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For years now, Washington City Paper has been calling AFI DOCS, the American Film Institute’s documentary film festival, D.C.’s “best film festival.” It’s set up for success, with big names on its advisory board—Ken Burns, Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog—and highly anticipated films, like this year’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain and Naomi Osaka. Still, that kind of reputation can be a heavy burden to bear. But every year it keeps bringing us stories that inspire, infuriate, and interrogate us, even in 2020, when the festival was all-virtual. This year, it’s bringing back some in-person screenings at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, a welcome reminder that our favorite cultural experiences aren’t gone forever, even if things don’t feel quite “normal” again. Below are our critics’ impressions, good and bad, of a selection of films we’re excited about; the full slate is available online. —Emma Sarappo
The festival runs from June 22–27. All in person screenings are at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. More information, including coronavirus safety information, is available at docs.afi.com. $10–$13.
Directed by Drew Xanthopoulos
Fathom is the rare documentary that stirs the imagination, mind, and heart. It follows two scientists who are trying to better understand the songs produced by humpback whales. Dr. Michelle Fournet leaves Cornell University for Alaska, where she uses field recordings to begin a “conversation” with other whales in the area. Dr. Ellen Garland leaves the University of St. Andrews for the South Pacific, where she follows the paths of one specific song to understand the patterns of whale communication. On top of the fascinating research, both scientists prove to be charismatic figures, and Fathom unfolds like a thrilling, quixotic adventure. Many documentaries nowadays rely on talking heads, archival footage, and drone shots. Director Drew Xanthopoulos avoids all that, and instead opts to shoot the film like a travelogue. French Polynesia and the Alaskan frontier are some of the most beautiful places in the world, and the film subtly suggests the escapist quality of their research is part of the appeal. Whales are always at the forefront, but Xanthopoulos gradually shifts his focus on the scientists themselves. Dr. Fournet is a bit like Henry David Thoreau, except Alaska is her Walden Pond, while Dr. Garland frets about her husband back home. Both are thoughtful about the clash between their ambitions and their personal lives, and the dramatic scenery only undercuts how difficult that separation must be.
Fathom is a bit like the sci-fi film Arrival. Both films are about mild-mannered female academics who try to find a common language with strange, unknowable creatures. They have immaculate photography, and the quiet thrill of discovery. But what Fathom stresses—a sentiment shared by its subjects—is that we do not need to travel so far to come across a culture that is largely unknowable to us. Available virtually June 23 at noon. Screens in person June 23 at 5:15 p.m. —Alan Zilberman
Directed by Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine
For Becky Sauerbrunn, the captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, the battle for equal pay is bigger than herself—or even her teammates. “We’re not just fighting for soccer glory. We’re also representing what women can be when given a certain platform. Anything less than winning is a failure,” she says in the documentary LFG (short for “Let’s Fucking Go”) by directors Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, on the class-action, gender discrimation lawsuit that the players filed against the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2019. Megan Rapinoe, a charismatic and outspoken star on the team, puts it in even more frank terms. “If they win, no one wins,” she says late in the film. “If we win, everyone wins.” The documentary follows Sauerbrunn, Rapinoe, forward Jessica McDonald, defender Kelley O’Hara, and midfielder Sam Mewis, as they navigate each exhausting and emotionally draining step of the lawsuit, giving viewers a sense of the pressures the players have experienced ever since all 28 members of the team filed the lawsuit on March 8, 2019—International Women’s Day. When the World Cup began on June 7, 2019, the women felt the burden to not only win, but make a statement. They didn’t beat Thailand, 13-0, in the group stage to embarrass their opponents; the women wanted to show their employer their worth. “If we win this World Cup, they would have no choice but to be on our side,” McDonald predicted. So far that hasn’t been the case. In one of the more raw and emotional moments in the film, cameras capture Rapinoe and O’Hara crying on the field after beating the Netherlands, 2-0, in the World Cup final. The fans in the stadium begin chanting, “Equal pay!” The scene arrives early in the film for a reason. That moment wasn’t the end, but rather the beginning of their ongoing fight. Available virtually June 23 at noon. Screens in person June 23 at 8 p.m. —Kelyn Soong
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
“It’s great for business, but it’s not great for our people.” That’s how Jonathan Robinson, the proprietor of DC TE, a photo studio and t-shirt printing company in Temple Hills, darkly describes the increase in homicides across the region. Most often, he prints so-called R.I.P. T-shirts, on which customers pay tribute to lost loved ones, many of whom died as the result of gun violence. Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner titled their short documentary after those shirts. Their cameras follow Robinson and his customers, all of whom remain nameless, at a time when gun violence is on the rise in D.C. The choice to keep the individuals nameless emphasizes how widespread gun violence has become in the region. One by one, the customers file into Robinson’s small shop, lean over his computer to design a tribute, and hand him the item of clothing they’d like the tribute printed on, all while recounting their own experiences with gun violence. Some have lost multiple family members; others have been shot themselves. As more customers come in with requests, the names on the shirts will start to appear familiar to Washingtonians; among them are Malachi Lukes, killed in a random shooting in Shaw days before his 14th birthday in March 2020, Karon Brown, an 11-year-old fatally shot after a dispute at a McDonald’s off Alabama Avenue SE in July 2019, and 15-year-old Maurice “Lil Mo” Scott, shot and killed in Congress Heights in May 2019. Although Davis and Heilbroner are based in New York, R.I.P. T-Shirts feels particularly of D.C. because the focus remains on Robinson. Unsurprisingly, he appears emotionally exhausted from the work, as only a person who encounters people at their lowest moments can. Also adding to the D.C. feel is Anwan “Big G” Glover of Backyard Band, who serves as an executive producer and wrote a title song for the film. Available virtually June 23 at noon. —Caroline Jones
The Slow Hustle
Directed by Sonja Sohn
Four years later, the manner of Baltimore homicide Detective Sean Suiter’s death is still uncertain. The 18-year veteran of the force died from a single gunshot wound to the head while on duty in 2017. But city officials cannot agree to this day whether he took his own life or whether he was killed. An independent review panel concluded Suiter’s death was a suicide. The state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. His story, and that of his family, is the subject of the new documentary from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn. The Slow Hustle weaves body camera footage, news clips, and original footage to follow Suiter’s death, his funeral, his own department’s investigation into his death, and the political establishment that’s failed to extinguish corruption. Suiter died one day before he was set to testify against fellow Baltimore Police Department officers in a federal corruption case.
At its core, Sohn’s film exposes the devastating ripple effects that police violence and corruption has on the people and communities that law enforcement agencies are sworn to protect. If the department cannot treat its own officer’s death fairly, how can the public, especially Black residents, trust officers to treat them any differently? explains D. Watkins, an editor-at-large for Salon. “What developed for me out of the whole story is this whole idea of Black lives really don’t matter, like, even if you’re a police officer,” Watkins says. “They really don’t.” Available virtually June 23 at noon. Screens in person June 24 at 8:15 p.m. —Mitch Ryals
Directed by Beth Levison and Jerry Risius
The death of local news is one of the biggest stories in the media industry. Many Americans live in a “news desert,” or a place where there are no outlets to cover their community. Storm Lake shows what one small paper can offer its readers. Its focus is The Storm Lake Times, a Pulitzer-winning newspaper in northwestern Iowa. Directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius follow Art Cullen, the paper’s editor, as he covers major events where he lives. It is truly a family business: Art’s wife, son, and brother are all involved in some way.
Throughout the film, Levison and Risius argue that the Cullens are better equipped to cover their community than anyone else. Some episodes in this film make that argument better than others. Storm Lake depicts the lead-up to the 2020 Iowa Caucus, for example, where Art is the moderator for a town hall with several major candidates. But when it comes to the caucus itself, which by all accounts was a disaster, Art concludes there would be no definitive result around the same time outside news analysts did. A stronger case for the paper’s necessity happens later in the film, which covers the start of the pandemic. The paper looks at the pandemic from an urgent local angle, since meat-packing plants are a major economic force for the area, and there were serious concerns for worker safety. Storm Lake is an uneasy stroll down memory lane, and its target audience is probably already aware of its central thesis. Last year was traumatic for practically everyone, and your desire to watch this film may dovetail with your willingness to relive the early part of an uncertain, nerve-wracking period. Foresight and Art’s folksy charm helps smooth things over—he looks a bit like Mark Twain—but even that has its limits. Available virtually June 24 at noon. Screens in person June 24 at 8 p.m. —Alan Zilberman
White Coat Rebels
Directed by Greg Barker
White Coat Rebels is a documentary that never gets started. Ostensibly about the people who push against the more unsavory aspects of the American pharmaceutical industry, Greg Barker’s film does superficially profile activists in the medical profession, from students to doctors to professors. But what exactly they’re fighting is anybody’s guess. Yes, it may be common knowledge that Big Pharma seems to care more about making a profit than saving lives, but the issue is never plainly stated here. Instead we get comments without explanations, such as “When you work in pharmaceutical marketing, you drink the Kool-Aid” and “Health care is a civil rights issue.” Each commenter seems to represent a different facet of why the industry is bad, but the roundabout way in which each is approached fails to make them clear. This is the rare case of a film that needs more telling, not showing—seeing people in random meetings, for example, doesn’t convey what led them there in the first place, and you wish Barker had offered more of the statistics that often weigh other documentaries down. The film is needlessly divided into months, beginning with September 2019 and ending around April 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic is for some reason addressed; I suppose it may have been odd not to mention it, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the topic at hand, except for the issue of how much money Pfizer, Moderna, and others received to develop vaccines. But considering the vaccines have been distributed for free, there’s nothing for the white coat rebels to rebel against, right? After 80 minutes of skimming the surface, the last line in the doc is, “We have a lot of work to do.” If only we knew toward what. Available virtually June 24 at noon. Screens in person June 25 at 7:30 p.m. —Tricia Olszewski
The One and Only Dick Gregory
Directed by Andre Gaines
The world is full of celebrities who lend their name—and now, social media accounts—to various social issues, but few give their lives to them like Dick Gregory did. The comedian broke ground with his hard-hitting racial humor in the early ’60s before risking his life to fight for civil rights and eventually taking a hard turn into becoming a personal health advocate—and perhaps the earliest famous vegan activist—in the ’70s and ’80s. Whatever Gregory did, he was among the first to do it.
The documentary, executive produced by Lena Waithe and Kevin Hart, seeks to reassert Gregory’s place as an important figure of the 20th century. It does so effectively and predictably, trotting out a series of talking heads including Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes, and Dave Chappelle to riff on Gregory’s influence in the field of comedy. Chappelle seems to have gotten the most from him, including his political content, measured delivery, and the use of a cigarette as prop. Archival footage of the comic himself on various talk shows puts his prodigious talent on display. After just a few clips, you won’t need any further convincing that Gregory was a rare artist.
This tried-and-true approach to documentary filmmaking is usually worthy of critique, but here it makes his radical singularity stand out even more. We have seen docs about civil rights activists, comedians, and health champions before, but never all at once. By the time Gregory has embarked on a 14-month hunger strike to protest the war in Vietnam and is running across the country, Forrest Gump-style, to raise awareness about an American obesity epidemic that hadn’t even arrived yet, you’ll find yourself convinced not just of Gregory’s greatness as a comic but as deserving a place in history as the rare person who saw what was coming and put his life on the line to stop it. Available virtually June 24 at noon. Screens in person June 26 at 8 p.m. —Noah Gittell
Summer of Soul (…or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Dubbed the Black Woodstock, the Harlem Cultural Festival offered a series of free shows in Manhattan’s Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park in the summer of 1969; the lineup overflowed with legends from Stevie Wonder to Sly Stone and Nina Simone, and the whole series was recorded on two-inch videotape—but the tapes languished in an archive for more than 50 years. For his directorial debut, record collector and Roots frontman Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson assembled this never-before-seen footage and assembled what amounts to a rich mixtape, interspersing inspired performances with reminiscences from musicians and audience members as well as news clips that put that hot and potentially volatile summer into context. What’s not to love? Well, there’s only so much music and context you can fit into a two-hour feature, and the artists get shortchanged. Before the Temptations’ David Ruffin gets to finish “My Girl,” for instance, he’s interrupted by a talking head telling us how great it was and how much his friends loved the band. While sometimes there’s too much context, at other times there’s not enough. Avant-garde guitar shredder Sonny Sharrock gets a brief highlight, but what Questlove doesn’t mention is that Sharrock’s free jazz solo was in the confines of a band led by Herbie Mann, whose pop-jazz albums of the era are notoriously schlocky but which lent studio time (and for Sharrock, a record deal) to some highly uncommercial sidemen.
Still, one expects the full performances to be released eventually, so for now it’s hard to resist this musical narrative, which ends on a perfect note with Sly Stone’s band of Black and White men and women playing “Higher,” which, along with a Mahalia Jackson showstopper, is one of the few uninterrupted songs in the movie. Available virtually June 25 at noon. Screens in person June 25 at 8 p.m. —Pat Padua
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Directed by Morgan Neville
It’s been three years since Anthony Bourdain died by suicide, but for those who admired him, his absence is still felt as acutely as a searing burn from working the stove. Hell, even people who hated Bourdain or were envious of him probably yearn to hear him make sense of the news of the day, be it how restaurants around the world cooked through a global pandemic or how the restaurant industry will have to adapt to find and keep staff. A new documentary from Morgan Neville follows the chef and entertainer’s meteoric rise and attempts to suss out his lasting legacy. Bourdain’s life and career is pocked with missteps and misadventures, reminding viewers it’s possible to love an imperfect person. Neville has been quoted frequently calling the documentary “an act of therapy for the public.” That tracks, especially because Bourdain eerily serves as the narrator for much of the movie. But with cameos from Bourdain’s intimate circle—chefs David Chang and Éric Ripert, the mother of his daughter, and his long-tenured, globetrotting film crew—the filmmaker invites viewers to shiva-like intimate remembrance. Even if you’ve read every page of Bourdain’s breakout book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and consumed every episode of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, you’re bound to learn something new about the man who spent his life voraciously seeking out new experiences and laying bare that we have more in common than we think. Bourdain, it turns out, wobbled at first when he first transitioned into a TV personality. His producers wondered if they’d made a mistake putting him on the small screen. They didn’t. Available virtually June 25 from 8 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. —Laura Hayes
Directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza
Courtroom 3H gives viewers a fly-on-the-wall look into Tallahassee, Florida’s Unified Family Court. The film, shot over the course of 30 days in 2019 using still cameras, is nearly two hours of raw emotion that ranges from devastation to elation. Viewers get little context beyond the opening credits that identify the time, place, and purpose of the proceedings. Viewers see a rotating cast of 300 hearings’ worth of parents, children, caregivers, lawyers, and social workers as they debate the fate of minor children in the face of allegations of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. The courtroom’s sterile setting clashes with the messy and emotional family dynamics on screen. Children at the center of the proceedings wander in and out of the frames. At one point, a young girl builds a tower with blocks at the table while the man who might be her father speaks with the judge.
“The court’s first priority,” the opening credits say, “is to put the family back together as quickly and safely as possible.” The first part of the film features cases in their early stages, before they reach trial. Some parents voluntarily surrender their legal rights. Others fight the state’s petition to terminate them involuntarily and answer for allegations of abuse. The second half shows segments of two trials that typically are not public. The first of which features a father who lives in Venezuela and has never met the child he’s trying to keep. Before issuing his decision, the judge, who speaks throughout the film in a measured tone, shows his understanding of the extraordinary circumstances of the case and the impossible decision before him. “I can’t get time back. I can’t make Venezuela be closer to Tallahassee than it is,” the judge says. “I can’t change the diplomatic relations that, oh my god, the country has.” Like the real Courtroom 3H, the film has no real beginning or end. It simply offers a look into a heartbreaking world where some families are ripped apart and others are stitched together. Available virtually June 25 at noon. Screens in person June 26 at 4:30 p.m. —Mitch Ryals
The Lost Leonardo
Directed by Andreas Koefoed
Andreas Koefoed turns what may be the greatest profit margin in art history into an engaging thriller at the intersection of art and commerce. In 2005, a pair of art dealers emerged from a New Orleans auction house with what they at first thought was a modest purchase: an image of Jesus that a catalog listed as a copy of a long lost work by Leonardo da Vinci. But the more the dealers looked at what they had, the more they began to wonder: Could this be the real deal? The film’s art market setting becomes a backdrop for a story of Renaissance fever and modern skepticism, populated by intense characters at its center and vivid supporting figures like critic Jerry Saltz, who early in the film adamantly, hilariously insists, “It’s not even a good painting!” Despite doubts about the painting’s provenance—and the drawn-out restoration by specialist Dianne Modestini—the asking price increased astronomically, and the heated Christie’s bidding war put the canvas into the hands of a Saudi prince who may or may not have used the sale for some kind of money laundering scheme … which is why the FBI got involved. If you thought a Leonardo masterpiece lived a stately life in elegant marble rooms with hardly a care, you’ve got another thing coming, whether the painting came directly from the master’s hand or is just a kitschy reconstruction. Available virtually June 26 at noon. —Pat Padua
No Straight Lines
Directed by Vivian Kleiman
Like its title, No Straight Lines is a bit askew. The quirky documentary, based on a 2012 anthology of the same name, explores the weird and wonderful world of underground queer comics and cartoons, covering everything from Tom of Finland to Dykes to Watch Out For, from the 1970s to the present. There’s a lot No Straight Lines does well: The heart and soul of the documentary is Howard Cruse, early editor of the Gay Comix series, author of the moving graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, and a mentor to many of the cartoonists featured. Cruse died in 2019, adding a bittersweet edge to the scenes of his daily life with his partner of decades, Eddie, and the praise his fellow cartoonists heap on him. We get to follow artists like Alison Bechdel into their studios, where they get real about craft—at one point, Bechdel points to an early comic of hers and identifies exactly the pen she used by the linework on the page. And it refuses to separate erotica and sexual cartoons from the wider world of LGBTQ comics, acknowledging how cartoonists’ stories of falling in love and making love are inseparable, politically and personally.
The brief looks at a new group of artists making work in the 21st century, however, are more jumbled than the illuminating interviews with Cruse, Bechdel, and people like Mary Wings, whose 1973 Come Out Comix was a groundbreaking look at lesbian life from a lesbian. Although the new guard are making ambitious, boundary-pushing work (at least from the brief snatches you see on screen), they’re largely relegated to talking about how the titans of the movement influenced them and don’t quite get their due. But No Straight Lines is a welcome accounting of how underground queer comics grew and flourished. Its tone is a puckish blend of funny, sincere, and sometimes sexy. For anyone hoping to understand how something like Fun Home could become a smash Broadway hit, the context is all in the cartoons that came before. Available virtually June 26 at noon. Screens in person June 26 at 5 p.m. —Emma Sarappo
The Story Won’t Die
Directed by David Henry Gerson
Many documentaries, some of them award-winning, have covered the fallout of the Syrian Civil War. They can be too much to bear: in one particularly harrowing example, The Cave depicts a mother sobbing over the lifeless body of her child. The Story Won’t Die doesn’t confront the death and subsequent refugee crisis so directly. Instead, it follows artists who left Syria for Europe, and how they use their creativity to make sense of their homeland.
Director David Henry Gerson jumps from one artist to another. There are rappers, singers, guitarists, choreographers, and illustrators who all make Syria their primary subject. The arc of the film more or less follows the country’s recent history: the Arab Spring protests, the civil war, and yearning for freedom. Their art is frequently arresting: they combine traditions to create something new and deeply tragic. One particular highlight is Anas Maghrebi, who croons over haunting solo guitar about his survivor’s guilt. As the documentary continues and the artists reflect over their work and experience, they come to share a sad conclusion. These men and women all have doubts about art’s power, and what purpose their endeavors ultimately serve. Gerson—who is a D.C. native, incidentally—films the interviews so it feels as if they are confiding in us. It is the right technique for this material, and while there are no easy answers for Maghrebi and the others, their distance from the conflict allows for deeper reflection. Their outrage will always remain, but The Story Won’t Die shows how they come to find some wisdom about it, too. Available virtually June 26 at noon. Screens in person June 27 at 2:15 p.m. —Alan Zilberman
Directed by Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill
The ensemble coming-of-age movie has been a winning genre for decades, but only in recent years has it moved into non-fiction. Following in the path of 2018’s acclaimed Minding the Gap, which chronicled the young adulthood of three skater kids in Illinois, Cusp is a powerful film that documents and scrutinizes the lives of three teenage girls over one summer in their small Texas town.
Set against a series of expansive desert sunsets, Cusp is a film that benefits from how natural today’s teenagers feel on camera. When you’ve grown up on social media, having a film crew in your bedroom doesn’t feel so intrusive. Oblivious to the filmmakers’ presence, the 15-year-old protagonists of Cusp get frank about their parents, their boyfriends, their own self-image, and the daily trauma of being young and female. A story of a friend’s rape by her partner is passed around like casual gossip. They frequently joke about the swarm of 18-year-old boys who seem to show up in swarms whenever they are together.
They think they’re old enough to handle it. “What’s different about me,” one says, “is that I’m very wise, and my head’s not up my ass.” Somewhere between the pizza rolls, cold beers, and constant threat of sexual assault, a consistent portrait emerges of children who have grown up too fast and yet might just find themselves equipped to handle life’s challenges. First-time feature directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill mostly keep their thumb off the scales, letting their distinctive young women speak for themselves. It’s a strategy that pays off. It’s a film distinctly of its era—it’s hard to imagine this one being made before the seismic revelations of the MeToo moment—and a new chapter in a genre that never gets old. Available virtually June 27 from 8 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. —Noah Gittell