AFI Docs returns as the undisputed champion of documentary festivals

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews AFI Docs (Jason Fraley)

Washingtonians are lucky to have the nation’s top documentary festival right in our backyard.

The 17th annual AFI Docs Film Festival triumphantly returns this Wednesday through Sunday.

“Because it’s in D.C., there is so much relative to nonfiction filmmaking here,” festival director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “It’s such a great environment to show these documentaries and the kind of people we get to talk about them — journalists, policy makers, people working in the government — it’s just a great doc city, so that’s what makes it a great doc festival.”

Screenings will be held at its original hub at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, as well as a number of other venues across the nation’s capital, including Landmark E Street Cinema. Last year saw about 15,000 guests with just as many, if not more, expected this year.

“Seven years ago, we expanded into downtown D.C.,” Lumpkin said. “We also get great opportunities to screen at some of the historic, monumental venues in downtown D.C. We’re opening this year at the National Archives, we’re screening at the American History Museum, we’ve done screenings at the Air & Space Museum, at the African American Museum, so we’re utilizing all the great spaces in downtown D.C. and also programming films in those venues that make sense. It’s not just the film that you’re seeing but where you’re seeing it as well.”


The festival kicks off Wednesday with the world premiere of HBO’s “True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality,” part of opening night festivities at the National Archives.

“It’s a film about Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Institute and the work he’s been doing for many years,” Lumpkin said. “Doing this at the National Archives I think is going to be really great, screening the film in their theater there and then a celebration afterward right next to the founding documents of this country. Bryan in his work draws a direct line back to the beginning of the country to explain where we are in terms of race and also why we’re here.”


Moving to Thursday, check out the world premiere of Liz Garbus’ “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?”

“It’s the story of a crime and investigation and trial in upstate New York,” Lumpkin said. “It’s really a brilliantly made film. It’s two, one-and-a-half-hour films basically, but it’s structured like you’re in the trial. You hear from the defense, then you hear from the prosecution. It’s got some great, very interesting twists and turns — I would dare say ‘Perry Mason’-esque.”

Thursday also includes a pair of fun music docs, “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” by Stanley Nelson and “Linda Rondstadt: The Sound of My Voice” by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.

Thursday night closes with “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am” at the U.S. Navy Memorial.

“It goes into her life, her work as an author,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a great film by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It’s just an engaging, interesting portrait of this great artist and great woman. … There’s a lot of art in the film, so it’s a very visual, cinematic film.”


Turning to Friday, sports fans can catch “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.”

“It’s about equal pay for women set inside the world of the NFL,” Lumpkin said. “It basically looks at NFL cheerleaders and how poorly they’re paid as they work in a system that pays a zillion dollars to the guys to play football. A very interesting film.”

You can also see the music doc “Shangri-La” about Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin.

“It’s a really creative documentary by Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg; Morgan won the Oscar for ’20 Feet from Stardom’ and [‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’] was his most recent,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a series that’s going to be on Showtime, so we’re showing Parts 1 and 2.”

Friday’s centerpiece film is Netflix’s “American Factory” at the American History Museum.

“It’s a great, award-winning documentary about a factory in the Midwest that gets bought by the Chinese,” Lumpkin said. “It’s about how the American workers in the factory adjust to their new owners and this management team coming in from China. It’s about what’s happening to our economy right now, what’s happening to manufacturing in this country, and it’s also a very poignant and great look at these two different cultures intermingling at this factory.”


Come Saturday, space fans shouldn’t miss the world premiere of PBS’ “Chasing the Moon.”

“This is the year of space, the 50th anniversary of Apollo and men on the moon,” Lumpkin said. “I’m very excited about this one. … It’s six hours long and we’re showing the whole thing. It’s a series from PBS about the space race. It is one of the best made documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the kind of documentary where you’re watching it and you just marvel.”

Also, don’t miss “Autonomy” about the fascinating and scary world of driverless cars.

“It’s a really great look at the impact of driverless cars,” Lumpkin said. “It’s way scary. Just the other day, there was a guy asleep on a highway and this guy took a video of him! This film gets into the great things behind it, the technology, where it’s going, but it also gets into how we as a society are dealing — or not dealing — with the impact of this new technology.”

Saturday wraps with the annual Guggenheim Symposium, honoring prolific documentary filmmakers, from Werner Herzog to Laura Poitras. This year’s honoree is Freida Lee Mock, who will screen “Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words” at the U.S. Navy Memorial.

“She’s been making documentaries for 25-30 years,” Lumpkin said. “She won the Oscar for ‘Maya Lin’ in the ’90s. What Freida does better than anyone are portraits of individuals who are doing great work, whether it’s in the arts or in the community, writers, artists, playwrights, people running nonprofit organizations, people in the music world, pilots in the Army in Vietnam. She has a great way of introducing you to people; making you feel close to them.”


The final day includes “Mike Wallace is Here” about legendary news anchor Mike Wallace.

“It’s one of the more innovative documentaries that we have in the festival just in the way that it’s made and constructed; it’s really fun to watch,” Lumpkin said. “You’re getting all this information about Mike Wallace as a journalist, there’s stuff I never knew about Mike Wallace in his early years and how he got started, but looking at the way he was confrontational in his interviews. … It’s not so unusual now, but then you’re seeing somebody do it back in the ’60s.”

It all culminates with “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivans” at the U.S. Navy Memorial.

“It’s a great documentary,” Lumpkin said. “This film just really celebrates her work and her life. You also get a little bit of [Texas Gov.] Ann Richards in it, which is great. [Ivans] was a great writer, a great political commentator and funny as hell. [Filmmaker] Janice Engel will be there.”

After the films conclude, you can let loose at the wrap party at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.

“Texas barbecue to close out the festival,” Lumpkin said. “Margaritas and Lone Star Beer!”

It’s the perfect way to end five days of entertainment and enlightenment.

“It’s immersion,” Lumpkin said. “It’s the audiences intermingling, running from one movie to the next, and the filmmakers are in there too, doing a film festival and seeing a bunch of films in a short period of time. We like to program the festival so the films start talking to each other. There’s a lot of connective tissue between all these different films, and when you start seeing the threads that connect the different films and stories, it’s really a good experience.”

Find out more on the festival website. Hear our full conversation with Michael Lumpkin below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Michael Lumpkin (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up