Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
On Wednesday, May 15, I interviewed AFI DOCS director Michael Lumpkin by phone to discuss the 2019 iteration of the annual festival, which consists of screenings of new documentaries at various locations in our nation’s capital. This year’s event, running June 19-23, includes 72 films (features and shorts) from 17 countries, including six world premieres, with a slate that showcases the work of women behind the camera (68% of films produced by women and 48% directed). In addition, the festival is trying something different, adding sections entitled “Anthem,” “Cinema’s Legacy” (i.e., older films in revival screenings), “Portrait,” “Spectrum,” and “Truth and Justice,” while also bringing back their “Galas,” “Short Films” and “Special Screenings” programs.
The opening-night film is True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality and the closing-night film is Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins. Other highlights include American Factory, Gay Chorus Deep South, Maiden, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, One Child Nation, Picture Character, Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words, Sea of Shadows, We Are the Radical Monarchs and more! Joining me for the conversation with Michael was my Fog of Truth podcast colleague Bart Weiss. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed: What makes this year’s program perhaps different than past years’ programs? Are there any highlights that you’d like to mention?
Michael Lumpkin: Well, I think one thing that’s different this year is that we have organized our selections into various sections. That is something we talked about last year, of how do we organize our films and try to categorize so that we’re guiding audiences to the kinds of films they like up front. And the program’s always so diverse and there are so many types of films and I think that the audiences are just as diverse.
CLR: And what are those different sections?
ML: We have a section of music documentaries called “Anthem.” Music documentaries are very popular and this year there are quite a number of different kinds of music documentaries that we’re showing, including the Apollo Theater documentary by Roger Ross Williams about the Apollo Theater and its legacy in history as a venue for music.
We also have David Crosby: Remember My Name and Gay Chorus Deep South, which is very much about music; it’s not about one musician but about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus taking a tour through the deep south and performing largely in churches in the south and kind of that journey for them through the southern part of the country. Also Moonlight Sonata, which is about deafness and the relationship between deafness and music, which is a very interesting film; a part of it is about music therapy. And every year there are also a lot of films that deal with issues of civil rights and equal justice. And so we have a section called “Truth and Justice,” which is our largest section and has a number of films that deal with civil rights and other rights issues.
Bart Weiss: So Michael, let me follow up on that. You are in Washington, DC, where the festival is, and DC is kind of a company town for politics. So, do you think you program a significant amount of social justice and political documentaries because of that?
ML: We do. Almost every documentary of that type makes a stop in Washington at one time or another, because it’s the center of politics and issues and doing things to change our world and our society. There’s the government, there are NGOs and think tanks and all of the kind of people who are based in Washington working on all the array of issues and topics. And so it’s a great place to help engage the community in Washington with documentary films. We not only program the films but work to bring in representatives from NGOs, members of Congress, to engage them in conversations about the films and issues.
CLR: In addition to the “Anthem” and “Truth and Justice” categories, you also have “Spectrum” and “Portrait.” Were there any films that could have ended up in one category but ended up in another? Because some of your “Portrait” documentaries might follow somebody whose work is equally engaged in truth and justice. How do you place something that might possibly fall in multiple categories?
ML: Yeah, there were definitely those choices and decisions to be made and maybe it’s something, this year, where we put things in one category where we decided it belonged and worked with other films. So it’s just adecision of what the film feels like, you know? I think the “Portrait” versus “Truth and Justice” was probably the biggest discussions we had about where a film goes. Is it a portrait? Is it about truth and justice? And there’s certainly a lot of overlap.
But we had some great discussions about portraits of “Is it one person or multiple people?” So like in the “Portrait” section we have Midnight Family. That’s a portrait about a family. But it kind of led to more of like, “What is the film doing? Is the film presenting a portrait or is it presenting, is it about the person or the people in the film or is it more about an issue?” So certainly we had a lot of discussions around where something goes. We just added a bunch of work for ourselves this year by having sections because we had to make those decisions. (laughs) Not only what are the sections, but then where does a film go? It forces you to have really great conversations among our staff of like, “What is the film? Where does it go? Why are we showing it? What’s the dominating component of this film?” It was a very interesting process and we’re anxious to see how audiences work within our new sections.
BW: During the last few years as I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries, I’ve noticed a profound difference between normal documentaries and ones that go through labs like the Sundance lab. Can you talk to some films that you’re planning for this year and shown in years past that have had a different kind of guidance than the other documentaries you tend to see?
ML: I don’t think we look at work and a lot of the films like that, wondering “did this go through a Sundance lab?” And I couldn’t tell you off the cuff what films in our festival did go through a Sundance lab. We have our impact lab that we do in conjunction with the festival that’s for films showing in the festival, that happens right beforehand. It’s not a component of a lab for films that are in production. It’s focused on the impact campaigns of what the films are doing immediately after the festival when they’re being released and they’re working on their impact campaign.
I do think that with those programs, whether it’s a Sundance lab, or Points North and all of the others, I have seen the art of documentary moving forward. I think there’s more variety of films. There are more interesting films. There are a lot of more and more new voices and new stories and new perspectives that we’re seeing and those films … there’s making the film but then there’s getting the film out in the world and that’s where the festival sits in the process and I think there’s a greater diversity of films and more of these diverse films. They’re also getting more exposure over the last 10 or 15 years. So I think films that are different and have a different voice and a new voice have a much better chance in part because of the work of the labs and various programs that are there to develop the documentary form.
CLR: Thank you so, so much for talking to us. Both Bart and I are really looking forward to attending the fest.
BW: And Michael, thank you so much for having the Molly Ivins film. As a Texan, we are very proud of Molly Ivins and we want to spread the word of her great work.
ML: And as another Texan … (laughs) That’s a big reason it’s in the festival … the best film of the year!
[AFI DOCS 2019 begins on Wednesday, June 19, and ends on Sunday, June 23, in and around Washington, DC. Check out the festival’s website for full details.]