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Chris Reed’s AFI DOCS 2017 Top Five

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 28th, 2017

AFI DOCS 2017 Opening Night at the Newseum, in Washington, DC

[NOTE: My Film Festival Today colleague Jay Berg will soon post his own Top 5 list, complete with a more detailed history of the festival]

The American Film Institute (AFI) exists, as its website proclaims, “to train filmmakers and preserve America’s vanishing film heritage.” Its mission includes running two major festivals a year: AFI Fest, for narrative fiction films; and AFI DOCS, for documentaries. The latter event was created in 2003, as Silverdocs (taking its name from the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, in Silver Springs, Maryland, where it first made its primary home). In 2013, the festival rebranded itself as AFI DOCS. This year, over five days, beginning June 14 and ending June 18, AFI DOCS screened 103 films, a mix of shorts and features. I attended last year (check out my coverage of last year’s fest at Hammer to Nail) for the first, enjoyed myself immensely, and so was more than ready to come back for more great nonfiction pleasures.

AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Springs, MD

As in 2016, films were screened in Silver Springs (at the Silver Theatre) and in Washington, DC, at the Landmark E Street Cinema and the Newseum (host of the big gala events). Though the latter two venues are within easy walking distance of each other, the Silver is a fair distance away, whether one drives or uses public transportation. This year, I made my choices of what to see based on convenience, as much as anything else: if I was in the city, I stayed there; if in Silver Spring, ditto. If the festival has a downside, it is that significant separation of the two locations. Otherwise, it is a wonderful event.

All told, of the films that screened this year, I saw 17, five of which I had seen previously at SXSW, and one at Slamdance. My selections cannot possible encompass the full variety of subject matter and quality at the festival, yet from that collection I have crafted a Top 5 list, with capsule reviews of each movie and brief sentences about the runners-up, afterwards. In addition to the films, I also attended this year’s Guggenheim Symposium, whose honoree, Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), spoke on stage for approximately 90 minutes with the Ford Foundation’s Cara Mertes. Though I did not love everything about her last film, Risk, there is no question that Poitras is a major documentarian of our time, putting herself at “risk” to pursue important stories, mostly about government overreach. To me, she and others likes her represent the best of the fourth estate, always willing to pursue the truth, no matter the consequences, as a member of a vital pillar of our democracy should.

So, let’s start with her, and then move on to my favorites. What follows is a brief excerpt from the end of Poitras’ conversation with Mertes, at the Newseum, on Friday, June 16.

Cara Mertes, left, interviews 2017 Guggenheim Symposium honoree Laura Poitras, right

Cara Mertes: [Speaking of WikiLeaks, the subject of Risk] What is really at stake, in this moment? 

Laura Poitras: I am an absolute defender of the right to publish and the importance of their publishing, and feel that what the government is doing is not just a targeting of WikiLeaks, but it’s going after the press and looking for ways to … I mean, we’re hearing it every day, when more information comes out about what’s happening in this administration, which responds to leaks by saying, “We need to find out who these leakers are. And we need to find out who is publishing this stuff.” We’ve seen this trajectory: it’s not like Obama was great, in terms of the press. He was also targeting … the press had more leakers who were charged under the Espionage Act than under any other president. So this is a continuum, as we’ve had this growth of a national security state, and this shifting secrecy and collecting of power in the executive branch, and lashing out at the press and trying to suppress information.

CM: So I’m going to end this moment and say, knowing that the world is so much more unpredictable than it ever has been, and with the work that you’ve done and the way that you work, can you imagine where you might be and what you might be thinking about doing, in the future? Do you think you’ll keep focusing on things like Field of Vision [a filmmaker-driven documentary unit] and working to build a field of new talent? Do you have other projects in mind? A lot of us would like to know.

LP: This project, Field of Vision, I’m really passionate about. We’re funding films, mostly short-form, that allow filmmakers to use their talents to tell stories that have immediate … that are part of the news cycle. And as we’re seeing the lessening of resources in the news space, to leverage resources there, so we can get filmmakers telling those stories. So I’m really passionate about that. In terms of projects … as long as we are in this trajectory, moving towards these really frightening times, I think we need journalists and filmmakers to document these times, so I imagine that’s what I’m going to be doing.

The author at the 2017 AFI DOCS Festival

And now, on to my Top 5 (in alphabetical order, as they were all strong).

City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman): the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail

Film poster: “City of Ghosts”

Before watching City of Ghosts, the harrowing new documentary from Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), steel yourself for brutal footage of on-camera executions, many involving point-blank pistol shots to the head. That and the dead bodies littering the streets of the Syrian town of Raqqa, victims of the Islamic State in Syria (or ISIS), are enough to turn one’s stomach and brutalize one’s soul. And yet none of it feels gratuitous, for Heineman has crafted a film about the barbarism of war, and the story requires that we see the full depravity of the violence. We are embedded, first in Syria, and then in Turkey and Germany, with the leadership of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS), an underground citizen press corps comprised of former citizens of Raqqa, who receive their footage from those who remain in Syria, then edit and send it out to international news agencies. They work tirelessly around the clock in hidden locations, never fully safe and always worried about those they have left behind. During the filming, one of them receives a video of his father’s execution. And yet they persevere. City of Ghosts is a film that is not only a powerful indictment of fanaticism but a celebration of those who resist.

No Man’s Land (David Byars): the paragraph, below, is taken from a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail (which has yet to post, as of this writing)

It’s tough to make a movie about recent events and have it feel fresh. Don’t we already know the facts? Even harder is to tell that story without overt polemicism. Director David Byars (whose first film this is), however, is more than up to the task. Here, he turns his camera on the group of armed men who occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016, initiating a standoff with first local authorities and then the FBI, that lasted 41 days. Byars clearly jumped on the story as it was unfolding, got himself into the thick of it, earned the trust of participants on both sides, and then gathered as much material as he could to support whatever narrative he would later choose to craft. As I watched the film, I continuously marveled at how much footage he must have had to shoot to tell the story that was unfolding in front of me. Not all of that footage comes from him, which goes back to the crucial issue of trust, clearly an essential component of his process. The reason for the protest? Well, though we hear someone say that it’s all about “freedom and stuff” – a hilariously simplistic statement that cannot but provoke a snort of ridicule – there are actually some legitimately complex issues behind the flagrant lawlessness. Thanks to Byars, we get all sides, and are free to draw our own conclusions at the end. It’s a great work of documentary journalism.

Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press (Brian Knappenberger): the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail when I saw the film at the 2017 SXSW Festival.

Film poster: “Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press”

Another profound work of investigative journalism, Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press focuses primarily on the lawsuit brought by wrestler Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media, in which Hogan (born Terry Bollea) was awarded $140 million in damages, enough of a sum to force that company into bankruptcy. It turns out that Hogan did not bring the suit on his own. Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur – co-founder of PayPal and initial angel investor of Facebook – who years earlier was outed as gay by a Gawker subsidiary, had long nursed a grudge, biding his time until the right moment would arise to kill the company. To be fair, as director Brian Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz) makes clear, Gawker, from a certain point of view, had it coming. Hardly a bastion of restraint, it went after the sleazy material that no one else would publish. But it also broke important stories – about Toronto mayor Rob Ford, serial assaulter Bill Cosby, and Scientology evangelist Tom Cruise – consistently speaking truth to power. And therein lies the dilemma. We can hate much of what Gawker did, but still lament its passing. According the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights, it had every right to publish the stories it did, and its defeat in court bodes ill for the future. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Spettacolo (Jeff Malmberg/Chris Shellen): the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail when I saw the film at the 2017 SXSW Festival.

Film poster: “Spettacolo”

Husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol) and Chris Shellen (for whom this is the first feature, as director) insert themselves right into the heart of the real-life drama that unfolds as the residents of the town of Montichiello, in Tuscany, Italy, gear up for their yearly staged performance – or “autodrama,” as they call it – in which they explore the issues that concern them intimately, of past, present and future. Art imitates life, and life consists of art, and ordinary people sit around and talk about the great metaphysical questions of our universe. Such is the preparation for Spettacolo. We begin in winter, when Andrea, Montichiello’s theatrical director, gathers his neighbors to discuss their pressing obsessions. For all, it’s Italy’s ongoing economic crisis, in which banks engage in speculation with amoral cynicism. Indeed, those two words – “speculation” and “cynicism” – predominate, and so Andrea insists they become the centerpiece of the drama, which will be about “the end of the world.” And that world – glorious post-card-pretty Tuscany – is fading fast, so beware: soon, it will be nothing more than a memory, a myth as powerful as Arthur’s Avalon, yet myth nonetheless. The film asks, what remains when the old ways have gone, and no new traditions have yet been established? It’s a profound inquiry into the state of the human animal, and Malmberg and Shellen are wise enough to refrain from answers, allowing their subjects to have the final word, such as it is.

Strad Style (Stefan Avalos): the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail after the 2017 Slamdance Festival.

Film poster: “Strad Style”

Strad Style, a new documentary from director Stefan Avalos (The Ghosts of Edendale), tells a remarkable true-life story about one man and a seemingly impossible dream. Daniel Hoult, a self-taught violin maker (in his spare time) from Laurelville, Ohio, lives on limited funds in a ramshackle house without heat. One day, he befriends up-and-coming classical violinist Razvan Stoica on Facebook and offers to make him a replica of a legendary violin, the 1743 “Il Cannone,” by Giuseppe Guarneri (known as “del Gesu”). Hoult, it turns out, has always seen himself in Guarneri, a talented, if temperamental and disorganized, craftsman, though his friends early on nicknamed him “Strad” after the better-known (and more disciplined) Antonio Stradivari, del Gesu’s contemporary. Hoult sees the challenge of recreating “Il Cannone” as his own manifest destiny, and though the task is daunting, he brooks no thoughts of failure. No detailed plot spoilers here; you’ll have to watch the film yourself to see exactly how it all turns out. Let’s just say that it’s a deeply satisfying bit of cinematic storytelling. Avalos, himself, is a classically trained violinist, so he brings a great understanding and appreciation of that craft to this movie. Always present, yet never obtrusive – it’s almost as if Hoult is talking to himself, or to us, so quiet does the director usually remain – Avalos shows us a true creator at work, the obsessive builder as artist.

Reuben Atlas, co-director of “ACORN and the Firestorm”, left, with Michael Lumpkin, AFI DOCS Director, right, at a post-screening Q&A

Those are my Top 5, but the difference between how I feel about them and my honorable mentions is minor. Here are other films I recommend from the festival, also in alphabetical order: ACORN and the Firestorm (Reuben Atlas/Samuel D. Pollard) tells the story of the “Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now” (ACORN) and its destruction in 2010; Atomic Homefront (Rebecca Cammisa) profiles a St. Louis suburb plagued by radioactive waste, dating back to the 1940s; Cine São Paolo (Ricardo Martensen/Felipe Tomazelli), from Brazil, gives us a close-up view of the restoration of an old movie theater; An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen/Jon Shenk) gives us a well-made, if depressing, follow-up to the 2006 climate-change film starring Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth; An Insignificant Man (Khushboo Ranka/Vinay Shukla), from India, follows the rise of an upstart populist politician in New Delhi; Step (Amanda Lipitz), set in Baltimore, crafts an inspiring tale of young women from underserved neighborhoods following their dreams; Trophy (Shaul Schwarz/Christina Clusiau) offers a disturbing glimpse into the horrors of gig-game trophy hunting; Unrest (Jennifer Brea) shows us the director’s struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome; The Work (Gethin Aldous/Jairus McLeary) probes the method and results of a prisoner-therapy group in Folsom Prison.

And that’s it for my report. I hope to be back next year. Who will join me?


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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