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Our world can seem stranger than fiction these days, so it’s important to come back down to Earth and ground ourselves in reality from time to time. That’s what the AFI DOCS film festival does: The featured documentaries show us what has happened throughout our history, what’s happening now, and how to think about those events. 

And with this year’s set of stories, we go places. We visit with iconic writer Toni Morrison, we go deep with NFL cheerleaders, we race to the moon, we explore self-driving cars, we get to know our neighbors here in D.C. just 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and we believe in dinosaurs. We commune with the ghosts of the past, and the people of the present and future. 

Wherever it is you want to go, wherever it is you want stories to pull you, let AFI DOCS take you there. —Kayla Randall

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

USA

Toni Morrison is a literary giant and a cultural icon, so tackling the breadth of her legacy presents a challenge. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ biographical documentary The Pieces I Am allows Morrison to speak for herself. Yes, there are those scholars, writers, activists, and influencers—Walter Mosley, Angela Davis, and Oprah Winfrey among them—who provide context for just how monumental Morrison is. But mostly, it’s Morrison who guides the discussion and who takes us into her life, from when she was a little girl writing on the sidewalk with her sister, through her tenure supporting and promoting black authors as an editor at Random House, to the publication of her own writing and the subsequent questions from interviewers about when she would write for the great white “mainstream”—and her strong rebukes of such a notion. 

We get into her mindset for writing books like The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Morrison keeps black women at the forefront, always making them whole and rejecting the caricatures they had been in other media. Viewers see her joy and revelry when she wins the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, and the racist, sexist backlash to that win from some white men in the literary community. Toni Morrison contains multitudes, and the audience is privileged enough to see them intimately in The Pieces I Am. The film gives us a little more insight into a woman whose work we know well, but who retains an air of mystery. Here, the insight comes, like all of Morrison’s work, in her own words. —Kayla Randall

Thursday, June 20, 7:30 p.m., Navy Memorial Arleigh & Roberta Burke Theater.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

Directed by Stanley Nelson

UK, USA

Two voices dominate Stanley Nelson’s new documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. The first is Davis’ speaking voice, excerpted from the audiobook of his 1990 memoir. It’s a scraping, eloquent rasp, resulting from an operation on his larynx in the mid-1950s, that could make the word “motherfucker” sound like poetry. The other main voice in the movie is the clear cry of Davis’ trumpet, its famous cleanness marking a departure from the vibrato so many other players favored. Guided by these two voices—the gritty and the clean—Nelson offers a concise but thorough biography of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating musicians. 

The director teases out much of what is special and surprising in each phase of Davis’ career, conjuring the early thrills of the ’40s, the world-taking energy of the ’50s, the new improvisational techniques of the septet in the ’60s, and the fusion experiments of the ’70s. Nelson also gives plenty of screen time to Davis’ ex-wives and girlfriends, who get to tell their own stories on their own terms. These women were powerful artists in their own rights who helped Davis find new creative directions (Juliette Greco introduced him to Jean-Paul Sartre; Betty Davis introduced him to Sly Stone; Frances Taylor introduced him to flamenco), and they sometimes bore unspeakable abuse during Davis’ various periods of moody addiction and jealous rage. In this way, the movie offers something more valuable than a hagiography: a rich and bittersweet film that investigates, without romanticizing, some of the anguish that lurked beneath the cool. —Ted Scheinman

Thursday, June 20, 3 p.m.; Saturday, June 22, 4:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Shangri-La

Directed by Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg

USA

In the memoir Beastie Boys Book, which came out last year, the New York hip-hop group portrays producer Rick Rubin as an opportunist who made several problematic decisions while managing their ’80s rush to fame. They’ve still got a grudge. Rubin’s wild triumphs of taste and timing, it seems, weren’t enough to override the bad mojo he generated as a handler. It’s a reminder that Rubin wasn’t always a wizard-bearded, quasi-mythical maestro known for pulling focused performances from musical newcomers and legends alike. That’s the Rubin we get in Shangri-La, an upcoming Showtime series named after his white-walled, meticulously minimalist studio in the Malibu hills. 

AFI DOCS is screening the first two episodes, in which we see Rubin counseling clients such as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and rapper Tyler, the Creator, or immersing himself in staged, thinky conversations with the likes of David Lynch. If anything, it’s a breezy, high-concept infomercial, with lots of shots involving the support staff (the on-site library is indeed cool) and not much in terms of truly candid reflection from Rubin himself (he’s a bit boring, actually). There are re-enactments, too, featuring a kid Rick with a big gray beard (yeah, really) and a scruffy college-age stand-in for the Def Jam years. It’s all geared to gently chew up prestige cable hours, so catching a double dose in a movie theater might feel a bit excessive unless Rubin is truly your sage. “Music is part of the search for magic,” he’s quoted as saying, and Shangri-La is definitely more about the search than the music. —Joe Warminsky

Friday, June 21, 6 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

17 Blocks

Directed by Davy Rothbart

USA

Watching Davy Rothbart’s documentary 17 Blocks is like walking into the home of one D.C. family and pulling up a chair in the living room, or at the kitchen table, or on the front porch, and observing as their lives unfold. Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival’s award for best editing, the film gives an intimate view of the Sanford-Durant family’s struggle to escape the cycle of poverty, violence, and addiction through home videos shot over the course of 20 years, from 1999 to 2019.

Rothbart met two of the film’s main characters, brothers Smurf and Emmanuel, at a basketball court in 1999. When Emmanuel, an ambitious 9-year-old who enjoyed school and aspired to be a firefighter, expressed an interest in making movies, Rothbart lent him a camera. The results are an unfiltered portrayal of life for this African-American family of three kids raised by a single mother, Cheryl, who struggles with addiction.

The film opens with Cheryl ringing the doorbell to her childhood home and speaking with the white family who recently moved in. “My actions caused a chain reaction and put things in motion that should not have been,” she says. The rest of the film plunges into the depths of the family’s trauma, then rises as we watch the family’s next generation begin to grow.

The story started two decades ago, but for anyone familiar with local D.C.—and some of the communities that exist just a few blocks from the Capitol—the film’s portrayal of drugs, guns, poverty, and the necessary resilience of those communities most affected could tell a story that is relevant each passing day. —Mitch Ryals

Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Friday, June 21, 3:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

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Searching Eva

Directed by Pia Hellenthal

Germany

Searching Eva opens on a shot of the Italian-born social media star Eva Colle staring motionless at the camera. She is so still that you might think it’s a photograph, until the wind ruffles a wisp of her hair. Part immersive video diary and part feminist text, the documentary by Pia Hellenthal knows what it has in its protagonist. As a fashion model and sex worker, Eva has cultivated a compelling blankness that keeps your eyes trained on her even when the story fails to gather any momentum. We’re always searching Eva, even when she’s right in front of us.

The often mesmerizing film follows Eva as she leads her nomadic life, bouncing from one gig to the next, switching apartments and lovers with more ease than most of us can muster, and partying with her friends. A happy hedonist on the surface, Eva reveals her underlying realities in voice-overs that vacillate between haunting and hilarious. She can detail with precision the abuses and micro-aggressions she has suffered as a woman, and also chronicle the banality of her existence with impressive clarity. “Most of the time, I’d rather be eating bread than fucking.” Who can’t relate to that?

Eva’s life as a sex worker is her most intriguing quality, and the film, as it seeks to educate the audience on this topic, straddles the line between normalizing her profession and blaming it on either childhood trauma or our society’s systemic objectification of women. We may crave resolution, but the ambiguity feels right for this story. Searching Eva puts a complicated woman on display and dares you to judge her. —Noah Gittell

Friday, June 21, 2:45 p.m.; Sunday, June 23, 8:45 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Chasing The Moon

Directed by Robert Stone

USA

Look up to the heavens and there it is: our moon, the celestial body lighting up our night sky. Going there was the dream of President John F. Kennedy, who emphatically voiced that desire in a 1962 speech in Houston. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Seven years later, Apollo 11 carried three men who’d become American heroes—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—to that natural satellite in the sky. PBS’ multi-part docuseries Chasing the Moon arrives right on time—July 20 will mark 50 years since Neil Armstrong took that small step for man and giant leap for mankind. The series captures the politics, the majesty, and the guts of this mission and the long journey that led to it, with extensive archival footage and narration from astronauts, scientists, historians, and journalists, who help set the stage. It captures all perspectives on the race to the moon and takes the viewer through time and space, from 1960s-era history and culture to the lunar surface. 

The footage from the events of that July launch day in 1969 is particularly blood-pumping and the astronomical visuals are stunning. Chasing the Moon is a six-hour investment, but one well worth everyone’s time to better understand an essential slice of American history. —Kayla Randall

Saturday, June 22, 11:30 a.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Autonomy

Directed by Alex Horwitz

USA

The proliferation of self-driving cars seems inevitable. Pilot programs are already sprinkled throughout the country, and some Tesla models have the ability to change lanes automatically. Autonomy attempts to make sense of what is happening to this technology, and what it means for the future. Director Alex Horwitz dispatches the usual mix of archival footage and talking heads—Malcolm Gladwell is the film’s unofficial conscience—and what undermines the film is how it stubbornly refuses to take a side.

Are autonomous cars good for us, or will they lead to disaster? Like Who Killed the Electric Car? and its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, Autonomy avoids answers entirely, and instead prefers to unfold like an introductory course. Education is the primary goal, which can be worthwhile for something that’s actually on the frontier of automation and artificial intelligence, except this particular technology has been a known quantity for years. Anyone with a subscription to WIRED is aware of where self-driving cars are going, literally and figuratively, so the only illuminating moments are when these designers and entrepreneurs acknowledge that, yes, programming a self-driving car will require a set of ethics. But instead of diving into issues like how these cars should behave when lives are in danger, the default goal is only to get us thinking, “Gee, that’s interesting.” If the future is already here, then we are beyond this film’s modest goals. —Alan Zilberman

Saturday, June 22, 6 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

We Believe in Dinosaurs

Directed by Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross

USA

We Believe in Dinosaurs invites its audience to think about big ideas, which is the best thing that can be said about any film. The 2019 documentary follows the creation of and protests against Ark Encounter, a “full-size” recreation of Noah’s Ark and a platform for creationism in Kentucky. In doing so, it ruminates on science, religion, the separation of church and state, the plight of small towns, and belief itself. Despite pulling on all these threads, Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross’ film never threatens to unravel.

Footage of creationist leaders teaching children to question science—“Were you there?” is their response when confronted with fossil records that suggest the Earth has been around longer than 6,000 years—will shock and horrify, but it’s hard to imagine We Believe in Dinosaurs changing many minds. In fact, when protestors and pro-creationism counter-protestors clash in the third act, we’re left with an overwhelming sense that these groups will never be able to communicate in any real way. One protestor’s sign puts it best: “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” Honestly, that could apply to a lot of things we’re protesting these days. The validity of women’s rights, racial justice, and the impending climate crisis should all be self-evident, but here we are. This big-thinking doc will leave audiences pondering what it means to believe in the truth in 2019. —Will Warren

Saturday, June 22, 11:45 a.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Sunday, June 23, 12:45 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Chez Jolie Coiffure

Directed by Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam

Belgium

Sabine plays a crucial role for African immigrants in Brussels. She shares news about changes in the community and helps clients connect with each other in a welcoming space. But Sabine isn’t an elected official, she’s the manager of a hair salon in a busy shopping arcade. For her second feature-length documentary, Cameroonian director Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam (The Two Faces of a Bamiléké Woman) has found an everyday subject whose hard work and colorful fashion sense make her a vivid symbol of the immigrant experience. 

Once Sabine invites the director into her shop, the drama unfolds, as if the salon is a makeshift theater-in-the-round. The camera doesn’t merely look inside the cramped commercial space. Picture windows that surround the salon reflect the city life around it, including fights between rival shops and white tourists looking inside like they’re at the zoo. Sabine chats as she works, patiently braiding each hair strand as she remembers her harrowing escape from Africa, travelling on foot and desperate to reach Europe. Chez Jolie Coiffure is an anxious study of success, as police raids and the threat of deportation hang over the shop and its regulars. —Pat Padua

Friday, June 21, 6:15 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Saturday, June 22, 7:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

Border South

Directed by Raúl O. Paz Pastrana

Mexico, USA

When right wing politicians use the word “migrants,” they attempt to conjure up images of criminals, gang members, and caravans from Central America infiltrating the United States.

In Border South, Director Raúl O. Paz Pastrana slays those false images by poignantly humanizing the migrant journey through the story of Gustavo Alberto López Quiroz, a charismatic 31-year-old with a playful sense of humor. Quiroz leaves his hometown of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, in search of work. While attempting to get to the Nicaragua-Mexico border, Mexican police shoot Quiroz, an incident that wins him sympathy and media attention in Mexico and briefly gives him hope for a better life. The other half of the film’s storyline is devoted to Jason De León, a U.S.-based anthropologist who finds and tracks the remains of migrants who often don’t survive the 2,000-plus mile trail. (De León is also a producer of the film.)

Pastrana’s method gives viewers an intimate understanding of the risks involved in the extremely treacherous journey without resorting to scenes of violence. We feel Quiroz’s joy and pain, sometimes within the same scene, in the face Americans don’t see in fear-mongering political ads. —Kelyn Soong

Thursday, June 20, 9 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

Mike Wallace Is Here

Directed by Avi Belkin

USA

Modern history is littered with examples of authoritarian rulers attacking the press. The current occupant of the White House has referred to journalists as “the enemy of the people” and calls critical coverage of him “fake news.” 

For more than a half century, Mike Wallace, a pioneer in investigative TV journalism, attempted to hold those in power accountable with his confrontational and occasionally controversial interviews. Avi Belkin’s sobering documentary Mike Wallace Is Here paints a compelling and complex, but sometimes scattered, portrait of the man who, driven by his insecurities and heartache, devoted his life to this work.

Using only archival footage, Belkin spotlights how Wallace, who died at 93 in 2012, lived a life of contradictions. He was a pitchman and game show host turned hard-hitting journalist. He enjoyed asking tough questions but bristled at being asked them. He inspired generations of journalists with his work on Night Beat and 60 Minutes, but also influenced acerbic TV talking heads. (The film opens with disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly telling Wallace he was the “driving force” behind his career.)

The latter point is Belkin’s wake up call. With so many unchecked voices in the wider media landscape, the truth can be drowned out. For the sake of American democracy, that can’t happen. —Kelyn Soong

Sunday, June 23, 12:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Midnight Family

Directed by Luke Lorentzen

Mexico, USA

If you think health care is a problem in this country, take a look at Mexico City, where only 45 government-run ambulances are available for a population of nine million. Private ambulance companies pick up the slack—or try to, against obstacles like patients without insurance or police who insist on making the injured wait for a state-run emergency vehicle that will never show up. 

Director Luke Lorentzen, whose first feature, New York Cuts, explored big city barber shops, follows the Ochoa family as they try to make a living by responding to accident sites in the dead of night. With the rush of nighttime traffic and dashboard cameras that capture the Ochoas rushing to beat rivals and police to their targets, Midnight Family is a real-life thriller and a dangerous reality show in which dad lets his school-aged son ride along in the back of the ambulance without a seatbelt. While each of the Ochoas’ trips are urgent, whether chasing after car crashes or scenes of domestic violence, the most intense drama is in the lives of the Ochoas themselves: the weary father who may work himself into a heart attack, and the devoted son who calls up his girlfriend to recap a hard night’s work. —Pat Padua

Saturday, June 22, 9:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 23, 1:30 p.m, AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

Law and Order

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

USA

Fifty years later, Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary Law and Order is as relevant as ever. In an era when almost every police interaction is captured on camera—via someone’s cell phone or a legally mandated body-worn camera—it’s eye-opening to see how little has changed.

The year is 1968, and Wiseman has embedded himself with the Kansas City Police Department. His cinéma vérité approach to Law and Order is nothing short of harrowing, as police officers’ sometimes brutal interactions with people they arrest include instances of blatant racism and excessive force. There’s no question that much of what Wiseman captured would spark outrage and internal investigations today, but what makes Law and Order so prescient is how everyone in the film, police officers and citizens alike, remain unfazed by the presence of Wiseman’s camera. The result is raw, unfiltered American ugliness.

Wiseman’s film remains one of the most matter-of-fact depictions of institutional racism and brutality in American policing. Activists and residents are still accusing police departments of some of the behaviors captured on film in Law and Order. —Matt Cohen

Thursday, June 20, 9 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins

Directed by Janice Engel

USA

The late Texas-based political columnist Molly Ivins correctly predicted that the Republican Party would follow the sharp right turn of ultra-conservative Texas legislators and that the consequences of such a move would prove disastrous for the nation. She’s not around to comment on her prediction, and her barbed witticisms about our current national nightmare are certainly missed. What would Molly say about Donald Trump? How would she assess the work of Beto O’Rourke or Ted Cruz or John Cornyn?

Director and producer Janice Engel pokes at these questions in the documentary Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, but the film as a whole functions more as a biography. It hits all the appropriate notes—her privileged upbringing and complicated relationship with her father, her early jobs at the Minneapolis Tribune, Texas Observer, and New York Times, her rise to national renown, and her late-in-life fight for sobriety. It includes comments from all the appropriate figures—her siblings, her collaborators and colleagues, Rachel Maddow—and the result is, unfortunately, kind of boring. Ivins was known for her sense of humor; the film contains no laughs. Although its subject was a shrewd prognosticator, Raise Hell runs a half step behind. —Caroline Jones

Arleigh & Roberta Burke Theater.Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m., Navy Memorial

Slay the Dragon

Directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

USA

Anyone with even a tiny iota of rage from the American elections of the past 10 years should make it a priority to watch Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s Slay the Dragon. It’s a thorough and eye-opening look into the egregious gerrymandering that took place across the country to ensure that the Republican party would remain dominant for at least a solid decade.

Goodman and Durrance begin their film in Flint, Michigan, with an explanation of how the Flint water crisis began long before the city’s water source was switched over to the Flint River: It started in 2010, when the GOP victory in Michigan, during a census year, opened the door for the party to redraw the state’s voting districts. Then the same thing happened in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and elsewhere across the country. Goodman and Durrance get into the nitty gritty of gerrymandering—how Republican strategists carefully analyzed census data to redraw state voting districts so that the GOP would hold power, without it seeming like the result of obvious gerrymandering (spoiler: It looked like obvious gerrymandering).

It’s not all political gloom and doom—the film is framed through the rise of the grassroots campaign Voters Not Politicians, which successfully passed a ballot initiative to ban partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. If anything, this film should be a lesson that the will of the people will eventually prevail, even if all seems lost. —Matt Cohen 

Saturday, June 22, 6:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 23, 3:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem

Directed by Yu Gu

USA

Everyone knows the NFL is pure evil. Its leaders cover up research on concussions, ignore domestic violence perpetrated by players, and offer athletes non-guaranteed contracts, cutting them loose after horrific, life-altering injuries. It should come as no surprise to learn that the few women in their ranks are treated shabbily, as well.

Still, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem, which examines the labor struggle between the NFL and team cheerleaders, succeeds by focusing on the human element. Yu Gu’s documentary primarily follows lawsuits filed by two ex-cheerleaders: Lacy, a “Raiderette,” and Maria, one of the “Buffalo Jills,” who, for decades, were asked to represent the NFL while the league claimed innocence on their horrific pay. The Raiderettes, we learn, don’t get paid until the end of the season, and their hourly rate works out to less than minimum wage. The Buffalo Jills work for free.

It would have been easy for the film’s criticism of the NFL to take over, but that would have let it win again. Gu keeps her lens trained on the film’s women, who suffer the slings and arrows of league officials, the public, and even some of their fellow cheerleaders as they mount an effort to protect their own rights. It’s an inspiring tale that will make you want to keep the TV tuned elsewhere on Sundays, if you hadn’t figured that out already. —Noah Gittell

Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Friday, June 21, 9:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.