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WASHINGTON — It’s the most exciting week of the year for documentary lovers.
The 14th annual AFI Docs Film Festival returns to the nation’s capital with another impressive slate of documentaries screening at the festival’s original location at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as the Newseum and Landmark E Street Cinema in Downtown Washington D.C.
“We looked at probably a couple thousand films this year,” Festival Director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “It’s a very diverse program, probably the most diverse [yet] in terms of countries that we’re screening from. I think it’s near 30, or maybe over 30, a lot of different countries. We cast a very wide net this year and it was great to see what came in and what was in that huge net that we cast.”
The festival kicks off Wednesday night with the North American premiere of “Zero Days,” including a special Q&A with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”).
“The moment we saw it, we felt it was the perfect film for AFI Docs,” Lumpkin said. “It’s Alex Gibney at his best as an investigative journalist. … It’s about a cyber incident [the Stuxnet virus] that involved the United States, Israel and the developing nuclear program in Iran. It’s full of twists and turns.”
When Gibney started out on the project, he says he was only slightly familiar with the Stuxnet virus through various media reports. Little did he know that Stuxnet was only a media-given name, or that there was a much larger sabotage mission at play. Thus, the doc unravels as if it were a mystery.
“The producer of a film I did about Julian Assange … came to me with this idea. I’d known a little bit about it, but when he proposed it, I dug in and I thought, this could be a really, really important thing,” Gibney told WTOP. “That was part of the appeal for me. … It was curiosity about something that seemed to be really important, a moment in history that hadn’t been properly recognized.”
Throughout the doc, Gibney expresses frustration at the government’s unwillingness to openly debate the morality of cyber attacks, including unintended blowback that could wipe out U.S. grids.
“Stuxnet at a certain point became well known, but nobody is responding to it in government,” Gibney said. “We have a new means of warfare, and yet nobody is talking about it. That’s a huge change! Secrecy in a way is putting us all at risk. As a result, I felt that part of the subject of the film would become this kind of obsessive and dangerous secrecy.”
If you see Gibney at Wednesday’s opening night screening, you may recognize him from 2014 when he was honored at AFI Docs’ annual Guggenheim Symposium. Other past honorees include legendary filmmakers like Erroll Morris, Barbara Kopple, Frederick Wiseman and Albert Maysles.
“It’s our way of honoring a master documentary filmmaker,” Lumpkin said. “[By] doing that with a conversation with the filmmaker, showing clips from their work, it’s a way to have that in-depth time with a filmmaker. It’s for certainly our audiences and documentary lovers, but also all the filmmakers that attend the festival, to be able to go in person to be able to hear from one of the masters.”
This year’s recipient is Werner Herzog, famous for docs like “Lessons of Darkness” (1992) and “Grizzly Man” (2005) and fiction films like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).
“One of the great things about him, he does both fiction and nonfiction, and his work in both formats kind of reflects the other format,” Lumpkin said. “Elements of his fiction films are very much documentary and vice versa. That’s one of the things that makes him such a unique filmmaker is that he’s playing in his own way with the format. … He blurs [lines], he crosses them, he ignores them.”
Herzog will appear Friday at the Newseum while screening his latest doc “Lo and Behold.”
“It’s about technology and how technology has changed our culture and our lives,” Lumpkin said. “He has his own way of approaching documentaries and this is another great film from Werner Herzog.”
The festival closes Sunday with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” chronicling a TV titan who created such classic sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” Lear, who recently spoke with WTOP, will be in attendance.
“It’s a great documentary about a great filmmaker, creator, writer, producer,” Lumpkin said. “I was growing up [and] aware of his shows as they were happening, but I just didn’t [fully appreciate it]. It’s kind of like you’re just experiencing it as they’re coming out and being on TV. But when you put it all together in the documentary, it really hits you just how much influence he had on television.”
If the opening, closing and symposium events are the three major tentpoles of AFI Docs, there are also plenty of other great documentaries sprinkled in between that tackle a range of subjects.
“It’s a diverse program that has every kind of documentary,” Lumpkin said. “If you’re into issues and changing the world and the impact of documentaries on policy and on the world … a large part of our program is that. [Or] if you want to laugh, we have a lot of documentaries that are pretty funny.”
For the former — the serious policy debates — check out Miguel Martinez and Jamie Sisley’s “Farewell, Ferris Wheel” (2015), which explores how the U.S. carnival industry struggles to survive in the 21st century by legally employing Mexican migrant workers with the H-2B guestworker visa.
For the latter — the hilarious variety — you’ve got to check out “Chicken People” by Nicole Lucas Haimes, providing a fun take on a most bizarre subject. Think “Best in Show” but with poultry.
“I had no idea until I saw this film that there is this whole culture of people that raise show chickens,” Lumpkin said. “Everybody knows about dogs, the dog shows, and people compete for prizes for their dogs, but there’s this whole subculture of chicken people. … It’s all real. It’s jaw-dropping, amazing stuff. … Some of these things with feathers, they’re actually chickens, but they look like … poof balls.”
Meanwhile, a different doc named “Tickled” might sound funny, but it quickly turns serious.
When filmmaker David Farrier stumbled upon an online video promoting a mysterious “tickling competition,” he decided to investigate. Immediately, the group threatened him with legal action. This made him even more curious, inspiring he and co-director Dylan Reeve to employ hidden cameras.
If you’re looking for something inspirational, check out the 26-minute doc “Phil’s Camino” by Jessica Lewis and Annie O’Neil. The film follows a Seattle man with stage-four cancer who dreams of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Unable to travel to the real location, he instead creates his own version of Camino in the forest behind his house and walks the same distance, roughly 500 miles.
If you’re more into biographies, we also get Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones,” chronicling the life of soul singer Sharon Jones from the Grammy-nominated R&B band “Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.”
“It’s a great film and Sharon Jones will be at the festival as well,” Lumpkin said.
On a more serious note, Kim Snyder will screen her powerful Sandy Hook documentary “Newtown.”
“It is unfortunately a more important film with what’s happened recently in Orlando,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a film that looks at the community and the impact of that incident on the people that live in Newtown. … It’s an unusual but very simple approach about the families. … You’re getting to know them. It’s very intimate. … You’re talking with parents who lost a child or neighbors next-door.”
While it’s undoubtedly a depressing subject, Lumpkin hopes the film will prove therapeutic.
“With something like Newtown it takes a little bit of work to go watch it,” Lumpkin admitted. “It’s powerful. But at the end of the film, the film just transforms you. At the end of the film, you’re like, ‘I’m so glad I saw this film,’ because first and foremost, it’s great filmmaking.”
From Kopple to Snyder, female filmmakers are well represented at this year’s AFI Docs.
“Forty-three percent of our films are directed by women,” Lumpkin said. “That’s a bit of data that we’re proud of. It’s significantly higher than last year and previous festivals, so we’re proud of that.”
Truly, there’s no better place to screen a doc than the nation’s capital and center of the free world.
“I think we’re the best festival in the world because the film audiences here are some of the best in the world,” Lumpkin said. “Very smart audiences and very dedicated filmgoers. … Also, the part of our festival that speaks to policy. … If you’re going to change the world as a documentary filmmaker, you’re gonna have to go through D.C. at some point. … This is where things get decided ultimately.”
Click here for ticket info. Listen to the full interview with AFI Docs Festival Director Michael Lumpkin below: