Clear your schedules: D.C.’s best film festival has somehow gotten better. For its 13th year, AFI DOCS, which runs June 17-21, is offering a sensational slate of documentaries that touches on subjects so diverse and unusual, you probably don’t know that you don’t know about them.
We’ve reviewed over half of the feature-length offerings, and the bulk of those are winners. Though there is a lighter side to DOCS—Very Semi-Serious is a go; Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is a no—the fest largely hews to weightier matters. The magic of 2015’s curation, however, is that even when a film makes you angry, rarely does this serious fare feel like something you should watch just for your own good.
Equality—or, more often, inequality—is a pervasive subject this year, as it applies to nearly any group you can imagine. Women are regarded in jaw-droppingly caveman terms in films likeIndia’s Daughterand Radical Grace; in the former, a lawyer claims that in Indian culture, there’s no place for women, while in the latter, the Vatican investigates and shames Catholic nuns because of their “feminist spirit.”
Peace Officers, meanwhile, attempts to discuss the epidemic of deaths at the hands of hyper-militarized law enforcement officers without a single African-American voice to comment, criticize, or mourn.
You’ll also have the opportunity to be fascinated by nobodies (In Transit; The Wolfpack) as well as somebodies (What Happened, Miss Simone?; Mavis!), watch a personal story of a married transgender woman (From This Day Forward), and take a closer look at animal rights (Tyke Elephant Outlaw), political fights (Best of Enemies), and the true reason our economy is so screwed up while our intolerance is growing (Requiem for the American Dream).
This year’s Guggenheim Symposium honoree is Stanley Nelson, director of the award-winning The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Riders, and his latest, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which will premiere during the festival.
You need only surf the ‘net to get mad, get sad, get educated, or have a laugh. This week, do those things in a setting that’s not only communal, but first-class. —Tricia Olszewski
For the complete AFI DOCS schedule, go here.
The 1968 presidential conventions hosted the ultimate TV debate showdown: Douche supremes Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, the former guilty of writing Caligula and the latter of a segregation-cheering magazine, faced off. Best of Enemies breezily makes the case that ABC’s Buckley-Vidal tussles created our modern cable news yell-a-thons, but the debates themselves are a real snooze. Watching two East Coast arrivistes talk to each other through their noses makes Bill Press and Tucker Carlson look like “The School of Athens.” Vidal comes off like an entertaining tool, Buckley comes off just as jerky but less amusing (and possibly closeted, at that). They’re both dead now, so Kelsey Grammer and John Lithgow do the voiceovers. Best of Enemies steams competently along toward its obvious climax, when Buckley calls Vidal a queer and threatens to knock his face in. What a guy. —Will Sommer
Wed., June 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newseum and Thurs., June 18 at 1:15 p.m. at AFI Silver
PETA has been heavily promoting this movie, which tells the story of Tyke, a circus elephant with a feisty streak whom police gunned down after she threw a violent tantrum at a Honolulu performance. However, the film is not quite animal rights propaganda. Tyke Elephant Outlaw is a moving documentary that uses the titular elephant’s existence as a microcosm for examining America’s relationship with the circus. Directors Susan Lambert and Stefan Moore conduct fascinating, in-depth interviews with figures in Tyke’s life, including trainers, circus entertainers, and people who were in the Honolulu arena on that fateful day. Though they do tend to favor the opinions of animal rights activists, Lambert and Moore end up carefully critiquing everybody who has a strong opinion on the misunderstood plight of elephants. The more people psychoanalyze Tyke, the more tragic and memorable Tyke Elephant Outlaw becomes. —Dean Essner
Thurs., June 18 at noon at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sat., June 20 at 9:15 p.m. AFI Silver
It’s a dangerous time to be a journalist, but most situations pale in comparison to what Frame By Frame’s four photojournalist subjects faced as they sacrificed their safety to document post-Taliban, post-media blackout Afghanistan. Luckily, the film, directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, doesn’t deify them. The directors instead delve deep into their subjects’ bruised psyches, getting the stories behind certain photos and learning why photographers risk their lives to get the shots. Frame By Frame is at its best when it shows its bold, tireless subjects in action, like during one sequence when photographer Farzana Wahidy attempts, against the wishes of a doctor, to take pictures of self-mutilation victims in a hospital. It’s a moving scene, one that contextualizes both the troubling political climate in Afghanistan and the passionate journalists who want to accurately document it. —Dean Essner
Thurs., June 18 at 1 p.m. at AFI Silver and Fri., June 19 at 6 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center
The fact that a taco stand in a gas station can get as much recognition in today’s food and media culture as a four-star restaurant is, in no small part, thanks to the trail paved by Jonathan Gold. The Los Angeles Times critic has helped democratize the restaurant world by bringing attention to the mom-and-pop Ethiopian or Thai joints in run-down strip malls that have historically been ignored by mainstream food writers. Much of City of Gold follows Gold as he drives his pickup truck through Tehrangeles, Koreatown, and other L.A. neighborhoods. With suspenders pulled over his protruding belly, the formerly anonymous critic points out the best dim sum, the last remaining Chinese-Islamic restaurant, and the pho place with boiled ox penis. Chefs talk about Gold’s ability to unlock some deeper truth about their cooking or how he saved their businesses by shining a light on their small corners of the earth. Ultimately, City of Gold is not just about a “failed” cellist and former music writer with the first Pulitzer Prize ever given to a restaurant critic. It’s not even really about food. It’s about a complicated, sprawling city, which Gold describes as “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” —Jessica Sidman
Thurs., June 18 at 1:30 p.m. at AFI SIlver and Sat., June 20 at 4:14 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
Watching India’s Daughter is a practice in repeatedly clenching and unclenching your fist. It tells the story of Jyoti Singh, who was lured onto a bus in Delhi, then gang-raped and murdered by a group of men. The case shocked India and led to nationwide public demonstrations, but it’s a heart-wrenching, maddening truth that India’s social and legal systems often do not favor the survivor (or victim). First-time director Leslie Udwin does a relentlessly tough and honest job of helping viewers understand why. For a little over an hour, the people involved in Singh’s case tell their stories without revealing the presence of someone behind the camera. The clenched fists come when you hear a defense lawyer for the rapists say, “We have the best culture. In our culture there is no place for a woman.” It’s a cold, matter-of-fact statement—and likely an over-generalization, though the film has been banned in India for allegedly provoking public unrest—but India’s Daughter succeeds by having lawyers, family members, and even the driver of the bus on which Singh was attacked speak for themselves. Sometimes it’s difficult to listen, but Singh’s story needs to be heard. —Jordan-Marie Smith
Thurs., June 18 at 2:30 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
As in the Mexican drug war it covers, there are no heroes in Cartel Land. Fed up with cartel bullying, a doctor and his armed neighbors start vigilante autodefensa teams to protect themselves. You know this won’t end well. As the movement grows, so too does the vigilantes’ taste for their own dirt-road executions. Director Matthew Heineman gets so much access to each side’s shootouts, drug cookouts, and confessions that you wonder why he wastes time with self-proclaimed “border recon” cretins on the other side of the border. But the Arizona segments can be forgiven for the portrayal of autodefensa leader José Manuel Mireles, a lecherous doctor who finds himself allied with the same cocaine cowboys he meant to stop. Mireles is an egomaniacal creep, but at least he’s not leaving severed heads in the plaza. In Cartel Land, that’s about as good as it gets. —Will Sommer
Thurs., June 18 at 3:15 p.m. at AFI Silver and Fri., June 19 at 8:30 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
“A lot of kids with LGBT parents are just as much in the closet,” says Sharon Shattuck, who comes out in From This Day Forward, tracing the effects on her family of her dad’s transition into a woman named Trish. Through interactions, interviews, still photos, and the subjects’ self-recordings, we watch them figure out how much they’re willing to sacrifice for one another. Should Trish wear a dress to Sharon’s wedding? What does Marsha, her mother, owe Trish as a life partner? Some of the most revealing moments happen in what could have been outtakes, like when Shattuck is focusing the camera and bantering with members of her family. In one charming scene, Trish and Marsha go mushrooming. They’ve got their arms around each other and are facing the camera when a fly lands on the lens. Shattuck entreats her parents to blow the fly off, and the ensuing image shows their lowkey affection. Trish is a pleasure to spend time with—goofy, honest, and brimming with different talents (she paints, grows trees and roguishly plants them in neighbors’ yards, and plays guitar, banjo, and harmonica) that keep From This Day Forward from dragging. —Rachel Kurzius
Thurs., June 18 at 3:45 p.m. at AFI Silver and Fri., June 19 at 6:45 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
There’s not a single flicker of hope or happiness in The Storm Makers, a harrowing, uncompromising portrayal of human trafficking in Cambodia. But it’s hard to watch Guillaume Suon’s film without emotional detachment, because The Storm Makers is nearly swallowed alive by its source material. Suon handles everything too delicately, following around a few impoverished families and the crooked man who’s sold their young ones off to other countries for profit without digging into the political corruption at the root of it all. So it’s no surprise that The Storm Makersis at its strongest and most memorable when Suon lets his bias run free for a few moments, as in the scene where he interviews the human-trafficking orchestrator next to a lavish swimming pool. The movie could have used more sequences like these, which supplement the marginalized voices and remind us that its director isn’t just an innocent bystander with a camera. —Dean Essner
Thurs., June 18 at 4:30 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Fri., June 19 at 2:30 p.m. at AFI Silver
Documentary film festivals and liberal political magazines tend to appeal to the same demographic, so it’s no surprise that a film about the Nation would find a place on the AFI DOCS slate. However, you’d think that the team that selects each film would have been slightly dubious of a film produced by the magazine to pat itself on the back as it celebrates its 150th anniversary. Over the course of the 90-minute film, the magazine’s editors blandly discuss all the good work they do; examples include reporting on Occupy Wall Street and the Wisconsin recall election, dispatches from Haiti and the 2012 Republican National Convention, and its celebrated internship program through which many current Nation editorial staffers passed. If you’re an avid Nationfan and reader, this might interest you. If you’re interested in a diversity of opinions, it won’t. Director Barbara Kopple briefly veers into thought-provoking territory when explaining how the magazine makes money—it can’t survive on subscriptions alone, so it raises funds by sponsoring a wine club, inviting readers on an annual cruise, and begging deep-pocketed readers like Paul Newman to write a check—but soon enough, it’s back to business as usual, as editors applaud the reelection of Barack Obama and struggle to attract readers under the age of 60. —Caroline Jones
Thurs., June 18 at 6 p.m. at AFI Silver and Fri., June 19 at 9 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center
I hate to break it to you 99 percenters, but you’re a “bewildered herd” and “must be put in [your] place.” These words are actually from a 1922 book on the relationship between mass culture and democracy, but in Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky explains how the sentiment is near Lego Movie-levels today. (Don’t dismiss Lord Business and his ability to keep his underlings in line and distracted by dumb TV and Taco Tuesday.) Chomsky—linguist, philosopher, media critic, political analyst, nerd crush—is the sole character in the film, speaking for 73 minutes about how the “American Dream” is hardly possible anymore due to massive inequality; the increased ability of the wealthy to protect themselves while letting the working class compete in a now global, and often exploitative, economy; and indoctrinating consumerism and marketing so deeply in us plebes that after the 2008 election, President Barack Obama was named Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year. It’s all fascinating stuff, and you don’t have to be an economist to understand it. The film’s only drawback is the directorial trio’s attempt to train their cameras somewhere other than Chomsky’s close-up face. There’s archival footage, of course, and lots of ominous skyscrapers. But we also see Chomsky… reading. Talking on the phone. And, most thrillingly, rearranging his desk. It proves how brilliant Michel Gondry was to animate his interview with the intellectual in 2013’s Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The subject matter doesn’t really call for bells and whistles, however, so his face would have been fine. What’s not so great is Chomsky’s claim that modern politics aim “to make people hate and fear each other,” an intolerance that seems to have skyrocketed since Obama’s win and doesn’t show signs of reversing. The takeaway: “It’s going to be an extremely ugly society.” —Tricia Olszewski
Thurs., June 18 at 6 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center and Fri., June 19 at 6:45 p.m. at AFI Silver.
“Small” is an inadequate word for Leith, a North Dakota town whose population could barely fill a school bus. Their lives are pleasant, if a little remote, at least until white supremacists arrive and upend any sense of tranquility. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, Welcome to Leith is a disturbing thriller about Craig Cobb, a notorious racist who sees Leith as an opportunity for a haven of hate. He reasons that the population is so small that he and his neo-Nazi pals can easily take over the town. Nichols and Walker have incredible access to Cobb and the townspeople who want him out. Cobb functions like a high-velocity troll, a shrill asshole who defends his right to free speech in order to spew pure bile. On the streets and at public meetings, Cobb and the Leithians attempt to use the law to their advantage, and the results are often shocking. While the stakes are small, Nichols and Walker’s documentary is a real battle between good and evil. There’s solace for both sides once it’s all over, yet Cobb throws in one last line that’s more chilling than anything we might hear from a comic book supervillain. —Alan Zilberman
Thurs., June 18 at 6 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at 2:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
You might think you had a strange childhood, possibly with eccentric parents and a weird uncle, but nothing could be as unorthodox as staying in an apartment your entire life, watching movies and recreating them. But that’s exactly how the Angulo brothers—all six of them—grew up, sons of a Peruvian Hare Krishna devotee. The brothers were never allowed to venture past the door of their Manhattan apartment because their father believed that great big New York City would corrupt them. Despite that, he let them watch movies on VHS. Then, the magic happens. Countless times, the brothers have reenacted scenes from their favorite films, going so far as to craft homemade costumes and suits. To be honest, their makeshift Batman outfit does the original justice. This, as well as homeschooling from their American mother, is how the Angulo brothers learned about the world. When a few of the brothers leave, they learn that not everything goes by a neatly crafted script and human behavior is more than just a director’s cues. —Jordan-Marie Smith
Thurs., June 18 at 6 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
When one of a mishmash of players in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead recalls that a National Lampoon art director was fired because the magazine had become “messy” and “confusing,” that person might as well have been criticizing the film itself. Image after image, all packed with jokes—and breasts—flash on the screen with commentators whose significance you can’t quite catch. (Oh wait, here’s Meat Loaf, but why?) If, that is, they’re identified at all: Christopher Buckley gets the honor around his fourth remark. The gist of the film is the mag’s “cursory history” (truer words, etc.), particularly of founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, though their involvement is discussed with a not-quite-focus that alternates between the two at whiplash-inducing speeds. Like a soccer mom who finds O magaizine too racy, I jotted in my notes, “SETTLE DOWN!” What I was really thinking, however, is that considering all the scenes of the staff working in a pot haze, the filmmakers might have benefited from taking a hit or several. —Tricia Olszewski
Thurs., June 18 at 8:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center
You’ve probably heard about the plight of Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal, Americans hiking in Kurdish Iraq who were arrested and imprisoned by the Iranian military in 2009. The Three Hikers gives an intimate understanding of how their story became so prominent. Through ongoing interviews with their family members during the ordeal (which is confusing at first, because it’s unclear when they were recorded), the audience sees the behind-the-scenes machinations to get the hikers in the public eye and on the lips of diplomats. The film counts the number of days behind bars with a screen of tallies, resembling how the prisoners kept track of their time. Those tallies also apply to their families, whom director Natalie Avital captures in moments of great doubt and pain. When Shourd is released before her companions, she fears that speaking out against Iran will result in their mistreatment and criticizing the U.S. could lose them support. The Three Hikersdeepens our understanding of Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal, who come off as three-dimensional, caring activists rather than ignorant wanderers who stumbled into enemy territory. Some aesthetic choices, like scenes recreating the hikers’ arrest, are less effective, but Avital’s access helps her tell a compelling story. —Rachel Kurzius
Thurs., June 18 at 8:30 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center and Sat., June 20 at 11:45 a.m. at AFI Silver
For a little over an hour, director and cinematographer Mehdi Gangi tries to tell the story of the Barzegar family. Abbas, the head of the Iranian household, has a few demands: He wants a time machine; he wants to create a new, powerful tribe; he wants a new, younger wife; and chiefly, he wants the fulfillment of his fourth grade dream to be a—well, you know. I Want to Be a King attempts to provide the audience with an inside look at an Iranian peddler-turned-tourist mogul of sorts, selling one-night stays for an authentic nomadic experience. Sadly, the film comes up short because of technical errors. Audio and picture aren’t always in sync in the subtitled documentary, and cuts are harsh. What doesn’t get lost in translation is a true feminist doctrine: Abbas’ first wife and 13-year-old daughter demand better, and take their on-camera opportunities to yell at the honcho. Gangi shows viewers some tense scenes, like when Abbas’ daughter launches the diss of the century: “Even heathens won’t give you the right” to be king! The film stutters at times, but if you’re patient enough, the story is certainly there to unpack. —Josh Solomon
Thurs., June 18 at 2 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sat., June 20 at 4:30 p.m. at AFI Silver
In Transit is a fitting end to the five-decade career of Albert Maysles, the documentarian who died in March. His final subjects are the passengers of the Empire Builder, an Amtrak train that travels the longest commercial route in the United States. The journey between Chicago and Portland lasts roughly three days. In between beautiful photography of trains cutting across the mountains and plains, Maysles interviews everyone from the conductor to children who are looking for new playmates. His style is unobtrusive—there is no voiceover and title cards are minimal—an approach that gives brief, insightful glimpses into who these people are. He revisits the same passengers, including a pregnant woman well past her due date, and the cumulative effect is touching: These people comprise a compelling, albeit incomplete snapshot of America’s diversity, yet In Transit never feels cloying, due to Maysles’ effortless maturity and patience. There are a variety of reasons someone would opt for a three-day train journey, either economic or romantic, and the point of In Transit is that no matter the circumstance, these travelers are too curious and kind-hearted to be weary. —Alan Zilberman
Fri., June 19 at noon at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at 1:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
The official explanation for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe fits one trope about the Soviet Union. As the Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist Hans Bethe put it, the disaster was born of “the deficiencies of the Soviet political and administrative system.” But an alternate theory, explored in Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker, fits another trope: the Soviet regime’s brutality. Was the disaster, in fact, a deliberate act based on orders from Moscow? Such extreme disregard for Ukrainian life does have precedent in the 1932-33 famine, which many, including the film’s subjects, believe Stalin engineered to kill millions. As for motive, the film argues that a top Soviet official wanted to hide major misdeeds related to a radar installation near the nuclear site. But the film doesn’t quite work as a whodunnit, as it tells its story through an eccentric performance artist named Fedor Alexandrovich, who pushes the conspiracy theory. While watching, one can’t help but wonder whether the gathering of facts is secondary to some kind of larger performance art going on. (“Everything he does is theater,” the film’s cinematographer says of Alexandrovich.) Still, through revealing interviews, the film makes a valid case for the central theory. More importantly, it captures the fear and paranoia that’s pervading Ukraine as Russia once again strong-arms its neighbor. —Zach Rausnitz
Fri., June 19 at 2 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sat., June 20 at 9:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
A few weeks ago, Serena Williams won her 20th Grand Slam, further cementing her status as one of the greatest tennis players that ever lived. But decades before Serena and Venus and Arthur Ashe collected trophies and sponsorship deals, another African-American player earned those honors: Althea Gibson, who won Wimbledon titles in 1957 and 1958. Rex Miller’s film is a biography of Gibson and her journey from rural South Carolina to Harlem, where she first played tennis, to the great courts of Europe—but it also serves as an indictment of amateur tennis in the ’50s and ’60s. Despite winning tournaments around the world, Gibson brought home very little prize money and had to pay all her travel expenses, leaving her broke by the time she retired from competition. To add insult to injury, much of the tennis establishment forgot about Gibson’s victories and excluded her from activities involving past champions. The result is a film that shows the darker side of tennis whites. —Caroline Jones
Fri., June 19 at 2:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sun., June 21 at 2:30 p.m. at AFI Silver
Parents, teachers, and experts agree there’s something broken in the American education system. Greg Whiteley’s Most Likely to Succeed looks at outdated curricula, arguing that the industrial-minded model of segmented classrooms no longer adequately prepares high school students for the real world. Whiteley’s alternative is High Tech High, a San Diego school where teachers encourage independent thought and cross-disciplinary group projects. Some parts are discouraging: There’s an idiotic cameo from Thomas Friedman—there’s no other kind—and the film does not have the self-awareness to think about education from a top-down perspective. Whiteley posits that college admissions should not be a top student goal, yet uses the school’s admission rate as evidence of its success. There’s also an ulterior motive: Most Likely to Succeed was funded by a venture capitalist who actively wants to engineer a more innovative, competent workforce. But for all its omissions and dubious conclusions, Most Likely to Succeed does highlight a compelling reason for education reform—the students themselves. One young freshman begins the year as a shy introvert, only to transform into an assertive leader, and her growth is more persuasive than the agenda of the film’s many talking heads. —Alan Zilberman
Fri., June 19 at 3 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center and Sun., June 21 at 12:15 p.m. at AFI Silver
Peggy Guggenheim lost a parent on the Titanic, befriended Surrealist artists like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, and saved dozens of artworks from the Nazis during World War II. She championed the work of Jackson Pollock, had an affair with Samuel Beckett, and brought international art to New York. In short, she lived a wildly exciting life, which makes Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s chronological examination of Guggenheim’s life quite disappointing. While her film does include one big find—audio interviews Guggenheim recorded with her biographer in 1978—the rest of the film unfolds through grainy stock footage and dull statements from art historians. Vreeland’s documentary seems more concerned with chronicling Guggenheim’s sex life than creating a nuanced portrait of her varied career and lasting contributions to the art world, which are extensive. If you’re seeking a deep dive into Guggenheim’s life, wait for author Francine Prose’s biography, coming this fall. —Caroline Jones
Fri., June 19 at 4:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sat., June 20 at 6:45 p.m. at AFI Silver
In the eponymous town of Uncertain, nestled deep in the swamps of the Texas-Louisiana border, a slow-growing aquatic weed threatens to turn beloved marshes into stagnant pools stripped of oxygen. It will kill the catfish, lush vegetation, and precious delicate ecosystem that sustain this town, populated by 94 people. These wetlands are mythologized in Uncertain as “part heaven and home, but also part hell,” and it’s not hard to see why: Dappled sunlight filters through 40-foot trees, burning through rolls of fog that curl across the marsh come dusk. It’s storybook scenery with villains: Uncertain’s inhabitants are ex-convicts, recovering alcoholics, and drug addicts attempting a return to normalcy and who turn to nature—to hunting boar, fishing, and keeping pet raccoons—looking for salvation. Uncertain’s muted, seething stillness mimics the town it portrays. Though the meandering plot is loosely told, the images more than compensate: It’ss both lush and grotesque in its depiction of the emptiness of life. It’s a mesmerizing study of Gothic charm and isolated America. —Morgan Baskin
Fri., June 19 at 4:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at 7:15 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
The bleak title of Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014, premiering June 22 on HBO, does its best to signal what the next 68 minutes of your life will be like. But nothing can prepare you for the despair of the emotionally exhausting film, which uses photos, video, and audio pulled from social media sites, news reports, and police files to tell eight stories of gun violence. There’s the mother of three killed by her ex-military husband; the grandmother accidentally shot by a grandfather; the children murdered by their father. It’s an hour-long slideshow of misery that will leave you with a feeling of dread as the number of people in the U.S. killed by guns over a four-month period—1,000; 3,000; 8,000—ticks up against a black screen. The lack of talking heads and overt judgment beyond “America is obsessed with guns” allow the viewer to focus on humanity rather than politics. But Requiem for the Dead also offers no solutions, something you’ll desperately want to quell the feeling of hopelessness the film leaves behind. —Sarah Anne Hughes
Fri., June 19 at 5 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sun., June 21 at 5 p.m. AFI Silver
You’d be forgiven for assuming that a new documentary about the militarization of local police forces and the civilian deaths that result would contextualize an important social movement in black communities to address the systematically unequal way they are policed. So you’ll probably understand how shocked I was to find, in this documentary, no black voices. None at all. In fact, at no point in the film do we hear from any person of color on the matter. The failure is even more egregious because the movie makes two or three passing references to communities of color: There are a few seconds of Ferguson protest footage, sans commentary. A black man is shown being shot to death by police when he raises a golf club, but not much is said about his particular case. A sheriff notes, “You can go to a community in their neighborhoods and ask a person a simple question: Should we call the cops? And in some communities they’ll look you in the eye and laugh and say ‘hell no.’” “Their neighborhoods”? You’re almost there, guys.
And so the omission starts to feel intentional or even malicious. The black man who is shot, Todd Blair, never gets his movie moment, when his family members might have spoken to the camera and shared photos and mementos. In fact, we never even see his face.
The film leaves you with the impression that there’s little more to say about out-of-control policing than that it’s happened in Utah, and it’s probably getting better because lawmakers and activists are starting to pay attention. What a tragedy, indeed. —Emily Q. Hazzard
Fri., June 19 at 6:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sat., June 20 at 11 a.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
The Diplomat offers an insider’s view of U.S. foreign policy by examining the storied, 50-year career of Richard Holbrooke, who is widely credited with ending the Bosnian War in 1995, with an accord signed in an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. His oldest son David directs, gathering a who’s who of dignitaries to speak on his pops, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, and a number of top journalists. But this isn’t a wide-eyed paean to diplomacy’s power to bring peace; nor is it a cynical exposé on the backroom dealings of a few powerful men. As The Diplomat traces the legacy of Holbrooke from his days in Vietnam to Bosnia, and finally to Pakistan and Afghanistan, it humanizes diplomacy, yet also shows its dark underbelly—a battle of wills between a select few who are far removed from the front lines. Holbrooke, though surely fallible, was keenly aware of the “service” part of the Foreign Service; The Diplomat shines a light on the strategies he employed to make peace an all-too-rare reality. —Toni Tileva
Fri., June 19 at 8:30 p.m. at National Portrait Gallery and Sat., June 20 at 1:45 p.m. at AFI Silver
When you’re learning the life story of an acclaimed artist, it’s rarely a surprise when the talk turns to demons. What Happened, Miss Simone?, whose title comes from a Maya Angelou piece, is stunning and devastating in its portrayal of Nina Simone, the gifted jazz singer who started out wanting to become the first black classical pianist. Simone is portrayed as a strong, fierce woman throughout the film—even as a child, refusing to play at a church if her parents would be forced to stand in the back—but it’s not long before the first hairline fractures of a typical volatile performer bust open to reveal clear mental illness. Director Liz Garbus is an ace at assembling the standard documentary puzzle with just the right photographs, archival footage of performances, audio from interviews, and even Simone’s journal entries. Sometimes Simone’s honesty is applaudable, as with her tendency to end a show if an audience was chattering: “I thought they needed teaching,” she said. “If they couldn’t listen, fuck it.” But it’s also gutting, with accounts of spousal abuse, extreme political activism during the civil rights movement (“I’m not nonviolent,” she allegedly told Martin Luther King Jr.), and bipolar-seized thoughts after she’d quit the business and moved to Liberia (“They don’t know that I’m dead and my ghost is holding on”). The film is not to be missed, especially considering that during her lifetime, Simone—the woman, the emotionally wrecked—was rarely heard. —Tricia Olszewski
Fri., June 19 at 8:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sat., June 20 at 6:45 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
Dope hats, dope kicks, dope style. Before swagger was Bieber-fied, the ’70s epitomized dressing fresh, and the South Bronx personified what it meant. In Fresh Dressed, director Sacha Jenkins looks at New York’s style hits through a nuanced and cultural lens. This film isn’t only about cool denim and skull embroidery on jackets; Jenkins tells you how people of color in New York’s toughest neighborhoods equated style with pride and identity. In the first few scenes, Kanye West hits the nail on the head: “Being fresh was more important than money.” Other cultural heavyweights like Nas and Kid ‘n Play tell you exactly why being fresh meant more than having a fat check. Between throwback tracks from Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock: The Album, it becomes clear that your “flair” spoke for you. African kings and queens showed their power by having eccentric and rich style; this helps explain why slaves wore their Sunday best and why freed blacks made sure every inch of their wardrobe was clean and presentable, even if they didn’t have much. Jenkins shows that the same held true for New York in the ’70s and ’80s: You could have nothing in the Bronx, but you’d be fresh to death. —Jordan-Marie Smith
Fri., June 19 at 9 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sat., June 20 at 3:45 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
If the nuns who taught me how to diagram a sentence were as kindly and, dare I say, Christ-like as those featured in Radical Grace, perhaps my Catholicism wouldn’t be quite so lapsed. Regardless of your beliefs, you’ll fall for these “radical” sisters, whom the Vatican investigated because of concerns about their “feminist spirit.” The film offers several jaw-dropping remarks, including a protester saying the nuns are “worse than pedophile priests.” A news anchor reports that a bishop had been appointed to “bring the nuns back in line.” “How far can they push that?” he says of the bishop’s issue with the nuns’ outspokenness, particularly their defense of the Affordable Care Act and proclaimed right to be ordained as priests. “The question is, ‘Are you still religious?’” (After this, he gives an incredulous, K-Stew-ish half-laugh.) The sisters were distraught until embarking on their “Nuns on the Bus” tour, launched in fury after Rep. Paul Ryan defended a lower income-hitting budget cut by saying his “Catholic social teaching” led him to propose it. Social justice of all kinds was the theme of the tour, and naturally, the sisters knocked heads with opponents. But more often, they were overwhelmed with support so uplifting, tears will inevitably well up in the audience as readily as they do onscreen. Atheists, agnostics, and disgruntled Christians should reconsider their likely decision to skip this doc, which is less about organized religion than it is about community, compassion, and unconditional love. As one sister points out: “Jesus did not discriminate.” —Tricia Olszewski
Sat., June 20 at 1 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center and Sun., June 21 at 7:15 p.m. at AFI Silver
In a particularly gut-wrenching scene in Alexandra Shiva’s How to Dance in Ohio, a young woman named Jessica is told by her job-training supervisor that she is difficult to work with. Jessica’s face contorts as if she’s been physically wounded, and she tries to explain through tears how she struggles to make herself understood. “You don’t have to be understood in the work setting,” the boss replies. “You have to work.” These scenarios are commonplace for the film’s subjects: teenagers and young adults with autism who attend social skills classes at a Columbus counseling center. Shiva follows the group as they prepare for a spring formal, a rite of passage that, for these young women and men, requires more preparation than just buying an outfit. They struggle, in varying degrees, with communication and interactions, and the staff tries to prep them through dance lessons, matchmaking, and lots of talking. It can be a difficult film to watch, as the daily frustrations seem to outnumber the triumphs (19-year-old Caroline’s experiences in college best encapsulate this). But the triumphs do happen, like when the group starts to let loose on the dance floor. “Let’s give it up for butterflies!” the lead counselor tells them at one prep session. “It means you’re alive.” —Sarah Anne Hughes
Sat., June 20 at 1:30 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sun., Jun 21 at noon at AFI Silver
Attacking The Devil tells the story of London’s Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans and his fight against the makers of the “morning sickness” drug thalidomide, which left 100,000 babies born in the ’50s and ’60s with severe deformities and caused nerve damage to nearly 500,000 adults. The film is a powerful testament to the importance of good investigative journalism: Sir Evans launched numerous such campaigns to effect changes that would have been unlikely or impossible without his journalistic intervention. His work was epic, both in scope and in the momentous ways in which it changed the status quo. The Distillers Company, the maker of thalidomide, refused to admit malfeasance or compensate the victims for the irreparable damage its drug had caused. Evans devoted space in the paper every day to reveal the company’s wrongdoing, fighting a legal injunction that prevented the discussion of any case under court consideration. Evans’ passion is palpable in this documentary, and it serves as a reminder that speaking truth to power is not an overnight process. —Toni Tileva
Sat., June 20 at 1:45 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema and Sun., June 21 at 4:45 p.m. at AFI Silver
The two twentysomethings behind Salam Neighbor frame their film in dramatic terms: The first filmmakers allowed by the United Nations to register as refugees and set up tent in a camp, they spent a month living among displaced Syrians in Jordan. Well, kind of. On their first night in Za’atari, they’re told they’ll have to stay in a nearby town and commute in every morning; a refugee camp is too dangerous a place for two white Americans with expensive camera equipment to sleep.
No shit. Rather than focusing on the lives of the Syrians trying to heal and reclaim stability in the world’s second-largest refugee camp, these dude-bros center their analysis on their own feelings and manufactured experiences. Here they are, playing cards and wrestling with infatuated crowds of Syrian children, as seen in every do-gooders’ photos from study abroad. Here they are, persuading a 10-year-old boy (“Dude, this kid’s the man!”) who was traumatized by a bombing of his home school to attend the camp’s third-grade class. There they go again, crying about the unfair circumstances faced by these lovely, helpful people, including one man who “looked just like my dad in college!” They claim to have made close friends with several of their Syrian neighbors (or, rather, daytime companions, since the filmmakers did not actually live in the camp), yet they spoke almost no Arabic; besides that, their friendships miss the point. I don’t care about what it’s like to be a privileged American in a refugee camp—I care about what it’s like to be a refugee. “The whole camp is talking about you—why would Americans want to live like this?” asks one Za’atari resident. I think I can answer his question in three words: white savior complex. —Christina Cauterucci
Sat., Jun 20 at 3 p.m. at Regal Gallery Place
CODE presents a picture of the U.S. in a tech crisis: More jobs are being created in tech than we have qualified workers to fill, and computer science programs in public schools are sorely inadequate. Meanwhile, young women are socialized away from math and engineering, which leads to the kind of all-male teams that produce airbags that kill women and software helpdesk characters that appear to leer at users. And when women do make it into the tech field, they’re sexually harassed and elbowed out by misogynist, insular circles of brogrammers. So the tech world is doomed, huh? Not so fast. Before you’ve stress-eaten too many Raisinets, CODE offers a bright path forward. There are fellowships for female coders of color, camps for girls who want to make their own computer games, and plenty of talented women who are creating a pipeline to diversify the industry of the future. Particularly gratifying is the film’s alternative history of computer science; women like Ada Lovelace, whose 19th-century work earned her the first computer programmer, and Grace Hopper, a Navy rear admiral who pioneered coding languages and popularized the term “debug” when she removed an actual moth from a glitchy computer, have been written out of mainstream tellings of tech’s past. In a stylized, well-reported story, CODE makes a bitter reality seem ready for change.
Sat., June 20 at 2:15 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at Naval Heritage Center
There is no grandiose championship run in the football documentary First and 17, which showcases the trials and tribulations of a Virginia high school team. But by succumbing to the lovable whimsy of the sport, it manages to offer a solid portrayal of the long, grueling, character-building minutiae of the season. The movie steers clear of Friday Night Lights-esque drama; instead, director Brad Horn focuses on the plight of the Woodbridge Vikings’ first-year coach and the team’s star lineman, Da’Shawn Hand, as he chooses a university. First and 17’s weakness is its choppiness—the film was initially presented as a multi-part series on the Washington Post’s website, and it’s not that hard to tell where one episode ends and another begins. Nevertheless, Horn’s film manages to romanticize the game of football while still giving us all the gritty, unglamorous details. —Dean Essner
Sat., June 20 at 3:15 p.m. at Naval Heritage Center; Sun., June 21 at 2:30 p.m. at AFI Silver
You might not expect to hear a description like “stupid cracker shit” in a documentary about the New Yorker, especially from a contributor. But that’s how illustrator Emily Flake describes the gist of what the magazine’s famed cartoons have aimed to parody since 1925. Flake is one of several contributors who speak to the cartoon pitching process in Very Semi-Serious. Naturally, it can be harsh, but anyone who’s tried to master the art of the pitch in any field may be surprised to see that it’s kind of pleasant, too: Every Tuesday, the cartoonists gather in the New Yorker offices and form a queue to get cartoon editor Robert Mankoff’s pithy opinion: “No.” “Vampires are over.” “Why did you draw that?” The bulk of the doc, however, focuses on Mankoff—his rise through the ranks and his family. With the exception of a personal tragedy, the film is very funny, with even the perennially rejected spinning their failures as jokes. This makes it difficult to know what to do with Liana Finck, a young female illustrator who murmurs “It might be Asperger’s” to Mankoff—which he doesn’t hear—and later says, “It makes me feel like less of a loser” when she has a cartoon accepted. Director Leah Wolchok’s inclusion of these details seems very intentional, making their flit all the more mysterious. Perhaps her next documentary should focus exclusively on Finck. —Tricia Olszewski
Sat. June 20 at 4:15 p.m. at AFI Silver
It’ll take you a good 15 minutes into Love Marriage in Kabul to figure out what this Australian doc is about. Director Amin Palangi set out to tell the story of Mahboba Rawi, an Afghan-Australian force of nature who runs orphanages and widows’ services in her home country, but decided to focus instead on Mahboba’s efforts to secure the marriage of teenaged Abdul, an orphan boy she raised, to Fatemeh, his neighbor. The two are hopelessly in love, but Fatemeh’s father is holding out for the highest bidder for her hand.Love Marriage in Kabul’s matter-of-fact depiction of the financial and interpersonal negotiations around marriage—in lieu of money, the father of the bride will also accept a wife for his oldest son—will fascinate anyone unfamiliar with marital practices commonplace in many parts of the world. But the film’s frequent detours to Mahboba’s orphanages, especially at the start, distract from the narrative and aim straight for the tear ducts. (And the wallet: Mahboba, a smart nonprofit manager, makes several on-camera pleas for funding.) Take a bathroom break during those segments and rejoice in young love for the rest. —Christina Cauterucci
Sat., June 20 at 4:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at noon at Landmark E Street Cinema
Despite the fact that it was part of an international chain, the Tower Records on Rockville Pike seemed like the coolest place to buy records if you grew up in the Maryland suburbs. It’s been gone for nearly nine years, but you’ll get the full nostalgia trip while watching All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’ tribute to the company founded by Ross Solomon in 1960. The narrative progresses chronologically—Solomon started selling used records out of his father’s Sacramento, Calif., drug store in the 1940s. Then, in the ’60s and ’70s, he opened shops up and down the West Coast, grabbing the attention of emerging artists like the Eagles and Jefferson Airplane. His company survived the fall of disco and the rise of the CD, and, after a massive expansion throughout South America in the ’90s, filed for bankruptcy in 2006. The devotion of the employees interviewed, many of whom started as clerks before working their way into the corporate division, really resonates. (At least three people openly weep when talking about Solomon and their time at Tower.) Even Dave Grohl, who seems to spend more time chatting with filmmakers than making music these days, talks about his time scanning CDs at the Tower in Foggy Bottom. —Caroline Jones
Sat., June 20 at 9:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Sun., June 21 at 4:30 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
The second feature film by French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (War-Wearied) offers an unprecedented and intimate look at PTSD and some of the war-ravaged men and women suffering from it. Set in the Pathway Home, a treatment facility in California for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film benefits from its fly-on-the-wall approach, squarely turning its lens on the group therapy sessions and residents’ interactions with their families, which allows the soldiers to tell their own stories. They seem unable to extricate themselves from the war zone, forever held hostage and unable to unsee the horrors they’ve witnessed. They describe feeling “embarrassed, small, defective… crazy.” The degree of access granted the filmmaker is truly amazing, and it’s even more impressive considering the degree of trauma with which each of these soldiers is wrestling and the Herculean effort required of them to share something so antithetical to the “be stoic about it” military ethos. An unflinching exploration of the “collateral damage” of war trauma, the film poignantly illustrates that there is nothing collateral about it. Of Men And War is one of today’s most engrossing and gut-wrenching commentaries on the high cost of our recent military conflicts. —Toni Tileva
Sun., Jun 21 at 3:45 p.m. at Landmark E Street Cinema
Jessica Edwards’ Mavis! is more than just singer Mavis Staples’ story: It’s a never-dry history lesson about her father (guitarist Pops Staples), their family band (the Staple Singers), the civil rights movement, and their hit song “I’ll Take You There.” The movie largely follows the standard procedure of mixing archival photos and film alongside new interviews with musicians (Bob Dylan, Chuck D), journalists (biographer Greg Kot), and friends. To keep the film contemporary, Edwards says she consciously tried to only include archival footage that features Mavis. This approach captures the still-vibrant seventysomething’s personality, but it also means her current producer, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, gets more screen time than, say, her longtime colleague, activist Julian Bond. Still, the film displays Mavis’ skillful vocal chops, warmth, and tenacity from her days as a booming, deep-voiced teen gospel singer on through her family’s freedom songs period, Stax Records soul years, and solo Prince-produced efforts. Mavis and her father are eloquent throughout. She recounts him saying, “If Dr. King can preach it, we can sing it,” and later pays homage to her dad: “You laid the foundation. I’m still working on the building.” —Steve Kiviat
Sun., June 21 at 7 p.m. at National Portrait Gallery