AFI Docs Festival Looks to Balance ‘Escapism and Intellect’

Dolores Documentary
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by George Ballis
The phrase life imitates art is never more true than when looking at documentary films, and this year’s AFI Documentary Film Festival, which is celebrating its 15th year and runs June 14-18 in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Md., promises to highlight challenging, entertaining and important pieces of work.

The five-day event is overseen by Michael Lumpkin, who notes that this year the festival “is looking to strike a proper balance between escapism and intellect. We always want to provide audiences with a diverse selection of films, and this year we certainly have something for everyone.”

In all, 103 films will be screened at the festival, with 28 countries submitting entries, solidifying the event as a worldwide affair. “It’s important to shine light on stories from all over the world,” Lumpkin says. “It’s very important to us to keep an international profile. More countries are represented at the festival this year than ever before, and it’s a testament to all the incredible filmmakers from all over the world who are eager to show their work. We received more submissions than ever which made for a big undertaking in terms of creating our schedule due to both the quality and quantity of available content.”

The opening- and closing-night selections include two high-profile premieres. Bryan Fogel’s doping-in-sports expose “Icarus” kicks the event off with its East Coast premiere, and will feature a post-screening Q&A with the debut filmmaker. The festival closes with the ESPN Films production of “Year of the Scab,” which is from Emmy- winning director John Dorsey, and looks at the 1987 NFL strike and the team of substitutes that made up the Washington Redskins. Dorsey will also attend a Q&A after his film unspools, with both efforts screening at the Newseum, the festival’s official gala screening partner.

Other notable films include the Variety-sponsored screening of “Dolores,” which Lumpkin called “simply great,” and the potential break-out hit “Whitney,” which tracks music icon Whitney Houston both on and off stage. “There’s footage of Whitney that nobody has ever seen in this film,” Lumpkin says.

Another key title is “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the highly anticipated followup to the Oscar-winning climate change piece “An Inconvenient Truth.” Lumpkin also praised both “The Reagan Show” and “Mosquito.” The former looks at the late President Reagan’s lifelong relationship with the media and news cameras that cemented his reputation as the first “Teflon president.” The latter addresses the interrelated effects of climate change and mosquito-born illnesses including the Zika virus.

AFI Docs Forum, which is open to documentary professionals and to festival-goers, occurs over an intensive two-day program which is designed to challenge filmmakers to create wider social and political change through the power of their productions.

“This year, we’ve opened the experience up to any pass-holder, and we’ve got some great panels on public media, VR, short filmmaking, podcasting, and funding,” Lumpkin says. Film critic “Ann Hornaday will also be a guest speaker. What’s great about these forums is that they act as the next step up from a Q&A session, so if you love documentaries, you’ll get a ton out of these events.”

This year’s VR showcase will allow audience members to participate in a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

“We have nine different VR pieces that will be presented throughout the festival,” Lumpkin says. They “wanted to bring VR into the theatrical setting.”  A potentially buzz-worthy VR simulation is called “The People’s House,” which takes the individual on a tour of the White House during the Obama administration. “We’re very anxious to see how people respond to this, as it will really be something special for those who miss the Obama family.”

And the significance of the Washington, D.C., setting is certainly not lost on Lumpkin. “We’ve just gone through a very difficult transition since November, which has reverberated throughout the country. There’s been this sense of both disruption and engagement, and I think that makes for an even more competitive climate. But for us it’s about the escape to the movies.”