AFI DOCS 2015: A PREVIEW

June is upon us and so too is the DMV's biggest week of documentary. AFI DOCS returns to the area June 17-21, 2015. This year the festival is showcasing more than 80 films over the course of five days at eight different venues in Silver Spring and Washington DC. These are some of the films and events we are most excited about.

by Erica Ginsberg, 
Executive Director, Docs In Progress
June 8, 2015

While it comes at the tail end of the annual "festival circuit," AFI DOCS does feed doc-hungry Washingtonians with a steady fare of some of the most important documentaries of the year and provides many opportunities to discuss these documentaries both in the context of filmmaking and the issues they raise. This year will be no exception.

As in past years, social issue documentaries are at the forefront.  Refugees, guns, education, extremism, drug wars, terror wars are all featured topics. Themes of religion, gender, and race will be discussed again and again. It is exciting to see Stanley Nelson join the illustrious ranks of the Guggenheim Symposium Honors (tickets are free through the National Archives). Nelson has dedicated his life to making films about neglected or misinterpreted chapters in African-American history and, appropriately enough, his latest film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution will be making its Washington DC premiere at the festival.

Festival films will give us an inside look into power brokers, showcasing them in all their complexities. One of the films I am most excited to see are The DiplomatDavid Holbrooke's bio of his late father Richard Holbrooke. I had the chance to see Holbrooke in action at the Dayton Peace Accords and it struck me then how odd it was to see a larger-than-life-personality in the form of a diplomat; I have no doubt the film will capture this incongruity. I am also intrigued by Alex Gibney's Steve Jobs: the Man in the Machine which promises a candid but critical look at Apple's founder, someone who has been mythologized in life and death.

AFI DOCS also continues its love affair look inside media itself. The opening night film Best of Enemies is a behind-the-scenes account of the explosive 1968 televised debates between liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley Jr.  Not one, but three films look at the impact of magazines on our culture and national outlook: Barbara Kopple's Hot Type: 100 Years of the NationDouglas Tirola's Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: the Story of the National Lampoon; and Leah Wolchok's Very Semi-Serious about The New Yorker's cartoons. Other films which explore the behind-the-scenes of journalism

Some of the most talked-about documentaries of the year will be at the festival as well, including Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence which many are considering even better than his ground-breaking Oscar nominated The Act of Killing.  Leslee Udwin's India's Daughter may have made headlines for being banned in India, and it will continues to provoke much discussion. While Caitlyn Jenner may be occupying our social media feeds, From This Day Forward goes deeper into the realities of how a father coming out as transgender impacts an ordinary family, including filmmaker Sharon Shattuck.

I was thrilled to see one of the late great Al Maysles' final films Iris at Full Frame and look forward to his other here at AFI DOCS. In Transit captures the stories of people as they journey across the country by train and is co-directed by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu, and David Usui.

As AFI DOCS turns 13, much has been made of its adolescent growing pains over the past two years. The decision to expand the festival from its primary location at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring to include venues around Penn Quarter/Gallery Place area in Washington DC was particularly challenging in 2013 (due to Metro shutting down the Red Line during the festival weekend). In 2014, festival programmers listened to their enthusiastic local audiences by ensuring that all films were programmed both in Washington DC and Silver Spring and that AFI use all its theaters. Still the challenge in Washington DC was that venues were not that close together, making it difficult to pop from one film to another. This year, the festival has added the Landmark E Street Theatre to the mix which should help a bit in that regard.

The added venues also mean that shorts are back in a big way. There are four standalone shorts programs all of which sound like they combine humor, pathos, and quirk as any good shorts program should. One of our Full Frame faves Giovanni and the Water Ballet will likely be a crowd pleaser.

The other major change the festival faced was the loss of the Filmmaker Conference -- and the documentary industry the conference attracted -- in the past few years. There had been much speculation about how new Festival Director Michael Lumpkin would leave his mark on the festival in this area, particularly since he was just coming off a very successful 2014 Documentary Conference as Executive Director of the International Documentary Association.  We are happy to report that a Filmmaker Conference appears to be back as part of the program for those with Industry Passes and Priority Passes. While the 1 1/2 day conference is a scaled-back version of the three day series of breakout sessions filmmakers had come to expect from Silverdocs, it does appear to have a series of interesting sessions which explore documentary filmmakers as the new investigative journalists, interactive documentaries, and the power of documentary to bring about social impact. The festival has even brought back a version of the popular "Silver Sessions" in the form of micro meetings with various funders. And we are especially looking forward to seeing the panel on the future of documentary on PBS.

As AFI DOCS heads into its teenage years, it continues to face challenges of trying to live up to the strong legacy of its Silverdocs past. While many may yearn for something of that era, the festival will continue doing what it does best -- showcasing top documentaries from around the world and giving us all something to talk about.

AFI DOCS takes place from June 17-21.  Tickets and passes are available online. For more information, visit http://afi.com/afidocs

Docs In Progress has organized two programs during AFI DOCS. Peer Pitch on Wednesday, June 17 is a lead-in event to the festival where filmmakers can practice pitching their new projects in a safe and nurturing environment. On Friday, June 19, all documentary filmmakers and film fans are invited to the Docs In Progress Documentary House in downtown Silver Spring anytime between 7-11 pm for a Summer Houseparty.


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