WASHINGTON — Last year’s opening night film “Icarus” went on to win the Oscar.
This week, you can get ahead of the curve again as the AFI Docs Film Festival returns Wednesday to Sunday, showcasing nearly 100 documentaries from around the world.
“We get about 2,000 submissions,” festival director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “We go to film festivals throughout the year looking for films. We also get things submitted to us. So, the process is both: you find them other places and a good many of them just fall into your lap.”
This year’s festival will return to the Newseum, E Street Cinema, National Archives and AFI Silver Theatre, while expanding to the National Gallery of Art, United Institute of Peace, Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and Museum of African American History & Culture.
“Something we’re doing this year [is] branching out to more venues on the National Mall,” Lumpkin said. “[We’re] programming films in venues, museums and other places that make sense, so that the content of the film speaks to the place where you are watching the film.”
The opening night film is “Personal Statement” by Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez.
“It’s a great film about youth in a high school in New York,” Lumpkin said. “They’re working on themselves getting into college, but the great thing is that they’re also peer counselors in their high school helping their fellow students get to college as well. It’s a really moving, touching film about youth taking control of their lives and at the same time changing the world.”
After that, don’t miss “The Cold Blue” by director Erik Nelson and producer Catherine Wyler.
“It’s pretty much wall-to-wall footage that William Wyler shot during World War II following the Air Force as they were making runs from the UK over to Germany and bombing,” Lumpkin said. “He was shooting the ‘Memphis Belle,’ a short documentary he made during World War II. … But this is the rest of the footage he shot, which was hours and hours of it, turned into a really beautiful film. … It’s gorgeous footage, shot on film, it’s in color, it just looks amazing.”
Catherine Wyler says her father was changed by the experience. Before the war, he made films like “Wuthering Heights” (1939). After the war, he made “Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
“There’s no question the war had a huge effect on him,” Wyler told WTOP. “[‘Best Years’] was one film he didn’t have to do any research for, because he knew what it was like to … come back damaged from the war. … He had to really fight to get into the Air Force because he was 40 with two children. … He finally found a general who he convinced it would be smart to have a guy with a camera following him around. … The experience made him rather pacifist.”
Space fans will enjoy the centerpiece flick “Above & Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow.”
“It’s a great documentary by Rory Kennedy,” Lumpkin said. “[We’re] screening at the Air & Space Museum. … NASA rockets taking off on that screen is great. … It’s a history of NASA and their achievements. … The second half of the film gets into the point when NASA expanded and started looking at … all the work they do here on Earth around environmental issues and other things. So, it’s both about the far reaches of outer space, but also the planet we’re on.”
Another annual highlight is the Guggenheim Symposium, a lifetime achievement ceremony for influential documentary filmmakers. Past honorees include Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”), Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line”). This year’s honoree is director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself”).
“We shine the spotlight on a documentary filmmaker who’s made great achievements across their career,” Lumpkin said. “This year it’s Steve James. He is been working for decades, made a lot of great films, his feature ‘Abacus’ was nominated for the Oscar. We’re honoring him, we’ll be showing clips from his films, and Michael Phillips, critic at The Chicago Tribune, is coming in to have a conversation with him … at the American History Museum.”
If you’re politically inclined, be sure to check out “Dark Money” by filmmaker Kimberly Reed.
“Up until 2010 we had a lot better idea about who was paying for our elections and who was pumping money into them,” Reed said. “That all changed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, famous for saying that corporations are people and money is speech. … What it really did was it enabled … these 501(c)(4) groups to be exploited as a vehicle to basically pump unlimited, anonymous money into our elections.”
While overturning Citizens United might not happen, Reed says there is another path.
“We just have to assume for now that Citizens United is the law of the land,” Reed said. “But within Citizens United there’s [a] subdivision that says the only reason we can say corporations are money and money is speech is we’re assuming that all of this money is going to get disclosed. … That is not happening, so what we can do the way things are now is demand that the disclosure requirements that are already on the books, that those get enforced.”
The festival wraps on Sunday night with “United Skates” by Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler.
“Of the many films I watched, this was the film that made me the happiest,” Lumpkin said. “It’s about roller-skating, this culture of adult nights at roller-skating rinks. It’s where mostly African-American people come in and skate to really great music. … I went back to that film more than once or twice [saying], ‘I’ve just gotta seen that scene again. I’ve just gotta hear that song with great footage of people skating.’ It was my goosebump movie of the year.”
Beyond the films, you’ll enjoy great access to the filmmakers and documentary subjects.
“A documentary film festival has a different tone from a regular film festival where there’s big movies and celebrities and all of that,” Lumpkin said. “At documentary festivals, the celebrities are not only the directors but also the subjects of the film. It’s really great to see those people who have opened up their lives to be in a movie and have them there with an audience. They get all of the questions from the audience. … They’re really the stars of the festival.”
Find out more on the AFI DOCS website. Listen to our full chat with Michael Lumpkin below:
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