Critics and other film overlords like to stuff documentaries into categories: You have your issue docs, exposing humanitarian efforts to cope with an atrocity; there’s the poetic portrait of an odd character; and then everyone’s favorite, the True Crime doc. The easy way to program a good documentary festival is to focus on a single issue—Politics! Environmentalism! Atrocities of war! It’s hard to program a great documentary festival. 

Year after year, AFI DOCS proves that it’s a top-tier festival with a mix of the serious and the light-hearted, the important and the elegant, the outrageous and the atrocious. 2018 is no different. Of the 15 films in this year’s festival City Paper staff and contributors reviewed, we laughed (United We Fan and Love, Gilda), we cried (Minding the Gap, Tre Maison Dasan), we were outraged (Over the Limit, The Providers), and we were inspired (Yours In Sisterhood, Personal Statement, The Liberation). That range of emotions is always the goal, but tough to pull off in programming a film festival. AFI DOCS, now in its 15th year, seems to achieve it effortlessly. —Matt Cohen

Yours In Sisterhood

Directed by Irene Lusztig

USA

In snail mail days, Ms. magazine’s Letters to the Editor were as popular with readers as its groundbreaking articles. Gloria Steinem co-founded the brazen, unapologetically feminist publication in 1972. Irene Lusztig’s Yours In Sisterhood puts its own stamp on the magazine. Apparently Ms. didn’t toss a single letter into the round file. They’re part of the collection in the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies’ Schlesinger Library. Twenty six (mostly unpublished) letters made the final cut for this documentary and are read directly to the camera by women and girls close to the original writers’ age, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, and geographical location. 

Letter reading on the stage can be a unique story-telling device, but in this film the approach comes off as nothing special—at first. By the third or fourth letter you realize Yours In Sisterhood is not the story of Ms. or American feminism; the letters reveal Ms.’ extensive reach beyond East- and West-coast urbanites, college co-eds, and affluent consciousness-raised white suburbanites. 

Ms. readers and letter writers were factory workers, police women, mechanics, artists, sisters, daughters, mothers, lovers, prisoners, and prostitutes—fighting for financial independence, acceptance, respect, and social mobility free from sexual harassment and other acts of repression. They voiced frustrations with the movement and the magazine itself for the lack of gay consciousness, anti-abortion feminism, and urgency around issues affecting women of color at a NOW (National Organization for Women) convention. Yes, sometimes the sisterhood breaks down; we know that from the 2016 presidential election.

Yours In Sisterhood wants to echo the conversations from the 2017 Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, and is timely for the upcoming elections as more women candidates are appearing on the ballots. If you’re still asking “What do women want?” this film makes the answer obvious: to be heard. —Michon Boston

Thursday, June 14, 6:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Friday, June 15, 1 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Directed by RaMell Ross

USA

Most documentaries have a story. These narratives are meant to provide context and provoke an emotional response. But there are blind spots to nonfiction narratives. We learn only what the filmmaker and key players want us to know, without getting a broader idea of who these people are or how they live. Hale County This Morning, This Evening studiously avoids narrative and easy storytelling choices. This is an observant film, one that has more to say about its subject than a more straightforward effort.

Hale County is in southwestern Alabama, with a predominantly black population, and director RaMell Ross follows a small cohort of locals over the course of several years. He focuses on athletes and their families, most of whom seemingly pay no mind that a camera watches them. We follow their routines, their intimate moments, their triumphs, and their heartbreaks. Ross, who got his BA from Georgetown University and his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, never frames a shot in a conventional way. This gives the viewer freedom to follow what arouses in each curious scene, such as a remarkable sequence where the Selma University Men’s Basketball team goofs off before a game, and several dramas unfold in a confined space.

An essential part of documentary filmmaking is to show people on our country’s socioeconomic fringes. Hale County accomplishes that through unconventional means and deep empathy for its subject. If most documentaries are like sharply written magazine articles, then this one is like a poem that lingers in your mind. —Alan Zilberman

Saturday, June 16, 1 p.m. AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Sunday, June 17, 2:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema

United We Fan

Directed by Michael Sparaga

Canada

Everyone has a beloved TV show that ended too abruptly. Unlike a film or a book, TV production is an ongoing process, and sometimes TV fans are successful in resurrecting a show from cancellation purgatory. United We Fan is a documentary about that phenomenon, dating back to the original Star Trek. This film is easygoing and light, at least compared to most fare at AFI Docs, and its inoffensiveness is also its undoing.

Director Michael Sparaga follows a few ordinary folks who mounted campaigns to keep their favorite shows on the air. There is the couple who convinced a network executive to keep Star Trek, plus someone who loves Person of Interest. But Dorothy Swanson, a schoolteacher living in Fairfax, gets the lion’s share of attention. She campaigned for several shows, including Cagney and Lacey and Designing Women, and she eventually founded the nonprofit Viewers for Quality Television.

Sparaga provides a history and census of this pop culture phenomenon. He contrasts campaigns before and after the internet, noting the power of Kickstarter. In a surprising turn, he details the falling out between Swanson and a TV executive after he makes a show she could not support. This is all filmed in a conventional way, with bouncy music smoothing over clumsy transition and amateurish graphics.

United We Fan is meant to celebrate fandom, fan communities, and their collaborations with TV showrunners. The trouble is that fandom is not always this nice. Fans can be downright toxic, even hostile, like when actors get harassed over the characters they play. More importantly, TV fans can be unreasonable, both in terms of their expectations and demands. Any serious TV watcher knows this dark underbelly, so by keeping things cuddly, United We Fan is like propaganda for communities that often deserve a bit more skepticism. —Alan Zilberman

Thursday, June 14, 3:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Gurrumul

Directed by Paul Damien Williams

Australia

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu—or simply Gurrumul—was a blind aboriginal musician from Australia. His voice was arresting, the kind that disarmed mainstream audiences, and for a while he seemed poised to receive international acclaim. The documentary Gurrumul is a biographical documentary, focusing primarily on his roots and flirtation with stardom. Like Searching for Sugar Man, it has the potential to create legions of new fans.

Blind since birth, Gurrumul is shy and unimpressed with fame. He eventually gets the attention of Michael Hohnen, a white man, who would serve as his manager, collaborator, and translator. There is a worry Hohnen might exploit Gurrumul, but director Paul Damien Williams suggestions their friendship and professional life were based in mutual respect. Eventually they embark on a European tour, culminating in a duet with Sting on French television. Hohnen then plans an American tour, except Gurrumul never shows at the airport.

The central tension of Gurrumul is how to serve as an ambassador for one’s community, while also staying a part of it. There are no easy answers—to his credit, Hohnen does not seem angry about the failed tour—and the film resolves the question in an elegant way. The best scenes involve Gurrumul in the studio, working on an album that blends classical traditions with aboriginal ones. The music has an agreeable thrum, creating atmospheric tones that balance the heartbreak in his voice.

So much successful world music has an exploitive edge to it, as if the acts are paraded around the United States and Europe like a sideshow. Gurrumul sidesteps that trap, instead serving as an entry point into a community that is on the verge of extinction. On top of being an engaging film, it is an important anthropological document. —Alan Zilberman

Thursday, June 14, 8:30 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Friday, June 15, 8:15 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

Witkin & Witkin

Directed by Trisha Ziff 

Mexico

Brooklyn-born identical twins, the Witkin brothers have each forged a distinct artistic path. Joel-Peter is a photographer with an eye for the dramatic and disfigured. Jerome is a figurative painter with a political and social conscience inspired by German Expressionists such as Otto Dix. But despite being inseparable as children, the brothers, now in their late 70s, went their separate ways as adults and barely interacted with each other—until a joint gallery exhibit hung their work side by side. 

Director Trisha Ziff’s portrait is more vivid in the brothers’ formative years, capturing a slice of old Brooklyn neighborhoods, and trains a curious eye on the sibling’s unusual dynamic; despite a decades-long estrangement, their work resonates with each other in surprising ways. But about that work … one of Joel-Peter’s subjects tries to defend the artist’s penchant for disfigured bodies, but when you see the spread-eagled result (in the context of an anti-Nazi piece, yet), it’s hard not to agree with critics who find he exploits rather than celebrates such differences. As a study in personalities, Witkin & Witkin is fascinating, but at least one of its subjects could bear more scrutiny. —Pat Padua

Saturday, June 16,  4 p.m., National Gallery of Art-East Building Auditorium.

The Providers

Directed by Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green

USA

Your community needs you. If that goes for Washington, D.C., it goes even more for rural towns in northern New Mexico—like Las Vegas, population 13,285. Devastated by the opioid epidemic and a dire shortage of healthcare workers, such places might seem like the last priority in a prosperous land. But directors Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green find resilience amid hardship as they follow Matt, Leslie, and Chris: three “country doctors” who serve the beleaguered region and save lives despite long odds and minimal resources. 

The Providers establishes a vivid sense of space, its small towns nestled in Southwestern landscapes under endless skies that seem to dwarf the caregivers struggling to make a difference. But what makes this land so rich is the people who care for it and its less fortunate souls. As Chris, who overcame his own teenage addictions to become a health care provider, notes, his town exports its number one resource: smart young people all too ready to leave home for a better place. This inspiring movie finds that, for some young professionals, vocations start where they are most needed—at home. —Pat Padua

Friday, June 15, 2 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Over the Limit

Directed by Marta Prus

Poland, Germany, Finland

If the secret to coaching champions in America is all about building them up, in Russia it’s about tearing them down. At least that’s how it appears in Marta Prus’ Over the Limit, a glimpse into the life of rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun. “You’re stupid … Can you at least do one thing well?” asks Amina, Rita’s coach. To Irina, also an apparent coach though her role isn’t made clear in the film, she’s a “bitch” and a “stupid cow.” The berating is constant as Rita executes performances that, to an outsider, look flawless. She confesses to teammate Yana Kudryavtseva: “My body is exhausted. My legs are tired.” Yet the 2016 Olympics are coming up, and if Rita wants to go, she has to put up with her trainers. Over the Limit is at times tough to watch; you wish the 20-year-old star would speak up more often and more angrily than she does. You get the feeling that the presence of the camera may have made the coaches bark a little louder. But even if they’re normally on slightly better behavior, they’d still be pretty horrific. You’ll be relieved when Rita does well enough to earn their praise, and she’s always lovely to watch. Prus’ choice to end the doc abruptly after a pivotal event is questionable, however, with an implication that the end justifies the means. It reinforces the sentiment that Amina tells Rita: “You’re not a human being but an athlete.” —Tricia Olszewski 

Saturday, June 16, 5:45 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Sunday, June 17, 7:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

For the Birds

Directed by Richard Miron

USA

Kathy Murphy, the central figure in Richard Miron’s captivating For the Birds, is the kind of person who you instantly regret entering into conversation with. She is antisocial and paranoid, and her hygiene falls well outside of social norms. She spends most of her day caring for the dozens of geese, chickens, and turkeys that have taken over the home she and her husband share in upstate New York. After a neighbor reports the unsanitary conditions, Murphy engages in a pitched battle with sanctuary workers and, eventually, local authorities to keep her beloved flock. As she refuses to give in to the authorities, she puts her marriage and even her freedom at risk.

It’s a gripping tale, and the film’s greatest achievement may be how it methodically changes our perception of its protagonist. It would have been easy to mock or judge Murphy—despite her affection for the birds, they are clearly better off at a well-run sanctuary—but Miron’s steady and sympathetic eye persistently searches for her humanity.

As tensions escalate and Murphy begins to unravel from the strain of the fight, For the Birds unveils a deeply humanistic bent (it’s executive produced by S-Town’s Brian Reed and shares the podcast’s gentle empathy). What emerges is a satisfying, even thrilling inquiry into mental illness, animal welfare, and the thin line between altruism and self-interest. It’s a film not to be missed. —Noah Gittell

Friday, June 15, 6 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Saturday, June 16, 2 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

A Murder in Mansfield

Directed by Barbara Kopple

USA

Collier Landry was 11 years old when his father killed his mother and buried her in their basement—all while Landry was lying terrified in his bed upstairs. It’s a story so horrifying we don’t even want to imagine it, but Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield manages to find grace and heroism amid its tragedy. The film opens on Landry as a boy testifying against his father at his murder trial. We are stunned by his poise and clarity, and when we meet up with him some 25 years later, he hasn’t changed a bit.

As a grown man, he travels back to his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, for the ostensible purpose of documenting the effect his father’s crime had on his community. He visits his old house and catches up with his mother’s friends. Eventually, a deeper motivation emerges. Landry still has questions he needs his father to answer, and in the film’s final act, he visits him in prison for a painfully honest conversation.

The content is riveting, but the form may test your patience. A Murder in Mansfield is a very basic work. Nearly every scene is just a filmed conversation, and while it worked for My Dinner with Andre, there are times when the story feels thin, like we’re just killing time until we get to its gripping conclusion. First, Landry converses with his therapist, then his relatives, his neighbors, his former high school principal, some students, and the police officers who worked the case. It’s a good thing that Landry remains such a compelling protagonist, displaying an unwavering sense of purpose and calm as he wades into a past more dangerous than most of us have ever known. He’s a hero in his own life and a powerful example to others struggling with confronting their past traumas. He and the film are worth watching. —Noah Gittell

Saturday, June 16, 6:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

Tre Maison Dasan

Directed by Denali Tiller

USA

One in 14 children in the United States have a parent who was formerly or is currently incarcerated. Although certain pieces of pop culture have, in recent years, given those on the outside an idea of what life is like for inmates, less attention is given to what impact a parent’s incarceration has on their young children. Denali Tiller’s debut documentary looks at three boys in Rhode Island, each of whom has a parent in a state correctional facility when we meet them.

But despite having this one thing in common, the boys’ lives follow very different paths. Dasan, just 6 years old at the beginning of the film, reunites with his mother, Stephanie, relatively quickly. Upon her release, her greatest challenge is working with her social worker to explain to Dasan where she’s been while keeping up with the needs of her growing son. For the audience, that means cringe-inducing footage of scooter crashes and Cub Scout camping trips.

Maison, who lives with his grandmother while his father is incarcerated and his mother looks for work in California, struggles with their absence and to relate to his peers. You can see the wrenching sadness on his face when he realizes that the father he loves has done something truly terrible. Tre, on the other hand, has taken his abandonment issues to the other extreme: At age 12, he’s already on probation and wearing an ankle monitor.

The film’s most sobering moments come when the children and their parents discuss how they got to this point. Before reaching high school, these boys understand that their parents are fallible. Seeing them come to terms with their actions and their complicated futures is heartbreaking. —Caroline Jones

June 14, 6 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; June 17, 4:45 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema.

Hesburgh

Directed by Patrick Creadon 

USA

Hesburgh will likely be of interest only to viewers already familiar with the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. Others will find its portrayal of the priest lacking, an ironically lifeless treatment of an allegedly larger-than-life man. “He was a mythic figure,” Ted Koppel says at the beginning of Patrick Creadon’s documentary, and then the director starts to build the case. A narrator, as Hesburgh, talks about his childhood, including his desire since age 6 to become a priest. (And then another narrator, confusingly also as Hesburgh, continues the story. It’s not the last swap.)* From there his story proceeds linearly, through his ordination, education, and appointment as the president of the University of Notre Dame, one that Hesburgh would hold for a record 35 years. It’s during this run that he became a rock star, advising presidents as well as the Vatican and influencing the civil rights movement. The more the talking heads talk and check off his achievements, however, the less compelling it all is, especially when Creadon allows historical tangents to interrupt the story of his subject. A friend to Ann Landers, Hesburgh is lauded here by her daughter, who claims something the film can’t quite convince you of: “He was one of the special ones.” —Tricia Olszewski 

*Editor’s note: Our reviewer watched an unfinished cut of this film that included unfinished narration. The final cut includes only a single narrator.

Sunday, June 17, 5:15 p.m. Landmark E Street Cinema. 

The Liberation

Directed by Christoph Green and Brendan Canty

USA

The best feel good stories star imperfect characters that you don’t think you could ever cheer for, let alone love. In The Liberation, Christoph Green and Brendan Canty follow a class largely made up of returning citizens or substance abusers through a 14-week culinary training program at the District’s own DC Central Kitchen. The number one reason 73 percent of returning citizens in the District will reoffend and land back in jail within three years is because they can’t find a job. The teachers leading students toward hope and gainful employment in the culinary field faced some of the same struggles, creating the trust and empathy among their charges that are ultimately responsible for the program’s success. Watch as the instructors mold a man named Michael, who is surly and openly homophobic, into an employee any restaurant would be lucky to employ. Is The Liberation going to win cinematography awards? No. The setting bops from gripping therapy sessions in classrooms to chopping chicken in kitchens to teary-eyed interviews in offices with the occasional shot of D.C. streets. But you’re here for the characters. Who lands a job at Old Ebbitt Grill? Whose dream is thwarted by their criminal record? Who gets to say, “I’m a felon—I’m a two-time felon and I’m employed.” —Laura Hayes

Friday, June 15, 1 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Friday, June 15, 8:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. 

Personal Statement

Directed by Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez

USA

Movies about high school students who have to overcome odds to win something—a sports championship, admission to college, a pathway out of their terrible families or poverty—come with a story arc. Personal Statement, directed by Juliane Dressner, is no different. The film follows three New York City high school seniors as they try to get into college.

Enoch, Christine, and Karoline go to different public schools but share a common goal of wanting to get somewhere in life; and a common attitude of taking responsibility for their lives. Enoch lives with his sister because his mom is in a homeless shelter, and he wants to go to college so that he can stop being a burden on his older sister. Christine lives with her Spanish-speaking mom, who is skeptical of college, especially for girls. Karoline’s family is the only one we don’t see, but she says her dad is an alcoholic. At school she’s got a guidance counselor who loves her as much as a mom would, and she’s strong enough to “dress like a boy” and teach her fellow Latinx classmates about accepting gay peers. 

What sets Personal Statement apart is that it’s useful: All kids applying to college can learn something from these three students. Some of their setbacks turn out to be wins, and vice-versa. And even the most dysfunctional of their parents have some good advice. The film catches up with them once they’re on campus, showing the financial and social implications for their decisions, and confirming that they’re all winners. —Alexa Mills

Wednesday, June 13, 7 p.m., Newseum. 

Love, Gilda

Directed by Lisa D’Apolito

USA

Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda presents Gilda Radner in her own words. Audiotapes and journal entries, some read by comedians such as as Amy Poehler and Bill Hader, are the meat of this doc, remarkable for their comprehensiveness and confessional nature. 

Like most biopics, Love, Gilda starts with Radner’s childhood (diet pills at 10, her father’s death at 14), progresses to her career ascension (she was the first person to be hired for Saturday Night Live), and culminates in the tragic (her death from ovarian cancer). Yet because we’re privy to some of her deepest thoughts, the film never feels paint-by-numbers. 

The audio flows so smoothly in between interview clips and commentary from friends and colleagues that it seems as if the narration was planned; a quibble about the source material is that D’Apolito often doesn’t keep Radner’s journal entries on screen quite long enough for you to decipher the comedian’s handwriting. Regardless, the truth comes through: Radner was very gifted but also very unhappy for much of her life, though from an early age, comedy was her refuge. As Paul Shaffer notes here, “To laugh is the ultimate panacea.” —Tricia Olszewski 

Thursday, June 14, 4:10 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Sunday, June 17, 12:15 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema. 

Minding The Gap

Directed by Bing Liu

USA

Those of us who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s are varying degrees of familiar with the American skate rat. But for so many wayward youth, skateboarding was beyond a trend—it was a way to escape the trauma and ugliness of their everyday lives. Director Bing Liu’s gorgeous and deeply empathetic film Minding The Gap explores just that. 

The young filmmaker culls together more than a decade of footage he’s shot of himself and his skateboarding friends growing up, editing together a portrayal of the hardships they’ve dealt with over the years. At the center of Liu’s film is the story of his friends Zack and Keire. Growing up in the Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois, both Zack and Keire have tumultuous, violent relationships with their fathers, which shape the ways their lives unfold. As Zack becomes a new father at the age of 23, Liu uses the moment as a catalyst to explore how both he and Keire struggle to balance the responsibilities of adulthood with their rebellious skateboarding natures. 

But the most poignant story at the center of Liu’s film is his own: Liu grew up at the hands of an abusive stepfather. It’s a trauma that has defined and scarred him for his entire life and he uses the film to interrogate that trauma, interviewing his mother about why she stayed with a man who physically abused her and her sons for so long. Liu doesn’t reach any huge revelations, but he doesn’t need to. His careful and, at times, heartbreaking portrayal of himself and his tight-knit friends is a quiet revelation in and of itself. —Matt Cohen

Saturday, June 16, 4 p.m., Landmark E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.