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AFI Fest Puts Nonfiction in the Spotlight

Documentaries will play a more prominent role than ever before at the AFI Fest, which kicks off Nov. 14.

While AFI Fest 2018 featured 15 documentary features playing in various categories, this year’s edition of Los Angeles-based fest will play host to 22 feature docs, 16 of which will screen in the fest’s new documentary section.

“When documentaries were part of other sections in years past we felt like attendees were having trouble finding them,” says festival director Michael Lumpkin, who took the reins last year from previous AFI head Jacqueline Lyanga. “People go to see documentaries with a clear interest in them, so by incorporating this new section, we are helping audiences find exactly what they’re looking for.”

AFI Fest director of programming Lane Kneedler adds that the nonfiction genre’s recent big-ticket acquisitions and impressive box-office receipts made the addition of the section a no-brainer.

“Just a few years ago, audiences were hesitant to buy tickets to a documentary,” Kneedler says. “But in recent years when we look at our audience award ballots, documentaries are always the films that get the biggest reaction.”

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Docus that have yet to be released, including Alex Gibney’s “Citizen K,” Barbara Kopple’s “Desert One” and Andrew Renzi’s “Ready for War,” are among the 11 films playing in the section.

Meanwhile a subset of the category, called the documentary encore section will include five of “the most talked about films of the year,” which have already debuted on the big screen and on streamers/broadcasters. Those films are: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” Roger Ross Williams’ “The Apollo,” Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave,” Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker,” as well as Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s “One Child Nation.”

Documentaries’ newfound home at the 33rd annual fest, which serves as a platform for launching awards-season titles, is not exactly surprising given Lumpkin’s background. For the past four years he has served as director of AFI Docs in Washington, D.C. Prior to AFI, Lumpkin was executive director of the Intl. Documentary Assn. for six years, and headed Frameline, home of the San Francisco Intl. LGBTQ Film Festival, for 25 years.

“I’ve seen the power of nonfiction storytelling over and over again,” Lumpkin says. “They bring people together especially in a theatrical setting.”

The docus chosen to participate in the fest are all Oscar contenders as are the 15 short docs featured in the shorts section. Two of those shorts — Netflix’s “Fire in Paradise” and ESPN’s “Mack Wrestles” — will screen as part of the short section’s Meet the Press Selects, an offshoot of the October Washington, D.C.-based short docu festival.

Another doc screening at the eight-day festival is Matthew Miele’s “Alan Pakula: Going for Truth.” The film, about the late producer-director-writer, will screen during the fest’s tribute to Pakula, which will feature showings of “Klute,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Sterile Cuckoo.”

Lumpkin says the 50th anniversary of 1969’s “The Sterile Cuckoo” release is what made him think of Pakula.

“It popped out as a great film by a producer-director who you don’t hear a lot about,” he says. “So me and my team took a dive into his filmography and as we dug deeper it became clear that he was a director we needed to shine a spotlight on.”

The fest will also pay tribute to Martin Scorsese on Nov. 15 with a conversation with the director and a screening of his latest, “The Irishman.”

In addition to an increase in feature docs, this year’s number of submissions grew from 4,000 to 4,490. In all, the fest will screen 80 features, one episodic show, 40 shorts and 21 Conservatory Showcase Shorts for a grand total of 142 titles from 52 countries. Selected films are dispersed into 10 categories, which include documentary, galas, world cinema, and yet another new section — AFI Conservatory showcase.

The Conservatory is in its 50th year and is regarded as one of the world’s top film schools. Graduates include Terrence Malick, Rachel Morrison, Patty Jenkins and Darren Aronofsky. The 21 narratives included in the new section stem from the class of 2019 Conservatory Fellows.

“The Conservatory is one of the most important programs here at the Institute,” Kneedler says. “In the past it was always separate from the festival. But it really makes sense for these films to be part of the festival’s program because we see these Fellows coming out of the Conservatory and making these interesting short films and then a few years later we see their films in the New Auteurs section of AFI and then, like this year, their films are opening the festival.”

Kneedler is referring to Melina Matsoukas whose drama “Queen & Slim” will
open the 2019 festival and is part of the gala section.

“It’s great to be able to showcase probably the most significant part of AFI within AFI Fest,” adds Lumpkin.

In addition to “Queen & Slim” the gala section includes Benjamin Caron and Peter Morgan’s “The Crown,” Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes” and George Nolfi’s “The Banker.” Each gala film selection will screen at TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Other highly anticipated titles including “Just Mercy,” “Blackbird,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “The Song of Names,” and “Troop Zero” will play in the festival’s special screening section.

“Issues like social justice and racism [appear] in ‘Queen & Slim,’ ‘The Banker,’
‘Just Mercy’ and ‘Clemency,’” Lumpkin says. “That is the result of efforts made over a number of years to make sure that those who are making film are a diverse group of people. This year we are seeing the results in our program.”

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