Jay Berg’s AFI DOCS 2018 Top Five

The 16th yearly edition of the AFI DOCS documentary film festival (formerly AFI SILVERDOCS) continued its excellent tradition first established in 2003 when the event was primarily anchored in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Now splitting its screenings between there and the main hub in the District of Columbia, AFI DOCS this time around was able to present a total of 92 films (down from 112 in 2017) representing 22 countries (last year there were docs from 28 countries).  The breakdown was as follows:  52 feature films (of these were five world premieres, seven U.S. premieres, two East Coast premieres, one North American premiere and one international premiere); 29 shorts; 11 films in the Virtual Reality Showcase which immersed viewers in VR experiences “around the world – and beyond.”

Major screening venues returned to the D.C. Penn Quarter Landmark E Street Cinema and the Silver Spring AFI Silver Theater.  A special screening of Rory Kennedy’s latest, “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow”, honoring NASA’s 60th anniversary, was shown in 4D at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s spectacular IMAX theater, which was utilized for the first time by the festival organizers.

The Newseum, in Washington, DC

AT&T was once again the Presenting Sponsor of the festival which featured the World Premiere of “Personal Statement” as the Opening Night film at the Newseum, about three Brooklyn high school students who work as college guidance support for their peers, while the Closing Night film (held for the first time at the Landmark venue) was “United Skates” about the role roller-skating plays in African-American culture.

Notable feature films:  “Foster”, the latest from  Oscar winners Mark Jonathan Harris and Debbie Oppenheimer (“Into The Arms of Strangers” and “Stories of the Kindertransport”); “A Murder In Mansfield” from two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County, USA” from 1977 and “American Dream from 1991); “Into The Okavango” which is the directorial debut of National Geographic photographer Neil Gelinas; two Sundance Film Festival winners:  “Shirkers” won the Directorial Award while “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was honored with the Special Jury Price.  

Michael Phillips and Steve James

The Guggenheim Symposium, which each year recognizes a virtuoso documentary filmmaker, welcomed Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “The Interrupters”, “Life Itself”, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”).  It began with a retrospective of his works followed by a terrific interview moderated by Chicago Tribune film critic, Michael Phillips.  The audience was then treated to the first installment of Steve James 10-hour documentary series “America To Me” which focuses on the examination of diversity at a Chicago high school.  The series is set to debut this fall on the Starz cable network.

The fourth-annual AFI DOCS Impact Lab, produced by AFI DOCS and RABEN_IMPACT, included a three-day training program preceding the festival and, as stated in the festival guide, is “designed for filmmakers who aim to create change through the power of film.”  Adding, “The Lab offers exclusive trainings with sought-after tacticians in the social and political sphere . . . and are connected with policymakers and Congressional aides working on legislation relevant to their films.”

Yet another festival highlight was a unique conversation between NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd and Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday asking whether a documentary is “Journalism or Art?”-or can it be both?

AFI Silver, in Silver Springs, MD

Finally, this was another tremendous 5-day festival which continues each year to successfully emphasize its importance in nonfiction filmmaking.  Although the festival organizers indicated they would continue to maintain a presence in Silver Spring, unfortunately, the role of this birthplace of the fest appears to have diminished since its move to the nation’s capital in 2013.  Last year there were 22 of the 112 features, or 19%, that failed to screen at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.  This year there were 21 out of 92 films, or 22%, that played only in DC.  Despite this troubling trend, here’s hoping the organizers will continue to include the spectacular AFI Silver Theater in their screening venues in the future.

NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Mr. Soul!” directed by Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard about the late 1960s WNET public television series “Soul!” and its producer Ellis Haizlip who created one of the most successful black-produced TV shows in US history.  The controversial series was among the first to focus on African Americans on TV shifting from inner-city poverty and violence to the enthusiasm of the Black Arts Movement. The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Earthrise” directed by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee about the legendary 1968 photo of the first image of Earth taken from space. (Neither film was screened by this reviewer.)

MY TOP 5 AT THE 2017 AFI DOCS

Film poster: “Pick of the Litter”

(1)  Pick of the Litter (**** out of 4 – 81 Minutes)

We’ve all seen them.  Attentive guide canines dutifully accompanying the disabled folks they protect and service.  Ever wonder about the journey these animals take to attain this career status?  Directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman marvelously answers this question with a superb heartwarming film that also documents the plight humans undergo who are in charge of training them.  A short prologue recounting the myriad of dangers impaired people face while going about their everyday lives is followed by our introduction to a newly birthed litter of five black and tan Labradors born on the nonprofit San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Training begins shortly after the Labs are born as the directors meticulously depict the extensive journey where, along the way or at the conclusion, they will attain one of the three classifications that will ultimately determine their life purpose:  guide dog, breeder, or career-changed.  The latter designation meaning not eligible to be a part of the program, and where they are transferred to other programs or just adopted out as a domestic pet.  When eight weeks old, they are paired with “puppy raiser” families or individuals, to be socialized and trained for up to sixteen months.  We find that some of these foster families with problem dogs, or novice families, don’t succeed as fast as the GDB personnel would like and abruptly find a different home to continue the process.  Following the initial foster care, if the pups make it that far, they begin a rigorous 10-week training and evaluation session at GDB headquarters with handlers who subject them through multiple testing scenarios – sometimes undergoing retests before their final designation.  Despite GDB breeding 800 puppies a year, less than 40% are deemed suitable as guide dogs – which emphasizes the painstaking process GDB personnel and raisers face to triumphantly lead these dogs to graduation.  The filmmakers wisely shift their focus back and forth from dogs to handlers, simultaneously raising the drama and emotional level each time.  Filming four hours a day for 120 days makes the outstanding editing job by Hardy (who also co-wrote the script and assisted in photography) all the more remarkable as he precisely juggled multiple story lines with seemingly effortless ease.  And when you add an unobtrusively perfect background score provided by British composer Helen Jane Long, you have all the ingredients for a perfect documentary.  “Pick of the Litter” was bought by ITV/Sundance Selects and will be released August 31 (it will premier at the E Street Landmark in DC on September 14).  One bit of advice:  bring Kleenex – and lots of it.

“Pick of the Litter” directors Don Hardy (center) and Dana Nachman (far right) share a post-screening photo with audience members and their guide dogs

Film poster: “Hesburgh”

(2) Hesburgh (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 104 Minutes)

The world premiere of the latest by director Patrick Creadon (2006’s I.O.U.S.A. and 2008’s Wordplay) is a biopic that will totally satisfy with no requirement that you know any of the background of this extraordinary figure in U.S. history.  Serving for 35 years (1952-1987) as the president of the University of Notre Dame, Reverend Theodore Hesburgh’s life is chronicled in such a way that, by its conclusion, will clearly illustrate why this kind inspirational gentleman is considered one of the most influential people of the 20th century.  An ordained priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Hesburgh was successful in transforming and elevating UND from just an average University with an impressive football team into an institution that was much much greater and significant. His horizons expanded outside Notre Dame by serving on corporate boards while becoming confidante and adviser to four presidents (the reverend served on 16 presidential commissions), popes and even Ann Landers.  A portion of the film covers his influence and importance in the Civil Rights movement when he was appointed to Eisenhower’s federal Commission on Civil Rights. 

Theodore Hesburgh and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Comprised of three republicans and two democrats, the commission, with the independent Hesburgh providing guidance and common sense wisdom and persuasion, was incredibly able to produce a bi-partisan twelve point recommendation to Congress that would become the cornerstone of historical civil rights legislation eventually signed into law by Lyndon Johnson.  (As Creadon pointed out in the post-screening interview, Rev. Ted throughout his career was a man, ” who could disagree without being disagreeable.”)  This is just a small example of the impact Hesburgh had during his lifetime – which are way too numerous to itemize in this space.  The director has added a fascinating first-person narration that will hold your interest throughout a film which also possesses a wonderful score by Notre Dame senior Alex Mansour and seamless editing by Nick Andert and William Neal.  Creadon (who also did an ESPN “30 For 30” feature Catholics vs Convicts) does not just spew out historical facts; however, by using a tremendous amount of black and white archival photos, archival film and newsreels surrounding interviews with family members and clergy, he has created a fascinating human interest picture of a man the likes of which we may never see again.  As of this writing, no distribution deal has yet to be firmly established.

NBC News’ Anne Thompson conducts a post-screening interview with Director Patrick Creadon

Film poster: “For the Birds”

(3) For the Birds (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 92 Minutes)

It never ceases to amaze me that, after attending countless documentary Q&A’s over the years, how many times filmmakers start out with a specific idea and end up with something completely different and more profound than their original concept.  In this case, first-time director Richard Miron set out to do a film about animal rescue so he volunteered at an animal sanctuary in Wawarsing New York while a senior at Yale.  That is where he first met Kathy Murphy, gained her trust and obtained total access throughout to end up with this gem of a subject and story that was never originally intended when he began.  I’m a news junkie and, on a regular basis, have seen and read of animal hoarders and the subsequent cruelty, whether intentionally or not, inflicted on their “pets”.  I often wonder what the backstory was behind the sensational end-result that one only sees on the news – when the surviving animals are rescued and the owner often prosecuted.  And it is this backstory that For the Birds chronicles, that began when Kathy found a single duckling on her lawn.  Ten years after raising it, she has accumulated hundred of birds including hordes of chickens, ducks, geese and two turkeys which have overran, both inside (yuck!) and outside, her and her husband Gary’s house.  When the Woodstock Animal Sanctuary first becomes involved, she was agreeable to relinquishing custody of some of her birds.  It is only after a subsequent rescue visit, when sanctuary personnel turn their attention to her beloved turkeys, that the plot takes a sudden right turn.  No spoilers will be offered here to the many surprising twists and turns accompanied by an incredible narrative arc to Kathy’s story, none of which the director could have imagined in his wildest dreams.  It is no wonder that young Miron spent 6 1/2 years on this project.  A number of side stories are introduced including Kathy’s colorful attorney who easily could be made the focus of his own film.  Special mention goes to another Yale alum, Andrew Johnson, whose effectively discreet soundtrack permeates the visuals.  During the Q&A Johnson revealed that he tried to create the score as if it was tailored for a feature film and not a documentary.  His extraordinary composition made For the Birds that much more interesting and memorable.  This splendid first film makes Richard Miron a definite talent to watch for in the future.  The movie, which had its North American premiere at AFI DOCS, was recently purchased by Dogwoof for world sales so be on the lookout for the release.

(l to r) “For the Birds” composer Andrew Johnson, co-producer and co-editor Jeffrey Star & director and co-editor Richard Miron

Film poster: “Studio 54”

(4) Studio 54 (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 99 Minutes)

The rise and fall of the fabled Manhattan disco-era nightclub and the story of its two colorful owners is given a lively thoroughly entertaining critique by director Matt Tyrnauer.  When Studio 54 exploded on the scene like a supernova on April 26, 1977 by two young Brooklyn friends who met at Syracuse, its fame, as well as its infamy, blasted off as fast and bright as a Fourth of July firework.  Unfortunately, just as quickly, Studio 54 became a footnote in club lore with its demise in 1979 after just 33 months.  If you were a celebrity, it was the place to be and to be seen.  It was also considered a safe haven for the LBGT community.  However, if you were the everyday common folk, or if you dressed like one, you more than likely languished forever behind the velvet ropes that guarded its front door.  A perfect example of the exclusivity of its selection process was the amusing anecdote given that when the four Rolling Stones wandered by, only the more famous and recognizable Jagger and Richards were allowed access.  One of the joys of the film is the manner in which Tyrnauer uses a gargantuan amount of archival photos and video, along with a pulsating soundtrack, that will transport the viewer inside the club, with its lights (they hired Tony award-winning lighting designers), sets, and gliding balcony, to directly experience its grandeur and decadence without being judged outside the ropes.  After the outgoing flamboyant Steve Rubell failed with a chain of steak restaurants, he and his lawyer friend, the more introverted Ian Schrager, tried their hand in the nightclub scene and opened a club in Queens with the hope of creating the perfect nightspot.  When they later walked into the empty Manhattan space on the seedy W. 54th St, which was originally the 1927 built Gallo Opera House, and they witnessed the stage, balcony, and the towering ostentatious ceiling, they instantly realized the transformational possibilities. 

Studio 54 in its heyday

Six weeks and hundreds of thousand of dollars later, they advertised the opening and the rest was club history.  Hilariously, when they realized they lacked a liquor license, they shamelessly formed a catering company so they could apply for daily permits.  The film’s description of Studio 54’s joyous hedonism (the rampant drug use, and orgies that were commonplace in the basement and later the balcony where it was eventually rubberized to make it easier to wash down) morphs into the legal troubles that beset the owners.  Keeping records of their incredible skimming operation and the storage of large amounts of drugs at the club for their personal and clientele use, was uncovered when the IRS raided the establishment on a tip by a disgruntled employee.  However, this incredible story didn’t end with their incarceration.  Now 71, the surviving owner Schrager (Rubell succumbed to AIDS in 1989), for the first-time opens up to relate the details.  Also interviewed are ex-employers (including the club’s first doorman) and even the lighting designers.  Even if one never heard of Studio 54, the doc will never bore and one only has to wonder why it took nearly 40 years to have it told – a story that perfectly fits this year’s festival motto:  You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!  A distribution deal has yet to be finalized.

(l to r) Studio 54 co-owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager

A youthful Michael Jackson with co-owner Steve Rubell

Film poster: “The Price of Everything”

(5) The Price of Everything (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 98 Minutes)

In 2004 director Nathaniel Kahn produced and directed My Architect – one of my all-time favorite documentaries.  His Academy Award nominated debut film won the 2004 Directors Guild Best Documentary Award and the 2003 AFI SILVERDOCS Sterling Award for a Feature Film in this festival’s first year.  As the illegitimate son of famed architect Louis Kahn, Nathaniel created a beautifully moving film of the father he never really knew.  Nearly 15 years later, the long wait for his second film has been well worth it as he now tackles the nebulous world of contemporary art commodification.  Although Kahn chapters the doc with a countdown to a Sotheby major contemporary art auction, the film is generally structureless as he explores the pricing, selling and valuing of art replete with fascinating interviews involving collectors, dealers, auctioneers and artists.  The insane monetary escalation that works of art are bringing can be traced back to October 18, 1973 when Robert Scull sold 50 pieces of his collection at the Sotheby Park-Benet Gallery where one was bought for $135,000 – an unheard-of price at the time. 

“The Price of Everything” director Nathaniel Kahn

In 1997, the same item sold for $10 million.  Today it would be worth $100 million.  Other eye-opening revelations include the “value” of a Jeff Koons inflatable silver rabbit estimated to be worth $65 million, currently sitting in the living room of colorful collector/philanthropist Stefan Edlis (who is featured extensively in the doc).  Also, Koons’ reproduction of works by Masters such as Titian, Van Gogh and Manet with a blue glass gazing ball painted in the foreground, sell for many millions. It is this current insane commercial pricing and the ramification it is having on the artist in particular and the art world in general that the film, as Kahn pointed out in his introduction, “brings up lots of questions but doesn’t give lots of answers.”  Special mention goes to the enormous talent of accomplished composer Jeff Beal who has impressively added a memorable soundtrack to Nathaniel’s visuals.  The movie’s title refers to a quote by Lord Darlington in Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windemere’s Fan who joked that a cynic was, “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  A relevant description that aptly describes those involved in the shifting dynamics between artists and consumers.  Kahn’s intriguing film is partnered with HBO and will eventually make it to the cable network in November after a theatrical release scheduled for mid-October.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Hal (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 90 Minutes) – Hal Ashby was one of the most significant  figures of the motion picture industry of the last 50 years and is given a wonderful tribute by director Amy Scott who explores the rise and fall of one of the New Hollywood Cinema’s finest directors.  Leaving his hometown of Ogden Utah after a tumultuous childhood, he landed in California starting out in Hollywood as a film editor for Norman Jewison (Ashby actually won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night).  He then went on to direct seven of the most memorable films of the 1970’s:  The Landlord,  Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There.  Unfortunately, it was all down hill from there – ending in his way too early demise in 1988 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 58.  The last reel speculates on some of the reasons for his downward career trend, which could have been attributed to his hippie/druggie lifestyle, his obsessive perfectionism and/or the actions of the Hollywood suits who tried to take control over his projects which effectively limited his creative talents and artistic vision.  The fascinating biopic, which premiered at Sundance, is currently making the festival circuit and no distribution deal has been struck as of this writing.

Love, Gilda (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 84 Minutes) – The brilliant career of Gilda Radner, one of the original Saturday Night Live Not Ready For Prime Time Players, cut tragically short by ovarian cancer, is given a hilarious and poignant treatment that should please everyone besides her ardent fans.  Lisa D’Apolito’s directorial debut (her previous credit was as the character of Lisa in Good Fellas) does an admirable job piecing together the history of the comedian with home movies detailing her early life growing up in Detroit, her participation in Toronto’s Second City and National Lampoon, her meteoric rise to fame with SNL, her one-woman show on Broadway, and her short-lived film career during which she met and married Gene Wilder who was with her until her death at the young age of 42.  D’Apolito includes touching readings from Radner’s notebooks by her contemporaries from the memoir released the year she died, where she touches on her struggles with health (including an eating disorder and depression), relationships, and fame.  Besides the heartfelt interviews by those who knew her and/or were influenced by her work, is the unique narration provided by Gilda herself from audiotape excerpts she created the last year of her life.  Interviews with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin are curiously absent from the film, and, at a brisk 84 minutes, additional footage from her glorious SNL years could have easily made the cut without disrupting the flow.  Despite that, Love, Gilda assuredly will have many patrons clicking on YouTube to revisit the memorable characters and moments brought to life by one of the more enduring and courageous entertainers of our time.  A limited theatrical release is scheduled for September 21.

*For additional Film Festival Today coverage read my colleague Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s own excellent report on AFI DOCS 2018, including an interview with writer Laura Wexler.

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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