WASHINGTON — The world’s best documentaries are coming right here to D.C.
The 15th annual AFI DOCS Film Festival returns June 14-18 at the Newseum, E Street Cinema and AFI Silver Theatre, showcasing 112 documentaries whittled down from more than 2,000 entries.
“It’s a great way to see movies; just indulge yourself for five days,” festival director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “There’s such a diverse range of films and I want to emphasize the escape. You can escape in a lot of ways. You can go to another country on the other side of the globe, you can learn about somebody you had no idea existed and you can even go to the ends of the universe at this festival.”
The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Newseum with the opening night selection of Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus,” which premiered at Sundance in January and is now making its East Coast premiere.
“It’s a sports film on the surface, then it quickly turns into a really taut political thriller,” Lumpkin said. “It’s about a professional biker who sets out to try to replicate what Lance Armstrong did with drugs and increasing his performance. … He quickly runs into some doctors and people involved with the sports doping scandal in Russia, then it just kind of all unwinds from there [with] multiple jaw-drops.”
Thursday brings the spotlight screening of Su Rynard’s “Mosquito” at 6:30 p.m. at the Newseum.
“[It’s] about how climate change and the warming of the earth is increasing the territory of mosquitoes and, therefore, increasing the prevalence of mosquito-borne illnesses in the world,” Lumpkin said. “It looks at several great characters, people working on that problem: scientists, government officials, people who are trying to figure out what to do about it. Very interesting.”
Later at the Newseum at 8:45 p.m., it’s “The Reagan Show” by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill.
“This goes back and looks at Ronald Reagan, his presidency and how he brought publicity PR to the White House,” Lumpkin said. “He was the first president to have the camera on him all the time. He started that and every president since has had that. This film is all archival footage from the film team that was with him throughout his presidency. It’s fascinating to see it in the context of today.”
Also Thursday is the U.S. premiere of Dieudo Hamadi’s Congolese film “Mama Colonel,” screening at 6:30 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre, with an encore on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema.
“It’s a portrait of this [national] police officer … who focuses on issues around women and children,” Lumpkin said. “She is a force. She’s a colonel and has this truck [plastered with] the word ‘sex.’ … She’s driving around, having open and honest conversations with people out in remote villages about sex, abuse of women and abusing children. She’s just a great character doing really important work.”
Thursday wraps at 8:30 p.m. at E Street Cinema with Henry Roosevelt and W.B. Zullo’s “Tough Guys.”
“‘Tough Guys’ [is] about the founding of MMA,” Lumpkin said. “It’s kind of Guy Night at the E Street.”
Friday brings “New Chefs on the Block” by Dustin Harrison-Atlas, exploring the opening of two local restaurants: “Rose’s Luxury” on Barracks Row in D.C. and “Frankly … Pizza!” in Kensington, Maryland. The doc plays at 4 p.m. Friday at E Street Cinema and again Sunday at 4 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
“There’s a contrast because you have the high-end, small, can’t-get-into-it restaurant opening, and then you have the pizza joint, which is very accessible and where most people would probably go,” Lumpkin said. “It’s about opening a restaurant, how difficult that is and how they make that happen.”
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the filmmaker of 'New Chefs on the Block'
Also on Friday, check out “City of Ghosts” directed by Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”) about citizen journalists who band together in Raqqa after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014. The film plays Friday at 6:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
“When the film premiered at Sundance, I went to an event when the photo of the young boy from Aleppo made the rounds,” Heineman said. “They said, ‘Can you believe what happened in Syria?’ I said, ‘This has been happening every single day for the past four years.’ … To me, this film is more than about Syria. It’s about the importance of journalism, an immigrant story, rising nationalism in Europe, trauma, but at its core it’s about the incredible bravery of this group coming together to expose ISIS.”
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with creator & subject of 'City of Ghosts'
Later on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at E Street Cinema, get ready for the fascinating music documentary “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana.
“It’s a documentary about how Native Americans influenced rock ‘n’ roll,” Lumpkin said. “I was surprised. Buffy Sainte-Marie is in it, but there’s so many more musicians where you’re like, ‘Really?’ … It’s a great film and music docs are great. We were really working this year to give audiences some escape, and we really wanted to make sure there were a lot of films not about the world blowing up.”
If you do want something heavier with social commentary, check out “Recruiting for Jihad” by Adel Khan Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen. The timely documentary plays at 8:45 p.m. at E Street Cinema.
“‘Recruiting for Jihad’ is an amazing film and a filmmaker with unprecedented access,” Lumpkin said. “That is one of the really amazing parts: the trust of letting somebody with a camera in that deep. … It’s made in Norway, but it’s kind of about how people get recruited. It’s an amazing, amazing film.”
Friday brings the annual highlight of the Guggenheim Symposium at 6:30 p.m. at the Newseum. Last year’s honoree was Werner Herzog; this year it’s Laura Poitras, director of “Citizenfour” and “Risk.”
“She’s been doing some really incredible, risky work,” Lumpkin said. “[In ‘Citizenfour’], she looked at Edward Snowden, went to Hong Kong, interviewed him in the hotel. Her latest film, ‘Risk,’ is about Julian Assange. It actually premiered at Cannes last year, then it disappeared. … Things were moving so fast last summer with the campaign and WikiLeaks, she said, ‘I’m not done.’ So, she redid the film.”
After that, stick around for “An Inconvenient Sequel” by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk at 8:30 p.m. at the Newseum. It’s a sequel to the Oscar-winning, climate-change doc “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006).
“Looking at [the documentary] post-November election, you’ve got a totally different lens,” Lumpkin said. “Yes, this film was being made way before the election, but to see it on this side is an interesting experience. It takes you through the Paris accord and Al Gore’s role in securing that agreement.”
Saturday brings “Saving Briton” about Iowa history teacher Michael Zahs, who finds and screens a treasure trove of turn-of-the-century silent films once projected by Frank Brinton. The documentary screens Saturday at 4:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre and Sunday a 4:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema.
“Mike happened upon an amazing collection of Frank’s entire estate, including five hours of film,” filmmaker Andrew Sherburne told WTOP. “These were the films that introduced motion pictures to rural audiences. … Mike found these films 30-some years ago and has been working diligently ever since to bring them back out into the light. It’s finally happened and that’s what this movie’s all about.”
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the creators & subject of 'Saving Brinton'
On Saturday at 6:15 p.m. at the Newseum, get ready for Peter Bratt’s “Dolores,” which follows famed labor activist Dolores Huerta, who will actually be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening.
“It’s just a really great biography of her and her life,” Lumpkin said. “Just an amazing woman. Again, it’s a film that I learned: you think you know somebody [but you really don’t]. There are even things in this film that, in my head, connect back to our current president. You’ve gotta see it. … I can’t wait.”
Saturday also brings the world premiere of “Atomic Homefront” by director Rebecca Cammisa, with screenings at 7 p.m. at E Street Cinema and an encore Sunday at 9:15 p.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
“It’s about an atomic waste dump where waste was dumped decades ago and forgotten,” Lumpkin said. “In the interim, [St. Louis] suburbs grow up … so it’s about people in the neighborhood adjacent to this dump becoming activists to protect their lives and their communities. It’s an environmental film, but one of those like, ‘Yeah, we definitely messed this up.’ Who’s responsible for cleaning it up?”
Saturday closes out at 9 p.m. at the Newseum with Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s “Whitney, Can I Be Me,” following the life and career of Whitney Houston just as “Amy” did for Amy Winehouse.
“[It’s] a great documentary about her, a lot of footage that’s backstage footage, home-movie footage,” Lumpkin said. “You get the great performance and the great artist she was, goosebump material of her performing, but there’s also this background stuff on her life, things you heard about in rumors. You learn a lot about her in this film. It’s that guilty pleasure, just a great biography with great music.”
Sunday wraps at 7 p.m. at the Newseum with John Dorsey’s “Year of the Scab,” which follows the NFL players strike during the 1987-88 season, which ended with the Redskins’ second Super Bowl victory.
“We’re opening and closing with sports films, which was unintentional,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a great David vs. Goliath story. … The stars are these scab players and their stories are amazing. Where do you go if you need scab football players? Who do you pick? One guy is like a real estate developer working in an office! … The other thing that I didn’t know: I thought it was an even playing field, so to speak, but they’re in this game with the Dallas Cowboys, who didn’t go out on strike … and they win.”
Click here for more details. Listen to the full chat with AFI DOCS festival director Michael Lumpkin below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with AFI Docs festival director Michael Lumpkin