Credit: Cover Illustration by Maddie Goldstein

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All we have is our home and our neighbors. Our home is not just the physical space we may occupy or the city where we may dwell. It’s also the third planet from the sun in the solar system. Our neighbors are not just next door; they’re everywhere. There are billions of them: people, and plants and animals, too. In our daily lives, especially right now, we exist in our own spaces where, sometimes, it’s hard to see outside of those boundaries. But the AFI DOCS Film Festival grabs you from your space and sends you on trips around the U.S. and across the globe to visit with people in Boston, Colombia, Bhutan, Kenya, and many other locales. The festival presents the stories of us: our planet, our people, our time. This year’s festival is virtual—the physical festival was a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic—and viewers can watch the films at home. Even though you may not be seeing the films in a theater setting, they still have the power to transport you, no matter where you’re watching them. —Kayla Randall

9to5: The Story of a Movement

Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

USA

9to5: The Story of a Movement is billed as a look behind the curtain at the real-life movement that inspired the film 9 to 5, butit’s actually more of a step-by-step guide to unionizing a workplace. It begins on the cusp of the 1970s, a decade during which millions of women would enter the workforce, but mostly as “college-educated women doing incredibly dull work,” as we hear very early on. From there, connected strands of anti-war, anti-racist, and feminist activism combine in a set of women who unite the clerical workers of Boston to fight back against the sexual harassment, low pay, and discrimination they face at work.

The filmis a snappy labor history that takes care not to get too starstruck by its celebrity connections and to be honest about the movement’s failures as well as its triumphs. While Jane Fonda appears both in flashback and in the present, she’s not the star of the show, beyond the memorable scene where she asks a room of women, “Does anyone here have fantasies about killing their boss?” They all did. Viewers are made to wait nearly 45 minutes for the iconic Dolly Parton song, though it pays off beautifully when we do get it.

Just as things seem to really get going for the 9to5 movement, though, it collides with a rapidly changing workforce and the union-busting Reagan years. The defeat stings, but it’s followed by causes for hope, like a brief shot of the 2017 Women’s March. What’s meant to really inspire, though, are the shots of unionized domestic workers and fast food workers striking, chanting, and carrying Fight for $15 signs—organized actions that have much more of a claim to 9to5’s legacy. —Emma Sarappo

Available June 19 for 24 hours

First Vote

Directed by Yi Chen

USA

Every four years, pundits and campaigners scour the electorate to find the demographic that could be the hidden key to the presidential election. First Vote makes the case for the Asian American vote. According to the onscreen text that opens the film, it’s a strong case: Five million Asian Americans voted in 2016, and one-third of them were first-time voters.

But which way do they lean? We never find out. The film eschews data analysis and instead provides portraits of a handful of Asian American voters and their disparate politics. There’s a middle-class professional from Ohio who hates illegal immigration, balanced by a North Carolina professor who teaches race theory and thinks Republicans are neofascists—a neat microcosm of the American population at large, ideologically split and resistant to political persuasion.

First Vote never really finds its narrative. It’s loosely centered around the 2018 election—a Senate race in Ohio, and a ballot initiative requiring a photo ID to vote in North Carolina—but it fails to create any dramatic movement. Story feels like an afterthought, and the film seems content to simply elevate a few Asian American voices, regardless of what they have to say—and in a culture that rarely makes room for those voices, this is important. A documentary with more curiosity and insight would have amplified those voices even more. —Noah Gittell

Available June 19 for 24 hours

Miracle Fishing

Directed by Miles Hargrove, with co-director Christopher Birge

USA

Miracle Fishing, a gripping documentary shot by the family of a kidnapping victim, is an antidote to the fictional fantasies of Hollywood action films that use kidnapping as a plot device.

It’s the true story of the Hargroves, an American family living in Colombia in the 1990s. When Mike, a husband and father of three, is kidnapped and held for ransom by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, his wife and children snap into action to bring him back home. But there are no rogue anti-terrorist warriors here. Instead, they ask a family friend to negotiate with the cartels, and they hire two professional ransom consultants to advise.

We follow this family through a yearlong process that is unbearably tense, but soon comes to feel routine; a situation the family lives with, rather than an acute crisis. Filmed by one of the Hargrove sons, Miracle Fishing captures the agonizing uncertainty surrounding their loved one’s return, but it also shows the humanity of family. They share meals together. They argue over what music to listen to while waiting for the kidnappers to call them. They play with their dogs, who are thrilled to have so many people in the house. It eventually reaches a dramatic conclusion, but by then Miracle Fishing has revealed itself not to be a kidnapping thriller, but a portrait of a loving family that emerges stronger after being tested. —Noah Gittell

Available June 19 for 24 hours

Freedia Got A Gun

Directed by Chris McKim

USA

Big Freedia’s voice is the voice of New Orleans. It’s a booming, instantly recognizable sound for many people from south Louisiana, and when coupled with a bounce beat, it’s an irresistible call to dance and be joyous.

New Orleans is synonymous with its culture—the food, music, language, people, and places that you won’t find anywhere else. But as is illustrated in the documentary Freedia Got A Gun, for the people who live there, the city can also be synonymous with gun violence, which continues to disproportionately impact Black communities. The bounce music icon’s own story is laced with gun violence: Freedia was shot in 2004, and survived. Freedia’s brother, Adam Ross, was shot and killed in 2018.

The film takes viewers on a journey with Freedia through the area, and it covers the effects of everything from mass incarceration to Hurricane Katrina on the psyche of the people in the city. 

We hear often from local educator Ashonta Wyatt; New York Times columnist, author, and Louisiana native Charles M. Blow; and many people from the city who talk about the nature of generational, cyclical Black pain and trauma, looking deeply into how and why this problem has plagued New Orleans for so long. As a Black woman born and raised in south Louisiana who loves Big Freedia’s music and cares deeply about the people of New Orleans and the people all across my home state, this film speaks to me. But this film is also for everyone — everyone needs to understand the plight of Black people growing up and living in poverty, and dealing with gun violence at increasingly young ages. At one point during the film, a middle school boy recalls that when he was 7, he held his father as he died slowly in his arms from a gunshot wound.

With this film, Freedia highlights the importance of community in ending violence, and shows how community is ultimately our greatest strength. Freedia Got A Gun is necessary viewing. —Kayla Randall

Available June 20 for 24 hours

The Reason I Jump

Directed by Jerry Rothwell

UK

The Reason I Jump is a quiet, empathetic film about several young people with autism from all over the world who are unable to speak. 

Director Jerry Rothwell uses The Reason I Jump, a 2007 book by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese teenager with autism, as his starting point. Higashida describes his mental state with a keen mix of insight and metaphor, while Rothwell’s subjects illustrate the points he makes. A person in Arlington is able to use an alphabet grid to make complex thoughts, one letter at a time. Another person in India cannot speak at all, but is a talented painter whose work gets a gallery opening. One young man in England didn’t mature beyond childhood because of how his autism affected his brain.

Rothwell’s observant documentary reveals the trials and personalities of each of these people, as well as what their families go through to ensure their children have a rich life. It is easy for neurotypical people to wave off the austistic community, saying, “Oh, they prefer to be alone,” but they yearn for many of the same comforts we do. Higashida illustrates why dependability and routine can provide such comfort for people without verbal language, and this film is thoroughly enlightening, simply by taking the time to observe and listen. It has the power to permanently change how you think about and consider a community you may not have understood. —Alan Zilberman

Available June 20 for 24 hours

Sing Me A Song

Directed by Thomas Balmès

France/Germany/Switzerland

For those of us with internet access, a life without it can be hard to imagine. It sometimes feels like our collective well-being is tied to whatever is happening in our iMessages, Slack channels, and Twitter and Netflix accounts, and social isolation has only underscored that reliance. In Sing Me A Song (emphasis on the initials SMS), director Thomas Balmès invites us to wonder whether our lives might be better without Wi-Fi connections.

Laya, a village in Bhutan, a Buddhist nation on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, recently became the last region on Earth to connect to television and the internet. Sing Me A Song begins there, with an 8-year-old named Peyangki who is determined to become a monk. Donning a shaved head and traditional kasaya robe, Peyangki reveals that he is both excited and terrified for the imminent arrival of electricity and the internet. Fast-forward 10 years, and the shrill sound of a smartphone alarm sounding early in the morning, followed by an 18-year-old Peyangki casually rolling over to turn it off, reveals that Laya looks a little more like the rest of the world now.

The bulk of Sing Me A Song follows 18-year-old Peyangki, who appears less interested in being a monk and more interested in his smartphone and the people it connects him to—especially Ugyen, a woman he met in a chatroom. The prospect of Peyangki abandoning the monastery to join Ugyen in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimpu gives Sing Me A Song a gripping plot, but too-perfect shots of incredibly intimate conversations—such as Ugyen and Peyangki’s first meeting, during which she reveals that she has a child—make it read more like reality television directed by Balmès than a documentary. The film is also dripping in moral judgement about technology, and unfortunately misses the opportunity to paint a fuller picture of Peyangki in favor of delivering a rudimentary lecture about how young people spend too much time on their phones.—Ella Feldman

Available June 21 for 24 hours

Blood on the Wall

Directed by Nick Quested and Sebastian Junger

USA

Five years ago, the Netflix original series Narcos captured audiences around the world with the dramatic story of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian leader of the Medellín drug cartel who made a fortune distributing cocaine in the 1980s. The acclaimed show was renewed for multiple seasons and produced a companion series, Narcos: Mexico, all of them chronicling sagas of Mexican and Central American drug cartels at the end of the 20th century.

Blood on the Wall is a stark reminder that narcotraficantes are not just binge-worthy characters, but real, powerful people who continue to run massive businesses throughout North and Central America. This National Geographic documentary attempts to explain how drug cartels have tipped the scales of power and affected the lives of everyday people in Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and, primarily, Mexico. Dozens of experts, including American and Mexican journalists, writers, government officials, and former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, talk at length about Mexican history and political corruption, but the most gripping voices are those of people tangled up in the web of drug trafficking and government corruption themselves. We meet Central American migrants fleeing violence and journeying through Mexico to reach the United States, farmers who know nothing besides working on poppy fields, and people involved in the drug trade at every level: crystal meth cooks, armed drug traffickers, and unassuming drug mules. They’re all given some level of anonymity, leading many to share intimate details about themselves. “I wanted to be a doctor,” one man says as he loads the trunk of a car with cocaine. —Ella Feldman

Available June 21 for 24 hours

The Letter

Directed by Maia Lekow and Christopher King

Kenya

Accusations of witchcraft represent an infamous slice of American history, but for the people of Kenya, it’s an unfortunate part of the present. The Letter, directed by Christopher King and Maia Lekow, chronicles the growing problem there, where elderly citizens are scapegoated as witches by the young. In some cases, a younger family member is simply trying to place the burden of their own failures on their elders and the situation is resolved easily with a cleansing before a local religious leader. In other cases, the accusation is a pretense for stealing land from the elderly, in which violence can and often does follow.

The film doesn’t seek to uncover the social conditions that led to the trends, although it hints that the growing influence of Christianity is a factor. Instead, we follow one such accusation against Margaret, the Christian matriarch of a family in a small village. Accused by her stepson, she takes the situation in stride, even as the sadness of being betrayed by a man she helped raise threatens to overwhelm her. Her grandson, who she also raised, comes to help negotiate a resolution. 

The Letter is as much a portrait of a culture as it is a chronicling of one family’s situation. The passivity with which Margaret approaches her accusation is a distinct difference between the hyper-defensiveness with which we approach conflict here in the U.S. But it fits her world. As we watch her and her family quietly grapple with their conflict, the film meditates on the ongoing life in her small village. Shots of children hacking away at coconuts and animals grazing in fields fill in the empty spaces formed from the unanswered questions the film asks. The Letter is a film you’ll want to read deeply. —Noah Gittell

Available June 21 for 24 hours

Through the Night

Directed by Loira Limbal

USA

There are important, hard debates happening right now about the child care system in the United States. It was precarious before the novel coronavirus pandemic began, despite being a pillar of working and middle-class communities. Through the Night is not a polemic about child care, or a policy brief about suggested reforms. Instead, it shows the hard work that goes into operating one child care center.

Dee’s Tots Child Care in New Rochelle, New York, is one of the good ones. The center is clean, vibrant, and the kids usually have some activity to do. It is run by Deloris Hogan—the kids call her “Nunu”—and for her, it is more than a job. She loves and nurtures these kids, working constantly so their parents are able to go out and earn a living. Director Loira Limbal does not profile any of the kids, focusing most of her attention on Hogan and her colleagues. 

Her patience is saintlike. There are no “problem children,” yet these kids have constant, specific needs. Hogan also provides overnight care for parents who work graveyard shifts, and there is no real opportunity for rest. There are endless opportunities to complain, but she is not resentful or desperate. She and Limbal simply want everyone, not just parents, to internalize the herculean effort that goes into this work.

A narrative emerges in Through the Night about Hogan’s health, although Limbal reveals it slowly. As a middle-aged woman who is always on her feet, all it takes is one bad episode and a potential calamity can ensue. It should not have to be this hard, and child care centers should not have to operate with a constant spirit of sacrifice. This is the rare gentle and heartfelt film that nonetheless may provoke your sense of anger for justice. —Alan Zilberman

Available June 21 for 24 hours

The Dilemma of Desire

Directed by Maria Finitzo

USA

Nearly nine minutes into The Dilemma of Desire, a briefly visible poster in artist Sophia Wallace’s workshop sums up the film’s argument, for better or for worse. “Freedom in society can be measured by the distribution of orgasms,” it reads. Wallace’s work, and the documentary, revolves around uplifting the clitoris to push back against the misogynistic society that consistently fails to study it, talk about it, or teach young women about their own sexual pleasure or power. The cause is understandable: Girls grow up in a profoundly sex-negative culture that actively denies them basic understandings of their own body (for example, the fact that the clitoris is much larger than is externally visible, or that vaginal penetration alone usually isn’t enough to bring someone to orgasm). But the analysis is shaky. Is closing the “orgasm gap” the key to undoing patriarchy? Though it makes stabs at a larger philosophy, for the most part, the film seems to think so.

Dilemma is most interesting when it’s examining the social and sexual lives of young women, like when a small group discusses how they communicate their needs to a partner for the first time. And it follows a genuinely diverse group of subjects, including scientists, designers, and young people, some who already seem confident and self-actualized and others who are coming into themselves. A film more focused on them than Wallace’s CLITERACY, 100 Natural Laws, a text installation with pithy quotes like “The hole is not the whole” and “Democracy without cliteracy? Phallusy” would be a more subtle, and maybe more effective, look at how women understand their own pleasure. CLITERACY first debuted in 2012 in a fairly different feminist climate. About an hour in, Wallace discusses her idea of her clitoris art as “queer and open to everyone” and as “focused on power,” largely retreading her 2013 response to criticism that the project was transphobic and reductionist. Little has changed in how she thinks of the art.

Ultimately, the documentary doesn’t seem interested in asking what purpose, say, the vibrator on a necklace that San Francisco-based designer Ti Chang sells serves beyond starting conversations (and giving orgasms). Is that really a tool of liberation? Or is it just another thing to buy? —Emma Sarappo

Available June 21 for 24 hours

A full selection of AFI DOCS films is available at https://docs.afi.com/2020/all/alpha/all/