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AFI Docs Film Festival Stays Topical With a Diverse Slate

The 17th annual AFI Docs Film Festival will launch this year’s eclectic program from June 19-23 in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Md., showcasing 72 films from 17 countries, with a strong emphasis on female filmmakers. Of the current slate set to unspool, 48% of the directors and 68% of the producers are women, marking a considerable uptick from past festivals. This year, AFI Docs is organizing its entries into different categories (Galas, Special Screenings, Portrait, Truth and Justice, Spectrum, Anthem, Cinema’s Legacy, and Short Films), and will include six world premieres, one North American premiere, and two U.S. premieres.

The festival kicks off with the world premiere of “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality” and closes with “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.” Other special screenings include the world premiere of “Chasing the Moon,” “Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words,” “Sea of Shadows,” and “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”

This year’s centerpiece film screening, occurring June 21 at the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, will be “American Factory,” which was directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. It examines the culture clash resulting from the takeover of a Dayton, Ohio, General Motors factory by a Chinese corporation, which reopened the location as Fuyao Glass America, with the promise of providing consistent work to more than 2,000 local residents, along with bringing hundreds of Chinese workers to the state. Tensions quickly mounted and escalated among the Americans due to low wages and concerns about safety.

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Festival director Michael Lumpkin, who was recently placed in charge of Los Angeles’ AFI Film Festival in the fall, is ecstatic about this year’s crop of projects.

“We try and focus on how important and integral storytelling is for both the audience and the filmmakers, and because these films are so personal in nature, these are stories that feel like they had to be told,” Lumpkin says.

Taking on dual responsibilities across AFI’s festival platform is a big job, but Lumpkin credits his “exceptionally talented staff” with helping him restructure the festivals, in order to “take advantage of the many creative opportunities that have come our way as a result of screening these important films.”

Lumpkin is ebullient in his praise of this year’s slate. “We’re all so excited about the filmmakers who are bringing their films to the festival this year. ‘The Elephant Queen’ and ‘Midnight Family’ are titles to look out for, as they both tell very personal and private stories which go beyond your expectations,” he says. He notes that he was taken by surprise by music doc “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” from directors Robb Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. “That was an unexpectedly touching film that a lot of people are really going to connect with.”

This is also the third year that NBC’s “Meet the Press” will partner with AFI Docs Festival for a short film series, which Lumpkin says has become a tremendous success.

“Our partnership with NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ has been very unique in that we program and screen the films in conjunction with NBC News journalists, who help to select socially relevant options that bridge the worlds of entertainment and politics.” He adds that between the traditional AFI Docs Festival and the special “Meet the Press” event, “there’ll be some overlap with certain titles but we’re always looking to keep our selections fresh and topical.”

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