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AFI Docs Explores Politics and Beyond

Formerly known as Silverdocs, the five-day AFI Docs film festival recently shifted its hub from Silver Spring, Md., to Washington, D.C., proper, embracing its potential role as a fest that can put docs on difficult policy decisions in front of actual policymakers themselves.

And the fest’s lineup is certainly living up to that promise, with world premieres like “Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper” and the Jordanian refugee spotlight “Salaam Neighbor,” alongside the SXSW-winning law enforcement doc “Peace Officer,” education policy study “Most Likely to Succeed” and “The Diplomat,” David Holbrooke’s portrait of his ambassador father, Richard.

Yet there’s far more to the fest than political science lectures, from music docs like closing film “Mavis!” to personal portraits of high school football careers (“First and 17”) and shut-in movie cultists (“The Wolfpack”). In that light, the fest’s opening film “Best of Enemies,” which spotlights the politics-driven yet voluminously entertaining televised spats between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, seems an ideal combination of think tank and shark tank.

Festival director Michael Lumpkin, who is notching his first year at AFI Docs after spending six years as exec director of the Intl. Documentary Assn., strove to nail that balance.

“AFI Docs takes place in a very unique geographic place, where there’s that connection between the work and what goes on in D.C. as far as policy and legislation,” he says. “Having that very unique aspect of the fest is great, but you want to combine that with people going to the festival who want to be entertained and watch great documentaries. So the fest really strikes a balance between those two components, with very serious policy conversations, but also at the same time, having great docs and great storytelling.”

Lumpkin notes that the festival has room for improvement in audience development, although with 16,000-20,000 viewers expected to attend, it’s poised to dwarf last year’s tally of 11,000. And he also hopes to expand the fest’s year-round efforts, saying that “I don’t want to look to the festival as something you put everything into, and then it’s a year before you’re going to hear from us again.”

There’s also the matter of the fest’s brief running time, with its five-day span representing less than half of the time that nonfiction fests like Canada’s Hot Docs and the Netherlands’ IDFA have to showcase their wares. But per Lumpkin, that limited frame also encourages some productive compromises and programming decisions.

“Initially I was wondering how it was all gonna work, thinking that we definitely needed to be longer, more days,” he says. “And now that I’ve done it, I’m really liking the format, because it forces you to make tough decisions, and when you’re making tough decisions, the outcome can be really great.”

For example, “There was this programming moment I experienced this year, where there were several films we were considering that dealt with gun violence. A typical programming approach would be to show the best film on the subject. I thought about it for several days, and thought, what if we had three or four films on this topic, what would that look like, how would people react with each film being a very different take on it? And because we have this connection to D.C. and policy, we said, ‘Let’s go in deep on this, and see what kind of discussions it starts.’ ”

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