We owe a big thanks to AFI DOCS this year. In a year marred by great political strife, it would be easy for AFI DOCS to reposition itself as a film festival of stories documenting The Resistance. But the AFI DOCS’ programming staff and screening committee volunteers—led by festival director Michael Lumpkin—know better. They know that’s not what attendees of the annual documentary festival, now in its 14th year, have come to expect from it. Documentaries about current political strife—in the U.S. and around the world—are certainly part of festival, but it’s only a small part of it. What people have come to expect from D.C.’s best film festival is documentaries from around the world that tell stories. Funny stories. Sad stories. Serious stories. Heartwarming stories. Heartbreaking stories. Stories about issues big and small. Stories from the past. Stories from the present. And even stories about the future (don’t worry space nerds, AFI DOCS has you covered). It’s in that spirit that AFI DOCS, once again, shines. —Matt Cohen
Directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest
With its immersive cinéma vérité style, the documentary For Akheem is an affecting portrait of a typical teenage girl from a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood. Directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest follow Daje, a smart, albeit lazy student who faces academic discipline after a fight. A judge rules she must attend an alternative high school during her senior year, and For Akheem is an account of the steps and setbacks along her way. The school seems good for Daje, and she meets Antonio, a neighborhood kid who genuinely cares for her. But Antonio gets Daje pregnant—the film is named after their son—and Antonio has his own share of legal problems. Levine and Soest decline to comment on Daje’s year, so For Akheem feels like a fictional slice-of-life drama. There is no attempt to sensationalize Daje, only to depict her life with clarity, and yet the film leaves many more questions than answers. Still, this is an important, remarkable film that highlights a segment of our country that is too often ignored and maligned. —Alan Zilberman
Thursday, June 15, 1:45 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre; Friday, June 16, 9:15 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
Directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
The Work won a documentary prize at SXSW this year, and it has a remarkable premise. Over the course of four days, civilians visit Folsom Prison for a joint therapy session among convicts. McLeary and Aldous turn their attention to about a dozen men, with special focus on three young civilians, as they go through group sessions and more intimate therapy. We see incredible intimacy and emotion: One man breaks down into sobs, while another constricts his body into seething, incomprehensible anger. The men have deep, seemingly insurmountable problems, with varying degrees of desperation and abandonment. McLeary and Aldous gain astonishing access, filming the therapy with a mix of curiosity and encroaching claustrophobia. There has never been a documentary quite like this, both in terms of ambition and psychological power, so just make sure there is time to process your feelings after it’s over. —Alan Zilberman
Thursday, June 15, 2:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Saturday, June 17, 6:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
Muhi: Generally Temporary
Directed by Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman
Muhi, a little boy from Gaza, lives in the Israeli hospital that took him in when he was an infant born with an immune disorder. Muhi had to have all of his limbs amputated, at the elbows and knees, and he requires regular treatment to stay alive. Israel’s humanitarian impulse is strong enough to allow Muhi in to receive the life-saving care that is unavailable in Gaza, but security concerns on both sides of the conflict keep Muhi’s family from freely traveling from Gaza to be with him. The film follows Muhi’s life in the hospital over several years, up to age seven. His maternal grandfather, who lives at the hospital with him, is Muhi’s only companion. With chubby cheeks, a goofy smile, and an inquisitive manner, the film’s namesake brings joy to Muhi. He deftly eats soup with a spoon cradled in his elbow and runs in his new prosthetic legs. His innocence and lovability make it all the more heartbreaking when he bawls over how much he misses his mother. —Zach Rausnitz
Thursday, June 15, 4:15 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre; Saturday, June 17, 12 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
The Cage Fighter
Directed by Jeff Unay
As a veteran visual effects artist, Jeff Unay worked on groundbreaking films such as Avatar, King Kong, and Hellboy. For his first directorial effort, he couldn’t have gone in a more different direction. The Cage Fighter is an intimate documentary about Joe Carman, blue-collar husband to an ill wife and father of three beautiful girls who spends every free moment fighting—and risking his family’s happiness—in amateur MMA matches. The principles are remarkably authentic on-camera and Unay captures the slow dissolution of a family unit, as Joe breaks his repeated promises to stop fighting, with remarkable clarity. “You trying to prove something to your dad?” his wife blurts out during one knock-down drag-out fight, one of several lines that elicit a knowing chuckle for their directness. For most of the film, these pleas from his family glance off of Joe like weak body blows, but as Joe begins to struggle with post-concussion syndrome, he begins to put his family back together. The Cage Fighter starts to hit some predictable Hollywood notes—a comparison to The Wrestler is impossible to ignore—but Unay avoids cliche and lets his charismatic subjects write their own story. It’s a knockout. —Noah Gittell
Thursday, June 15, 6:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Friday, June 16, 4:15 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
Directed by Lucija Stojevic
The art of flamenco dancing has, in recent years, been distilled into a single emoji of the woman in the red dress. But the traditional percussive dance from northern Spain gets explained in director Lucija Stojevic’s profile of Antonia Santiago Amador, the acclaimed performer known as “La Chana.” Stojevic follows La Chana as she prepares for one final performance after decades away. Along the way, she recounts stories from her tours around the globe, the abusive marriage that almost ruined her career, and her subsequent return to the stage. Years of aggressive dancing have worn on her body, forcing her to perform sitting down, but her sense of rhythm and her memory remain unimpeachable. Stojevic’s intimate bond with her subject results in a film that teaches audiences about an art form they might not know about while also fully rendering a portrait of one of flamenco’s most gifted practitioners. —Caroline Jones
Thursday, June 15, 8:45 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre; Saturday, June 17, 3:30 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
What Lies Upstream
Directed by Cullen Hoback
Cullen Hoback’s What Lies Upstream might be the scariest film playing at this year’s AFI DOCS. It’s what can only be described as an environmental horror film, in that what Hoback uncovers will leave viewers horrified. Years before its water crisis made the town of Flint, Michigan become a household name, Charleston, West Virginia, went through its own similar crisis. What starts as a simple inquiry into why the drinking water in Charleston smells funny, turns into a years-long investigation, wherein Hoback uncovers lies and corruption in the CDC, EPA, and other government agencies about the true nature of the town’s drinking water. Putting himself front and center of his own doc kind of makes Hoback come off as a bit of a crazy conspiracy theorists, and WhatLies Upstream, stylistically, doesn’t feel that far off from a lot of crazy 9/11 truther docs. But Hoback’s a thorough researcher, and there’s no denying that the questions raised in his doc—and the lack of concrete answers from public officials—should be of grave concern. —Matt Cohen
Thursday, June 15, 8:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Jennifer Brea
Director Jennifer Brea accomplished a lot just by making Unrest. Brea has myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME, commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s often severe enough to confine her to a bed, where Brea documents her struggles to speak or move whenever her symptoms spike. Brea lays bare the emotional effects too: She’s dependent on her husband, who says his love for her is worth the burden, though she finds this hard to fully believe. Brea uses video chats to explore the lives of fellow ME sufferers, across the country and overseas. Compounding their pain is skepticism about whether their disease has a physical basis. In a case in Denmark, the state removes a young woman from her parents’ home and institutionalizes her under the premise that her parents were indulging her by taking her symptoms seriously. Meanwhile, a renowned Stanford professor—whose bedbound adult son spends his days in a dark room due to ME symptoms—feels the futility of seeking more than a sliver of federal medical-research funding. It’s hard to watch these families’ despair. —Zach Rausnitz
Friday, June 16, 3:45 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
Gentlemen of Vision
Directed by Jim Kirchherr and Frank Popper
If you’re a sucker for a winner, don’t miss Gentlemen of Vision. The film chronicles a reigning high school step team as its members work toward an annual national competition. It’s the documentary version of a classic American genre: the teen dance movie. Only these teens have more exigent life circumstances than what you’ll see in the Hollywood takes, and make less drama of their realities. They’re the African American men and youth of St. Louis you’re not seeing in mainstream news. Among the 30-odd boys on the team, one collapses after each performance due to sickle cell anemia (and also, his single mom is a crack addict), one is arrested for theft (lucky for him, the arresting officer happens to be a volunteer coach for the team), one witnessed his father tie his mother to a chair and hold a knife to her neck, and others come to practice hungry or have witnessed murders. For these kids, that first place trophy means less than the act of consistently coming to practice—routine means getting a chance at life. Their head coach, Marlon Wharton, is the kind of man who serves as teacher, life-long mentor, father, and crazy uncle all at once. —Alexa Mills
Friday, June 16, 4 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
New Chefs on the Block
Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas
The twisted truth of restaurant reviews? They bring even greater pressure to achieve. That’s one lesson from Director Dustin Harrison-Atlas’ documentary that deftly pulls back the curtain on two major D.C. restaurant openings—Rose’s Luxury on Barracks Row and Frankly Pizza in Kensington, Md. It follows two eccentric chef/owners, both success stories in their own right, from when their restaurants were holes in the ground, through delays and setbacks, all the way to major milestones, like one-year anniversaries. Rose’s Luxury’s rise from humble neighborhood eatery to line-drawing hospitality giant is particularly noteworthy because chef and owner Aaron Silverman isn’t one to share how the sausage is made (so to speak). Flash appearances by restaurant giants like Danny Meyer and the late Michel Richard lend the film extra helpings of gravitas. If there’s one criticism it’s that there isn’t enough airtime devoted to duds, as 30 percent of new restaurants fail according to the documentary. —Laura Hayes
Friday, June 16, 4 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 18, 4 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide
Directed by Hope Litoff
Suicide, the saying goes, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the act also leaves indelible injury to those who are left behind. 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide is directed by Hope Litoff, a woman whose older sister, Ruth, took her life in 2008. Ruth was a photographer who was popular in school and had many friends, yet mental illness plagued her. “It was such a confusing illness,” Hope says, “because she could be so debilitated and so magnificent.” So years after losing Ruth, her sister decides to take her belongings out of storage and sort through them, hoping to find answers. The film is occasionally shocking (the number of medications Ruth had tried is staggering) and, of course, pervasively heartbreaking. Though Hope interviews others about her sister, the story eventually becomes about her as she struggles to stay sober while trying to piece together both a life and a death. Near the beginning of the film, Hope tells her husband that she was a bad sister. “How were you a bad sister?” he asks. Hope’s response is wrenching: “I didn’t save her.” —Tricia Olszewski
Friday, June 16, 6 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Saturday, June 17, 11:15 a.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
Recruiting for Jihad
Directed by Adel Kahn Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen
Recruiting for Jihad follows Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson for The Prophet’s Ummah, a Salafi-jihadist group. Hussain is of Pakistani descent, born in Norway and all too aware of the social benefits he enjoys in his position. Speaking to a recruit, he intones, “You will never be at home in Norway.” The native Norwegian recruits seem no more “at home” either—they all lament a life of “meaninglessness” before Islam. That is one of the greatest tensions exposed in the film: the way radical groups like Hussain’s manage to bridge the gap from conversion (or reversion, as it is called here) to jihadism. Two of the native Norwegians have never even been to Syria, yet are eager to fight there. Hussain emerges as magnetic and affable, at first—seemingly only interested in offering people a community. Yet, the uneasy way he responds when probed about his support of terrorist acts and ISIS exposes the fissure behind the façade of radicalism. The film is an enthralling look at the maddening disorientation of modern life—a Norwegian longing to be a part of a war in a place in the world he has never been, a Pakistani whose relationship with Islam is molded by an English imam… culture, identity, religion—all terms shown to be hard to unpack in a global world. —Toni Tileva
Friday, June 16, 8:45 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
An Insignificant Man
Directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla
An Insignificant Man is the story of the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, “India’s Bernie Sanders,” and his 2013 campaign for Chief Minister of Delhi. That politics are as dirty in India as much as it is in the West is all too apparent—clientelism, voter bribing, corporate control over government, thugs intimidating voters all abound. The film is a political thriller in every sense of the word—the stakes are high, with goons assassinating one of the candidates from Kejriwal’s populist Aam Aadmi Party. Missing from the narrative, however, is Kejriwal’s involvement with the Anti-Corruption Law and social activist Anna Hazare; the film picks up when he decides to go from lobbying for the law to turning the movement into a political party. An assuming (and often far too serious) figure, Kejriwal is hardly the charismatic leader of lore. But his dogged determination shines through, as does his ability to deliver on campaign promises few believe he can deliver on—cutting the electricity bills in half and providing free water. Far from a wide-eyed tale about the triumph of populist democracy, An Insignificant Man showcases that even in the muck of politics, incremental changes can truly be momentous. —Toni Tileva
Saturday, June 17, 11 a.m., AFI Silver Theatre.
La Libertad de Diablo
Directed by Everardo González
La Libertad de Diablo riffs a little bit on Tempestad, a film that played in last year’s AFI DOCs, in that it captures the banality of violence in Mexico. The narrative technique is trenchant and unsettling. Director Everardo Gonzales interviews victims and perpetrators of violence. They all wear flesh-colored masks, which make them look ghoulish and eerie, effectively blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, illustrating how truly tenuous that distinction is. The masks preserve the anonymity, yet are stretched thinly enough over the faces to show them wracked by emotion and to see the dampness of tears at the eye holes. Some of the killers earn as little as $10 per kill. A mother talks about finding the sneaker of her dead child. All speak of fear and the pervasiveness of violence at all levels, including the police and government. The masks render the speakers skull-like, as though the living are not too far from the dead. —Toni Tileva
Saturday, June 17, 1:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 18, 9 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Renier Holzemer
Many of the fashion world’s major players, from designers like Donatella Versace to consumers like Iris Apfel, possess big personalities that complement their outrageous clothing. Dries Van Noten, the award-winning Belgian designer at the center of this documentary, does not. He dresses in an understated ensemble of striped shirts and navy pants that you’ll likely see on Metro commuters. He avoids haute couture and only makes ready-to-wear pieces. Instead of hobnobbing with celebrities, he dreams of taking a season off to relax in his enormous garden with his partner, Patrick. If you’re looking for catty fashion drama and slick catchphrases, stick to Project Runway, but if you want to learn how Van Noten built a career working outside the fashion-industrial complex, director Reiner Holzemer provides plenty of insight. That being said, the film’s subject still provides humorous turns of phrase. When discussing the difference between a flamboyant and eccentric outfit, Van Noten reminds his staff that “an eccentric lady also has 25 cats and lives in a dark house.” —Caroline Jones
Saturday, June 17, 6 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sunday, June 18 at 11:30 a.m. at the AFI Silver Theatre.
Directed by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen
Every small town has its quirks. That’s just what happens when so few people live in a town—especially one that’s mostly secluded from big cities. Everyone knows each other, and everyone’s in each other’s business. But in Spettacolo, filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s excellent portrait of a small Italian town with a peculiar, decades-long tradition, the goings-on of the townsfolk isn’t just common knowledge, it’s drama—literally. Each summer, the residents of the small Tuscan village of Monticchiello collectively write, produce, and act in an annual play, usually centered around the town’s real-life drama. It’s a decades-old theater practice known as “autodrama,” and the residents of Monticchiello have been doing it ever since World War II, as a way to commemorate a historic moment when the townsfolk stood up to the Nazis. Filming throughout a year of life in Monticchiello, and the town’s annual Teatro Povero production—from conception to execution—Malmberg and Shellen carefully and respectfully capture a pivotal moment wherein the townsfolk grapple with the rapid change and gentrification of their small hillside village. —Matt Cohen
Saturday, June 17, 9:30 p.m., AFI Silver Theatre; Sunday, June 18, 11:15 a.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Directed by Emer Reynolds
In 2012, after over 30 years of traveling through our solar system, one of the Voyager probes finally made its way into interstellar space. This is an extraordinary achievement—the probe might end up being the final proof that humanity ever existed—and the documentary The Farthest is a stirring account of the probe’s design and purpose. Director Emer Reynolds weaves scientific discoveries with the intriguing idea of sending a time capsule toward intelligent life. It is easy to take the planetary discoveries for granted: did you know one of Neptune’s moons has geysers of nitrogen gas? Still, Reynolds devotes a lot of time to the Golden Record, a metal phonograph that contains everything from Chuck Berry to dozens of international greetings. The Voyager scientists are still emotional about the probes, and the crisp special effects help illustrate the challenges of its planet-hopping mission. Ultimately, The Farthest is a traditional documentary, brimming with detail and entertainment, and Reynolds does not even need to include Neil Degrasse Tyson’s shtick. —Alan Zilberman
Sunday, June 18, 12 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Year of the Scab
Directed by John Dorsey
Ask anyone who knows: D.C. is not a labor-friendly town. So it was ingenious to turn back the clock to examine the Washington Pigskins’ unlikely path to Super Bowl victory, during the 1987 NFL Players Association strike, in the first place. But then, director John Dorsey also is able to turn the premise on its head, and over a crisp 79 minutes he follows a cast of blue collar dreamers across the picket line, where they become anti-heroes you can’t help rooting for. Dorsey intertwines the stories of has-beens, never-weres, and a quarterback serving prison time on a drug charge, with commentary from Pigskins greats like Bobby Beathard, Joe Gibbs, and Dexter Manley, to show that working class unity is not the exclusive province of organized labor—not when the union represents millionaire football players being manipulated by mega-millionaire owners, while facing off against a hastily assembled group of replacement players playing for little more than pride. Staying true to the documentary form, Dorsey employs a sense of drama, depth, and pathos to remind us that redemption, and even glory, come with a price, as do moral compromise and management’s inevitable ability to have its way. —Jeffrey Anderson
Sunday, June 18, 7 p.m., Newseum.