It’s strange to attend a documentary festival while the world nurses an open wound. Film festivals, by their nature, want to take people out of the world, into a cocoon of narrative and artistry. But documentaries, by their nature, want to drag viewers back into the world—kicking and screaming, if necessary.
The AFI Docs festival in Washington D.C., has always had a strange vibe, trying to cater simultaneously to independent filmmakers, activists, and policy wonks who want to be coddled almost as often as they want to change the world. It’s played host to a series of internal dramas in the last few years after losing a major sponsor, expanding beyond its longtime home in Silver Spring, Maryland, and attempting to rope in the political establishment by promoting the movies alongside their boiled-down causes. This year, it was saddled with external drama as well. As the festival’s opening-night selection played in the nation’s capital, a man was committing a horrific hate crime in Charleston, with roots in the nation’s most painful memories. Would this be a sign of what was to come—a weekend of back-patting and peppy stories instead of films that would drag us toward the ideas that mattered most at that moment?
It was both sobering and entirely fitting to the tone of past festivals that the opening-night film was Best Of Enemies, a self-mocking origin story for the vacuum of political punditry. The movie is a lively history of the televised 1968 debates between bitter arch-rivals Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. The timing wasn’t the film’s fault—in fact, it seemed to be apologizing for its own existence. Buckley and Vidal’s battles, which were televised because a desperate ABC needed to boost ratings for its political-convention coverage, were the forebears of the toxic political punditry that has come to dominate TV news: the character-driven style and the ad hominem personal attacks.
For media gadflies, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville deliver an entertaining yarn, tracking the narrative of the country’s upheaval over the course of the pair’s debates and climaxing with the infamous exchange of “crypto-Nazi” and “queer” insults. And counterculture film buffs will appreciate the clips from Myra Breckenridge, the infamous 1970 adaptation of Vidal’s satire about a man who becomes a woman and tries to destroy Hollywood. But there’s something going on here that’s much darker and colder. In cutting back and forth between footage of civil unrest in Chicago and a white bestselling author insulting the white creator of National Review, Gordon and Neville drive home the message that the nature of this political debate had already left the bounds of the real world it purported to represent.
The AFI audience runs heavy toward Buckleys and Vidals, which may explain why everyone I talked to was raging about Enemies. But the horrific Charleston headlines reverberated elsewhere, as several of the festival selections grappled with questions of race, violence, and hate. For starters, AFI opted to make Stanley Nelson, chronicler of American black history through films like Freedom Riders and The Murder Of Emmett Till, its annual Guggenheim Honoree. A virtuoso of film-as-historical-document who wields archival footage like Mahler conducting a symphony, Nelson is well decorated, yet generally overlooked in critics’ circles, because he makes most of his movies for public television. This even though Nelson’s films, in addition to being brilliant (his 2006 work Jonestown: The Life And Death Of Peoples Temple is scarier than most horror movies), continue to carry strong resonance for today’s audiences. In his introduction to the award, AFI President Bob Gazzale compared Emmett Till to the Charleston shooting.
Nelson’s latest, The Black Panthers: Vanguard Of The Revolution, screened at the festival, and it’s an impressive, epic project: a retelling, in the words of the Panthers themselves, of a vivid historical movement rarely dissected in textbooks. The film is unflinching, in its depiction of the FBI and police force as actively conspiring to destroy the movement, and of the mentally unhinged leaders who ultimately undid the organization from within. It’s old-school construction (talking heads, panning photos) with an old-school rhythm.
As it turns out, a new-school counterpart to Nelson was waiting in the wings. 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, Marc Silver’s film about the 2012 killing of unarmed black man Jordan Davis, became a hot ticket, selling out its first festival screening the night after Charleston. It’s already opened in theaters, so I won’t spend too much time on it. But I’ll note that its most important function is as a literal document: of the trial of killer Michael Dunn, which Silver obtained permission from the state of Florida to film, and presents in a largely straightforward manner; and of Dunn’s prison phone calls to his fiancée, which are astounding in their casual racism. Also, Davis’ mother, Lucia McBath, was pulling double duty on festival films. She also appeared in The Armor Of Light, about an Evangelical minister who attempts to preach to his congregation against gun violence. (There was also a third film about gun violence in America: Requiem For The Dead: American Spring 2014. Almost like this is a serious problem right now.)
As people began demanding South Carolina remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse, I spied two Dixie flags at the movies. The first was a wry nod: a design on the butt of a Florida girl’s bathing suit, flashing onscreen for a quick second during 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. The second, in Welcome To Leith, was a deliberate provocation: The film’s subject plants it on his front lawn, next to the banner for an American Neo-Nazi movement and flags from many white-ruled nations littering the land like reanimated corpses. The movie visits the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota (population: 20) as white supremacist Craig Cobb moves to the area in 2012, hoping to create a community of white nationalists to take over the local government. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker shoot their film like a horror movie, with an encroaching sense of dread as Cobb becomes more and more aggressive in antagonizing the townspeople. The film is chilling and unmistakable in its conviction that evil in this country is a long way from extinction.
So that’s a lot of American misery. What about bad feelings overseas? There was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look Of Silence, which has become a festival veteran by this point, but continues to cast its chilling spell. As the film’s hero, mid-40s optometrist Adi, directly confronts the powerful men who killed his brother during the 1960s Indonesian genocides, there’s a sense that he’s carrying the unacknowledged burdens of generations, maybe of entire worlds, on his back. India’s Daughter, an investigation of an infamous 2012 New Delhi gang rape, carries a similar burden: It was banned in its home country. Mostly, it holds gigantic shock value because director Leslee Udwin interviews the rapist and his lawyer, who spout reprehensible views on women that point to something deeply wrong in Indian society. Those interviews serve the same purpose as Adi’s interviews in The Look Of Silence, and Dunn’s phone calls in 3½ Minutes: We needed to know people are capable of thinking and feeling this way.
After so much heaviness, there’s a natural inclination to seek out a little light. Sometimes the desire to escape into the movies when things get rough is little more than a get-out-of-painful-truths-free card, which is what it felt like watching the closing-night selection Mavis!, an enjoyable but pretty plain biography of singer Mavis Staples. But thankfully, there was some tremendous value to be found in the festival’s more lighthearted fare. I found joy in Very Semi-Serious, a film about New Yorker cartoons that’s not nearly as snooty as its description implies. Director Leah Wolchok approaches her chief asset—the cartoons—brilliantly, figuring out how to pan her camera across the images and the captions to milk a silly punchline for tearful laughter. The joke is expertly punctuated by looks at the cartoonists, who might be nerdy and timid or brash and cynical.
The latest in the crowded sports-doc subgenre, Brad Horn’s First And 17—one of the few world premières at the festival—is a competent yet unremarkable look at the high-school football recruiting process. Horn captures the energy-sucking nature of college recruitment through 2013’s No. 1 prospect, Virginia teen Da’Shawn Hand. Despite playing defensive line on a mediocre team, Hand is fielding offers from dozens of colleges that claw at him like vultures. The film is clearly trying to play it safe, remaining on the edges of the high dramas that unfold throughout the season, as when a teammate is abducted and brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, and the class has to play a new game within hours of burying him. That’s a horrific scenario, one that seems to open a giant tear in the twinned worlds of elite sports and poverty. But it turns out almost anything goes down easy with a rah-rah score.
A less urgent spin on Blackfish, the circus barnburner Tyke Elephant Outlaw recounts a 1994 incident where an elephant with a history of unruly behavior escaped from a Honolulu circus and mauled people, killing her trainer, before being executed on the street by a barrage of fire from police officers. Directors Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert open with devastating footage of Tyke’s attacks, and her death—and then return to the same footage toward the end, with added commentary from animal-rights activists to drive the point home. This is a clear sign of a lack of filmmaker confidence. With no mention of Ringling Bros.’ 2015 decision to retire its circus elephants, the film also lacks a contemporary trumpet. The unhealthily prolific Alex Gibney also turned a sizzling subject into a mess with Steve Jobs: Man In The Machine, an overlong potpourri that tries to be both a complete Jobs biography and a pointed critique of his business practices, but fails to be much of either.
One of the festival’s more under-the-radar selections that deserves to find a larger audience was I Want To Be A King, Mehdi Ganji’s fascinating study of an Iranian with mythic delusions of grandeur. Abbas Barzegar, who lives with his family in a small remote village, accidentally fell into the hospitality business years ago when two German tourists showed up on his doorstep. Now he’s converted his large property into a “tourist village,” employing his wife and children to slave over their guests hand and foot. He also wants to establish his own royal dynasty, decades after the fall of the Shah. Over his family’s vocal protests, he sets about finding a new wife to further the crazy destiny in his head. The fuzzy quality of Ganji’s digital camera seems to mock Barzegar’s dreams, which are plainly absurd, even as he sees fit to abuse his family to obtain them.
Amid so many horrors, the festival left me with one wonderful, bursting vision of humanity. (Maybe two, counting the old hippie who wouldn’t stop hollering during the long-lost Les Blank film A Poem Is A Naked Person, but I digress.) In Transit, the final film of legendary documentarian Albert Maysles before his death earlier this year, is so beautiful and aspirational, it feels like Steinbeck reincarnated. Maysles and his crew, including four credited co-directors, boarded three Amtrak trains riding from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest and vice versa, filming the people they met on the rails. In both directions, the audience is plunged into dozens of lives, dramas both big (an overdue pregnant woman needs to reach her family in Minneapolis) and small (a child has to find her younger brother’s missing shoe, because the family can’t afford another pair). A struggling black husband gets life advice from an older man who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Desperate twentysomethings hope to find work in the North Dakota oilfields. A middle-aged woman talks tearfully of the abusive husband she stayed with for too long. And the train keeps chugging.
The film is so vibrant because it captures so much yearning. Everyone is seeking better lives, or remembering them, and viewers are able to share in small pockets of their happiness and hope, no matter what might be happening in the dreaded outside world. Maysles’ train is the perfect antidote to today’s horrors, because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American ideal: People of all races, ages, and creeds, harmonizing with strangers. Everyone is aboard the same path, and everyone will arrive at the same time.