2017 marks the fifteenth year of this distinguished documentary film festival. What began in 2003 as “AFI Silverdocs” transitioned to “AFI DOCS” in 2013 when the main hub relocated from Silver Spring, Maryland to Washington D.C.
American Film Institute (AFI) President and CEO, Bob Gazzele, opened the festival at the dynamic Newseum located mere blocks from Congress and The White House, and began by mentioning that this year marks AFI’s 50th anniversary since its inception in June 1967. He proceeded to show the audience a photo of the first Board of Trustees meeting which included such notables as Gregory Peck (the founding chairman), Sidney Poitier (founding vice-chairman), Jack Valente, “a new young independent filmmaker” Francis Ford Coppola and founding director George Stevens, Jr. Of Stevens, Gazzele called him, “a visionary who imagined an organization that would insure that the motion picture sits proudly alongside the other arts in America.” Adding that the goal of the festival is “to bring together the nation’s leaders with the nation’s leading artists.”
The screening venues remained constant from last year: The DC venues in the Penn Quarter district comprised multiple theaters in The E Street Landmark as well as The Newseum, while the sole Silver Spring location returned to The AFI Silver Theater complex.
This years compilation totaled 112 films (up from 94 films in 2016) from 28 countries. Of those, 59 were features (13 more than last year) which comprised six U.S. premieres, five East Coast premieres, three world premieres, three north American premieres and one international premiere. The opening and closing night galas both featured sports themed documentaries. The opening night film, Icarus, focused mainly on the uncovering of the recent Russian Olympic doping scandal, and was purchased at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by Netflix for a record $5 million. The closing night film entitled Year of The Scab, focused on the 1987 NFL players strike and the temporary replacements hired by the NFL owners and is part of the ESPN excellent“30 For 30” series. Both films will be released later this year.
The impressive features line-up included: Dina, the Grand Jury Prize for documentary winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; City of Ghosts, the latest from Academy Award nominated Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land); The Force, which won Peter Nicks the Best Director prize at Sundance; La Chana, winner of the Audience Award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival; The Work, which won the top documentary prize at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival.
The annual Guggenheim symposium, which each year recognizes a master documentary filmmaker and commemorates their work, honored Academy Award winning director Laura Poitras (2014s Citizen Four-see Christopher Reed’s excellent interview below). A varied array of festival activities there were offered were an Impact Lab (a two-day program “designed for filmmakers with issue-driven films who aim to create broader social and political change through the power of story and film”), AFI DOCS forums (“a variety of networking and professional development events for filmmakers, industry professionals and those with a passion for nonfiction storytelling”), and for all AFI DOCS passholders, a VR Showcase which offered the latest and best in virtual reality with the screening of selected VR documentaries. Also, a special program featured a discussion entitled “Look To The Right” between the Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post critic, Ann Hornaday and filmmaker Michael Pack on the topic of conservative documentaries.
Finally, this was my 15th consecutive year attending this superlative festival and it continues to offer an incredible variety of thought-provoking and entertaining cinema and activities. My sole regret is what seems like an eventual total shift away from the Silver Spring location. When D.C. venues were introduced in 2013, I was informed that the organizers would try to have at least one screening of each program at the AFI Silver Theater. Unfortunately, for those not wishing to travel the seven or so miles to D.C., the film choices appear to be dwindling for Silver Spring. Last year there were only nine films that did not play at The Silver. This year there were a whopping twenty-two films playing only in D.C. – a disturbing trend for those folks not desiring to venture to Penn Quarter but wishing to only attend screenings at the birthplace of AFI DOCS.
NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Step” directed by Amanda Lipitz about the Baltimore step dance team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women who aspire to win the city’s dance competition and become the only women in their families to attend college. The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Fish Story” directed by Charlie Lyne that takes place in 1980 Wales and is about a mysterious gathering between an unlikely group of people who have one thing in common . (Neither film was screened by this reviewer.)
MY TOP 5 AT THE 2017 AFI DOCS
(1) New Chefs on the Block (**** out of 4 – 96 minutes)
I don’t know what it is about restaurant/chef/food related docs, as most that have encompassed this genre that I’ve screened over the years have, for the most part, been first-rate. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012), The Search for General Tso (2015), Super Size Me (2004), Kings of Pastry (2010) are just a few of those titles that come to mind. You can now add this gem by local D.C. director and American University film grad Dustin Harrison-Atlas. He spent nearly three years filming and one year in post-production to create this absolutely delightful non-fiction narrative. Two Washington chefs attempt to realize their dreams of creating an eatery literally from the ground up, and then try to survive in the highly competitive service industry (D.C. was actually named Restaurant City of the Year in 2016 by Bon Appetite magazine). Frank Linn wanted to move from pizza truck to a brick and mortar establishment called, appropriately, “Frankly . . . Pizza” located in Kensington, Maryland located about 10 miles outside of D.C. On the opposite end of the spectrum, chef Aaron Silverman had his eyes on opening a high end eatery aptly named “Rose’s Luxury” in Baracks Row. The trials and tribulations each faced involving funding, renovations, and intense approaches to make their venture a success, takes many twists and turns during the film’s 96 minute running time. Interviewed throughout are notable chefs, critics, family members and employees. The end result is a documentary that is captivating and entertaining as hell and was my favorite feature screened at the festival. Quoting the director, “It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you hungry”. Winner of the Cinequest Audience Documentary Feature Award in San Diego earlier this year, New Chefs On The Block has signed on with the sales team of Preferred Content which sold Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Chef’s Table; so, hopefully it will be picked up for distribution in the not to distant future.
(2) The Farthest (**** out of 4 – 122 minutes)
In the summer of 1977, NASA launched the first ever spacecrafts to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune: the outer planets of our solar system. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, moving at 10 miles per second, have now been traveling over 10 and 12 billion miles, respectively, since their launch and, for all we know, are still going strong. The Farthest is not your typical cut and dry science doc that informs but makes little or no effort to entertain. On the contrary, Irish director Emer Reynolds has crafted a stunning work that is sure to delight and amuse even the most ardent non-science geek in the audience. Despite the two hour running time, the film never bores as Reynolds covers the nuts and bolts of the mission in a way that is above the elementary but below the technically complex. Included are the requisite talking heads including those scientists and engineers directly involved with the project as well as the late astronomer/educator/author Carl Sagan, who was instrumental in coaxing NASA not to make a mid-course decision that would have potentially altered the achievements and goal of the project. But what is most engrossing, and a topic that the director repeatedly returns to, is Sagan’s golden record that was placed on the spacecrafts to be discovered and hopefully analyzed by any alien beings that might happen upon our Voyagers. The making of this record (that contains Earth images, greetings in multiple languages, and 27 musical selections ranging from Bach to Chuck Berry) could fill a documentary of its own. Interesting is the backstory on what musical selections were to be etched, and the tidbit that The Beatles were asked but declined to be incorporated. (During the Q&A, Reynolds revealed that the decision was regrettably made by their record company and not the by the musicians.) The doc includes wonderful archival footage as well as fascinating CGI imagery. The actual photos taken by the spacecrafts, especially of those showing the approaches to each of the planets, are nothing short of awe inspiring. In addition, the soundtrack is as magnificent as the visuals with composer Ray Harman’s beautiful score interspersed with classical selections. The director takes the viewer through all the ups and downs of the mission, and when related on-screen by those directly involved, I couldn’t help but feel the spectrum of their raw emotions conveyed as they recounted their stories. In the end, these spacecrafts, that contain less computing power than our smartphones, could outlive our planet and travel for billions of years well pass our Heliosphere and long after their lithium batteries are extinguished. Only the golden record and its messages will live on as the sole lasting proof of humankind’s existence. Winner of the Audience Award at the Dublin International Film Festival, the film is still seeking distribution as of this writing.
(3) Atomic Homefront (**** out of 4 – 96 minutes)
The World premiere of the latest by Academy Award nominated director Rebecca Cammisa (2009 documentary Which Way Home and 2012 documentary short, God is the Bigger Elvis) is yet another disturbing example of government negligence and corporate avarice at the expense of the health and welfare of innocent victims. There is certainly no more fitting location to first present this film to the world than Washington D.C. – which serves to emphasize one reason why the organizers have centered this festival in the capital of our country. Cammisa spent several years investigating the effects of a nuclear landfill on two communities about ten miles outside downtown St. Louis. After that city was selected in the 1930’s to process uranium to create atomic bombs for The Manhattan Project, about 25 years later, the resulting nuclear waste was move to northern St. Louis county and dumped in a landfill. The immediate surrounding community (roughly a mile around the landfill) was directly affected while a second community about four miles away along the Coldwater Creek Flood plain is similarly contaminated and is causing cancer and premature deaths for many of its residents. Most of these folks were clueless about the dangers until a strange stink arose caused by an underground landfill fire (known as a Subsurface Smoldering Event) that started seven years ago and is menacingly creeping toward the uranium, thorium, and radium. If reached, the radioactivity would spread into the atmosphere directly affecting some 3 million people (at the Q&A it was revealed the fire is currently a mere 600 feet away from the waste material!). And despite being on EPA’s Superfund site list since 1990 (sites that are polluted locations requiring long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination), virtually nothing has been done to quell the impending danger. As a result, the citizenry organized Just Moms STL and enlisted the help of Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal activist who raised awareness of the dioxin poisoning in the 1970s. Cammisa documents their travels to D.C. to confront the lawmakers only to be rebuffed time and time again. In the final minutes it is revealed that the EPA absurdly allows environments to be poisoned – as long as the levels meet a minimum requirement. The director uses multiple imagery and interviews to a poignant effect and includes an effective score by Robert Miller as well as top-notch cinematography by Kirsten Johnson, Thomas Newcomb, and Claudia Raschke-Robinson. Atomic Homefront delivers a powerful punch to the gut with even more outrageous information too numerous to detail in this limited space. The stunning documentary is HBO produced and will appear on the network after a limited theatrical run.
(4) A Gray State (**** out of 4 – 93 minutes)
What begins as just another making-of doc, slowly morphs into something entirely different – and troubling. The film opens in 2010 with ex-Iraq/Afghanistan vet David Crowley working feverishly to make his independent film dream a reality. The fiction narrative, seeming aimed at the alt-right and entitled Gray State, describes a not-too-distant dystopian future where the government totally represses the rights of its citizens. Crowley raised enough cash to produce an extremely professional two minute trailer that was seen over 2 ½ million times on YouTube that resulted in him being considered a messenger of the movement. In the midst of filming and trying to raise enough to complete it, the project came to an abrupt and tragic end when the filmmaker, wife, and 5-year-old daughter were found shot to death in their Minnesota home on Christmas day in 2014. “Allah Akbar” was written on a wall in blood. (A friend compares the scenario to Sid and Nancy.) Was this merely a case of murder/suicide as a result of Crowley’s slow decent into depression, paranoia and madness, possibly accelerated by an unexpected call to overseas duty for a second tour? Or were they murdered by a fringe Libertarian sect or by a government conspiracy? Director Erik Nelson uses a plethora of material to attempt to unravel the mystery. Thirteen thousand stills, twenty-three terabytes of computer data, multiple diary entries, hours of David’s personal home videos, and interviews (including a three hour self interview) were all thoroughly researched by the director in an effort to get at the truth of the tragedy. (At the Q&A, Nelson said the police didn’t go through the evidence like he did.) Nelson produced three films by the great Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, and Into the Abyss) and Herzog returns the favor here as one of the executive producers whose influence cannot be ignored. A powerful film that will stay with you long the lights come up, the A&E/Netflix produced documentary will have a limited theatrical run before being available on Netflix sometime next year.
(5) Brimstone & Glory (*** ½ out of 4 – 67 minutes)
A 67 minute film about fireworks hardly seems enticing. Although the narrative in Brimstone and Glory is sparse, the backstory, images and soundtrack kept me totally engrossed. First-time director Viktor Jakovleski introduces us to a festival that is certainly not world renown. In fact, the director mentioned during the Q&A that his crew from Mexico City, and only an hour away, wasn’t even aware of it and became emotional on the last day of shooting and thanked him for introducing it to them) . Tultepec is a small town in south-central Mexico known for its manufacturing of fireworks for some 150 years (they produce over 80% of all the fireworks in Mexico). Although Jakovleski introduces a couple of characters, it is the annual early March week-long Pyrotechnic Festival that is the focal point of the film. As it turns out the event is as much spiritual as it is spectacle. We discover that fireworks have a religious connotation for Mexicans and that the festival is dedicated to the saint of fireworks-makers – the 6th century Portuguese-born Catholic saint John of God. The two main filmic segments involved a giant castle infused with a multitude of fireworks (that prematurely catches fire during a rainstorm during its construction), and a harrowing version of Spain’s “running with the bulls” where participants try to outrun mechanical bulls while avoiding exploding pyrotechnics attached to the sculptures. Jakovleski spent portions of three years filming and utilizes incredible cinematography by Tobias von den Borne. The DP captured the fireworks at 1500 frames per second on a high-speed camera. The result are displays unlike any pyrotechnics one usually sees on film. In all, seven cameras were used to capture the intensity including two drones and go-pros. Of special note is the stunning score by Dan Romer and producer/editor Benh Zeitland (who composed the music for and directed Beasts of the Southern Wild). Viktor’s decision to make a visual tribute permeated with a wonderful score, instead of a movie full of talking heads, was a brilliant move and made the experience that more wondrous. This little gem will take your breath away and I predict that you will not view fireworks the same way again. During the Q&A, Viktor referred to the massive explosion at a fireworks market in this town in December 2016 where scores of people perished. The filming had ended about a year before and the correct decision was made to omit mentioning this tragedy because, as the director stated, he wanted to only share his perspective and experience. Oscilloscope has bought the distribution rights and a fall theatrical release is planned. Try and see it on the big screen with an equally large sound system.
Mosquito (*** 1/2 out of 4) – The International premiere of this beautifully photographed but frightening exposé on mosquitos and the global threat they pose is a Discovery Impact film which premiered on the Discovery world-wide beginning July 6.
Trophy (*** 1/2 out of 4) – A dark look into big game hunting in Africa and its causation on looming wild animal extinction. The CNN-produced film will be shown theatrically in the U.S. in September and on CNN early next year.
Year of the Scab (*** 1/2 out of 4) – Yet another in the excellent ESPN “30 for 30” series was three years in the making and is the third entry by producer/director John Dorsey. The focus is on the three-week 1987 NFL players union strike and the effect it had on the strikers, their replacements, and their fans. The main focus is on the Washington Redskins whose two victories in this period became a significant factor in their quest to reach the Super Bowl that year. The documentary will premiere on the ESPN network on September 12.
Saving Brinton (*** 1/2 out of 4) – The world premiere of this fascinating portrait of Iowa collector Michael Zahs whose eccentric obsession led to the eventual restoration of turn-of-the-century cinema reels belonging to William Franklin Brinton and which first launched movies to the world. The film has not been bought for distribution as of this writing.