AFI Docs Film Festival Showcases Unique Perspectives

Audrie and Daisy Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Last year, Michael Lumpkin arrived as director of Washington, D.C.’s, five-day AFI Docs Film Festival a mere six short months before his inaugural fest. For his second go-round, he has had the whole year to prepare and promises a festival that is more international and “diverse, in terms of the types of films, where they come from, and who’s making them.”

The festival, previously known as SilverDocs, also continues its gradual move from its first home in Silver Spring, Md., to a centralized hub in the heart of D.C. The vast majority of screenings will be held at the Newseum and the nearby Landmark E Street, opening with Alex Gibney’s “Zero Days” on June 22, and closing with Rachel Grady’s “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” on June 26.

All told, the fest will screen 94 films from 30 countries, including Robert Kenner’s nuclear warhead expose “Command and Control,” Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s baseball doc “Doc and Darryl,” Toby Oppenheimer and Dana Flor’s “Check It,” and Nicole Opper’s “Visitors Day.” Werner Herzog will be on hand for a panel as the Charles Guggenheim Symposium honoree, followed by a screening of his internet-history film “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World,” with additional panels scheduled to discuss diversity in documentary filmmaking, shortform docs and virtual reality.

As always, the festival boasts an unusual character thanks to its brief duration — less than half the allotment for its biggest counterparts, such as Amsterdam’s IDFA and Toronto’s Hot Docs — but the five-day span allows Lumpkin and his team to program with a mind toward thematic coherence.

“You have to say ‘no’ to films that you really, really love,” Lumpkin says. “So that forces you to really think about it and consider the entire program you’re presenting. Yes, all the films are great, but how do they fit in together as a festival?”

Despite taking place in the nation’s capital shortly before the two party conventions, Lumpkin says that the political atmosphere didn’t play an outsize role in programming. But as one would expect from a documentary festival, hot-button current events will rarely be far from the minds of those attending. (Speaking of which, the fest’s attendance rose from 11,000 to 15,000 from 2014 to ’15, and Lumpkin expects a “significant increase” this year.)

In particular, Lumpkin calls attention to the Newseum screenings of Kim A. Snyder’s “Newtown,” about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, and the Netflix-bound sexual assault documentary “Audrie and Daisy” (pictured above), directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.

“They’re both very important films in terms of those issues, but they both approach the issues in very unique and different ways,” Lumpkin says. “This happened with a number of films this year, where you see the title and the short description, and you think, ‘Oh I’ve seen this film before.’ But you go in and watch it and say, ‘No, I haven’t seen this film, this is something I was not expecting at all.’ And that points to very good filmmaking.”

Lumpkin is also high on Vitaly Mansky’s “Under the Sun,” filmed in North Korea with the oversight of the country’s government, but which, he says, “plays with the format, and uses the actual frame of the image” to give a subtle but revealing glimpse of life in the inhospitable country.

“They were able to really uncover a truth about the culture and the people who live there that, if they had gone in and said, ‘this is what we’re doing,’ they never could have done. So it’s all in the filmmaking, about what they’re choosing to show you or not show you.”

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