The nation’s top documentary festival is going to a look a bit different this year.
For the first time ever, AFI Docs is being presented virtually from June 17-21.
“Canceling was not an option,” festival director Michael Lumpkin told WTOP. “As time passed, we realized that we had to go with an online virtual option. … If you’re home and there’s internet, then we can give you some great documentaries to watch in June.”
The festival kicks off Wednesday with the opening night film “Boys State,” which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and was invited to AFI Docs before the pandemic.
“It’s a great story about the high school program Boys State, which is organized in every state in the country,” Lumpkin said. “It brings male high school students together for several days and they basically learn how to create their own government. … There’s the conservatives and liberals and it just falls out the way the world is currently falling out.”
Thursday’s showcase film is a special presentation of “Portraits & Dreams.”
“It’s about a photographer who decades ago went into Appalachia and taught young people how to do photography,” Lumpkin said. “The film is the photographer coming back to visit the region [and] reconnecting with the kids. … You’re learning about the kids that were in her class and what they’re doing today. … It’s a sweet, warm, heartwarming film.”
Friday brings the annual Guggenheim Symposium, this year honoring Lee Grant, who starred in classics like “In the Heat of the Night” (1967) and “Shampoo” (1975), which won her the Oscar. She’ll join Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday for a virtual Q&A.
“Lee Grant is primarily known as an actress, but she also has made a lot of documentary films,” Lumpkin said. “She did films for PBS and HBO. They’re a really interesting and incredibly relevant group of documentaries. She looked at problems like homelessness, battered women … and small farmers getting farms taken away by corporate farming.”
Friday also includes a special presentation of “The Fight.”
“This is about the ACLU and the attorneys that have been leading the charge on several major cases,” Lumpkin said. “They cover the Muslim ban and fights around abortion. It gives you an inside look at the work that they do. … You’re right there with them through the whole thing, getting the case and then taking it all the way to the Supreme Court.”
Saturday brings “Rebuilding Paradise” directed by Ron Howard, who will hold a Q&A.
“This is about Paradise, California, and the fire that pretty much destroyed the town,” Lumpkin said. “It’s not so much about the fire itself but about the incredible citizens of Paradise coming back and staying in Paradise and rebuilding their lives. … Everybody in Paradise, California, is going to watch the film at AFI Docs. They haven’t seen it yet.”
Finally, Sunday brings the closing night film “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” featuring interviews with the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.
“It’s a really eye-opening and entertaining film,” Lumpkin said. “You see a side of Jimmy Carter that I didn’t really know about. It’s a great mix of politics and music. I love political documentaries and I love music documentaries and this one has both. … It’s about how he worked with people he knew in the music industry on his presidential campaign.”
Tickets can be purchased online, providing unique virtual access.
“The films we talked about today are appointment viewing, happening on a certain day at a certain time, but the bulk of the festival [is] available for 24 hours,” Lumpkin said. “You’re at home, so we want people to have the convenience of being able to watch.”