archival footage, reenactments and present-day interviews.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal): The most formally innovative of the feature films I have seen in the 2019 AFI DOCS program, Searching Eva follows Eva Collé, an Italian-born sex worker and model living in Germany who strives to live as full a life as possible while plying her trade. Assembled through a combination of observational footage and gorgeously staged tableaux, the movie ponders essential truths about sex, gender, family and the human condition.

Slay the Dragon (Chris Durrance/Barak Goodman): If there’s a monster in our political midst, it’s the vicious creature known as the “gerrymander,” which manipulates electoral districts so as to disenfranchise voters. If it seems unstoppable, take heart that there are those actively seeking to destroy it. They are the subjects of this inspiring film.

We Are the Radical Monarchs (Linda Goldstein Knowlton) [I wrote a capsule review as part of my 2019 Maryland Film Festival coverage]: A feature-length version of the director’s previous short Radical Brownies, this new film follows a Girl Scout-like troop, devoted to empowering young girls of color, in California’s Bay Area. The Radical Monarchs and the women who founded them prove that nothing is impossible if you dream big. 

We Believe in Dinosaurs (Clayton Brown/Monica Long Ross): According to a title card at the end of this fascinating, if disturbing, movie, 38% of American believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, putting their faith, instead, in a biblical interpretation of history that ignores the scientific record. They may believe in dinosaurs, but only as erstwhile co-inhabitants of the planet along with early humans. We watch as members of “Answers in Genesis,” a fundamentalist company headquartered in Kentucky, build a gigantic shrine to Noah’s Ark. The end of the world truly is nigh.

And then there are two short films I really enjoyed, as well:

Everything You Wanted to Know About Sudden Birth* (*but were afraid to ask) (Scott Calonico) – playing as part of Shorts Program 4: A delightful look at the making of an extraordinarily odd (and explicit) PSA about how to assist in a live birth in a car should one have to do so. Told exclusively through archival materials, voiceover interviews and footage from the PSA (and its cinematic cousins), this short documentary is brilliant in its simplicity of concept and execution.

A Love Song for Latasha (Sophia Nahli Allison) – playing as part of Shorts Program 2: A stunning experimental – and deeply sad – account of the 1991 murder of teenager Latasha Harlins, shot and killed by store owner Soon Ja Du as she tried to buy orange juice, A Love Song for Latasha mixes period clips with present-day interviews (voiceover and in-person), reenactments with artful compositions of Los Angeles over the years, and VHS footage with studied degradations of such, all to invoke the spirit of a soul taken before her time. In only 19 minutes, director Sophia Nahli Allison accomplishes a lost lifetime’s worth of memories.

See you around the festival!

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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