Saturday, June 20, 2015

AFI Docs Weekend Preview

Dazed and Happy at AFI Docs
by Susan Barocas (Contributing Editor)

The weekend is here and if there’s one must-do for me, it’s seeing as many films as I possibly can at AFI Docs during its final two days... or should I say “daze,” because we’re talking about a festival with more than 80 films in just 96 hours. Okay, the first 48 hours are gone, but now comes the weekend crush - 55 screenings in 5 locations in DC and Silver Spring, starting at 11 AM each day. You can do the math. Clearly this means making choices.

To start with, there are films from many countries including Iran, India, Australia, Israel, Jordan, Norway, Mexico, the UK and even a short film from Liberia. But most of the films are home-grown work by US filmmakers, focusing on topics as varied as feminist nuns in Radical Grace to The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution to a 17-year-old football phenom in First and 17.

The Black Panthers film, which explores the activist group and its place in America’s history, is the newest by Stanley Nelson, who was honored Friday night at the Guggenheim Symposium. Nelson has spent over 25 years telling the stories of long neglected or misinterpreted chapters of African American history in such acclaimed films as Freedom Riders (2011) and The Murder of Emmet Till (2003).

Nelson is joined at the festival by more of the best known and just plain best documentary filmmakers of our time with their new films: Barbara Kopple - Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation, Alex Gibney - Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Dawn Porter - Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper, Liz Garbus - What Happened, Miss Simone? and Joshua Oppenheimer - The Look of Silence. From the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who died at 88 in March of this year, and four co-directors, comes In Transit, a fascinating look at a cross-section of people in transition traveling across the US by train.

I gotta say, I did a little happy dance when I saw that nearly 40 female directors are represented in the festival’s feature documentaries and shorts. Not that women get short shrift in Hollywood or anything... but fortunately women have become present and strong voices in independent documentaries for some time now.

All this being said, I did finally have to choose my films for the weekend. It ends up I will be parked at the AFI Silver all day Saturday, seeing the following films... and maybe one or two more, if that’s possible!

King Georges is one of the films directed by a woman, Erika Frankel, and it’s also a “foodie” film. Food being another passion of mine, I can’t wait to see this behind-the-scenes look at a five-star French restaurant, Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, and it’s famously demanding owner/chef.

Next is one of the festival’s spotlight screenings, The Diplomat. David Holbrooke, son of the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, offers a candid examination of his brash, talented father’s life and historical impact. How could I not go see this movie when the filmmaker tweeted on Friday, “In the end, making a film is better than therapy”?

Love and Marriage in Kabul focuses on two young adults in love whose wishes to get married get tangled in the complex arrangements that must occur between two extended Afghan families before an agreement can be made.

After some tough decision-making, I chose going to see Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, but that means missing the Saturday screening of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and Listen to Me Marlon, created from previously unheard, personal audio recordings by actor Marlon Brando. Note to programmers: Please don’t schedule three films in a similar genre (in this case, bio pics) opposite each other.

Two more on the weekend list are All Things Must Pass, the rise and fall of the music titan Tower Records, and that film about the nuns, Radical Grace. I don’t normally think of nuns as politically active feminists, but I think that will all change with this film.

There are so many more films to see... about sports, activism, religion, education, literary and artistic endeavors. If ever I have wanted to be cloned, seeing more great films at AFI Docs is right up there with reasons why. And for too many of these films, this is your only chance to see them. Now hurry and go check the schedule, buy tickets and then... enjoy the air conditioning, popcorn and eye-opening, mind-expanding and entertaining experiences of really good documentary films.

P.S. If a film is sold out (as is closing night) there is always a stand-by line where you can take your chances. If you don’t have a ticket, go early and get to the head of the line: It’s worth it.