Usually when I see the slate for AFIDOCS I get excited for a few of them and intrigued by many more. But this time around, I was not all that blown away. So heading to DC, I had pretty low expectations. I think that was a good way to go. Not that there were any bad docs, but it was a very safe set of films this year, for the most part.
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality
Opening Night’s doc was about a pretty amazing man named Bryan Stevenson. He’s a lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama who defends men on death row. What animates him is his belief that the justice system doesn’t now or has it ever applied equally to the poor and people of color. And so he founded the Equal Justice Initiative. The film highlights the stories of a few of the men who were unjustly sent to death row for crimes they didn’t commit and who through Stevenson’s dogged determination were finally released after decades in prison. He’s argued 5 cases before the Supreme Court. But the most interesting part of the film is what he has to say about the systemic history of incarceration of black men. The film is a bit long and the filmmakers wanted to include a side story about the national lynching museum, which Stevenson spearheaded, and though it is interesting, it felt tacked onto a story about a man fighting the great fight. He’s amazing. The film is good. (The documentary is currently on HBO. The trailer is below. A film adaptation of his bestseller, “True Mercy,” will open next year with Stevenson played by Michael B. Jordan.)
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool is a linear telling of the life and music of the great jazz trumpeter. If you love jazz, you’ll want to see/hear it. Directed by Stanley Nelson whose The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution was one of my favorite docs of the last decade, the film leads you through Davis’s career, his loves, his demons and his genius. But the beauty of the direction is that along the way the music is presented in context of the time – the early New York era, the Paris years, the jazz star period, and his many reinventions and innovations. I’m not sure I like his music any more knowing the context, but it is a fascinating tale of one of the 20th century’s great musicians. (The film will go into theatrical release in September, with PBS airing the film as part of its American Masters series sometime in early 2020. Trailer below)
17 Blocks is a sad and personal gun violence tale. Shot over two decades by a family in Washington, DC, you see kids growing up in a single parent house. Mom is a junkie, though she does try to keep it together. Her three kids do their best. But there is one kid who is the star – good grades, nice girlfriend, plans for the future. And then there is a tragic shooting. The film is about how the family got to that point and how it affected them afterwards. They record all the time and have a camera in the house when the sister is wiping up the blood in the vestibule. The most shocking thing though in the movie was the crawl at the end of it where they say the film is dedicated to the victims of gun violence in DC since the day the brother was shot and you see one card and think, “That many?” but then there is another card and another and another and another. And this is happening just 17 blocks from the U. S. Capitol Building.
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice actually surprised me. I’d been a big fan back in the 70s and 80s and had all her albums. Sure, she won a ton of Grammys, but I’d never realized just how talented she was. The film gave me a new appreciation for her voice, but also for her as a person. She was strong enough to chart her own course when the men around her were trying to steer her in directions she didn’t want to go. When she was at the top of the charts, she chose to take a chance and star in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” Against all her handlers’ advice she did an album of standards. (I loved that one!) And she even did a Spanish language album complete with Mariachi band. The music is great, but I walked away from this film with a very different kind of admiration for a singer who was sadly sidelined by Parkinsons.
Protecting Journalists and Safeguarding Press Freedoms: A New Inititiative. The Washington Post put together is panel to talk about press freedom and the dangers to a free press. Before the discussion, there was a screening of a short documentary they produced called The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, which shows just how disinterested our current administration is in placing the blame for the heinous murder of a journalist at the feet of the perpetrators. The journalists on the panel talked about how the free press is under attack and how many journalists are killed these days around the world. The statistics are frightening and the Washington Post along with a number of partners are working to highlight the dangers that this kind of silencing of the press has for us all. It was a great and sobering discussion. (Video link above.)
Searching Eva was the only film I saw at the festival that was truly outside the box. It’s about a young Italian woman living in Berlin who is a blogger. The filmmakers discovered her online where she has an enormous following. Her blog is about her quotidian existence. That she’s an artist, a model, and a sex worker helps explain the draw. But she’s an enigma. She claims to be autistic and bisexual. And she seems to live a different place every month. She’s hard to pin down, but she is hard to look away from. I can see why the filmmakers were drawn to her. I followed her on Facebook just after the movie. I’m looking forward to her further adventures. (Trailer below)
American Factory is incredibly timely and pertinent to the way forward for the US and the world. In it, a factory closes leaving thousands in an Ohio town without jobs. Then a Chinese company reopens the factory, but there is the inevitable clash of cultures. The pay isn’t close to what it was and there is an effort to unionize. What is most interesting is that the filmmakers had unfettered access, given by the Chinese owner, and they are able to interview both the Chinese workers who come over to work and the Americans about how they feel about each other. The Chinese impressions of what Americans think and feel are as telling as the American’s assumptions about the Chinese workers. This may be the way of the future here and around the world, and it’s important that people learn to work together despite their differences. It’s a very well done documentary. One of my top picks of the festival. (The film will be streaming on Netflix August 21st.)
Sea of Shadows tells the story of the race to save the world’s smallest whale, the vaquita, from extinction. There are just 15 left in the world and they are in the Sea of Cortez of Baja California. Unfortunately, they live in waters where fishermen are racing to harvest the totoaba fish. Apparently, the totoaba’s bladder is prized in Chinese medicine and the prices for them mean that the fishermen use gill nets to pull everything in their path in catching the rare vaquitas along with everything else. So there are environmentalists trying to stop them. But the fishermen are making so much money that the criminal element of drug cartels have come in to traffic the bladders to the Chinese. Enter Earth League International, run by a security expert who knows how to go after smugglers and to use the media to do it. Together with a brave news presenter they go after the corrupt police and get the Mexican military involved. There is a very sad episode where scientists come in who believe they can save the vaquita by capturing them and sequestering them until they are safe. But when they do capture one, the animal cannot withstand the stress and dies. It’s devastating. The film ends on a hopeful note, but with so few of the vaquitas left, you can only wonder if it is enough in time. (The film will be in theaters July 12th. Trailer below.)
Cold Case Hammarskjold is an odd documentary. Filmmaker Mads Brügger heads to Zambia after hearing conspiracy theories and tall tales about how UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was murdered in 1961. Along the way he begins hearing about a secret society of spies and assassins from South Africa who may have been the perpetrators of the killing. At first it sounds entirely outlandish, but as the story widens, it seems there actually is some nefarious group called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) and one of their members tells the tales of their many bad deeds on behalf of corporations and governments. The film is told in a very stylized and dramatic form. Brügger, dressed in all white, is in a hotel room dictating to a secretary who happens to be played by two different women. But it shifts in tone when he meets the assassin who is happy to tell all. There are enough credible accusations about the murder of Hammarskjold to make the case for his assassination. But what of the SAIMR group and their association with governments and countless other evil deeds that are recounted in the film? I’m not so sure that Brügger wasn’t the victim of a scam or two. Nevertheless, the film is frequently funny and the stories suck you in, and you walk out wondering if the group that could murder a man who was just trying to make peace in Africa are still working against world peace to this day. (The film has an August 16 release. Trailer below.)
I began the day with a Shorts Program. I always try to see a few of them and I still wish they’d be shown before the longer form ones instead of as a whole block. I’d also like to know where I could send folks to see a few of these.
A Very Thin Line was the weakest of the bunch. It is about alternative currencies. One is a community currency and the other is some dude from the 80s who scammed people. His story is all old fuzzy video someone must have found on YouTube. The film doesn’t really present a story or a question. It’s the “scratching my head as to how this one made it into this festival” doc.
Dulce was made by The New York Times. It’s a small story of a Colombian mother urging her scared daughter to learn to swim so she can help with the shell harvesting. It’s sweet and has an environmental message about sustainability and global warming.
Mack Wrestles was the best of the bunch. It’s the story of a transgender wrestler in Texas who was forced to wrestle girls because the law there said you had to compete with the sex on your birth certificate. You like Mack and want him to succeed. He wins his matches with the girls, but just wants to be able to live his life as a boy, which he does by the end of the film. It’s a very powerful doc produced by ESPN.
Quilt Fever is about an annual quilt convention in Paducah, Kentucky. Nothing eye-opening. It’s the feel-good flick of the bunch.
The Separated should be required watching for every member of Congress and the entire White House staff. In it, a mother and her 5-year-old son are separated at the border and a pro-bono lawyer works to reunite them. And she does, but the psychological trauma to the little boy is unbearable and possibly irreparable. There a scene after the reunification where the boy and his mom are finally together and he’s having a meltdown and tells her that she isn’t his mother any more, and it just breaks your heart. Just telling my Mom about it, I couldn’t help but cry. This one was from The Atlantic. (Teaser below)
The Trial is about the lawyers defending the last 9/11 suspects in Guantanamo. It’s the story of unequal justice and our own government’s obstruction of the men and women who are tasked with representing some people who may were alleged to be part of the planning of 9/11 and have been awaiting trial ever since. It’s very well done and the story is maddening.
The Great Hack is all about the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, and their part in the 2016 election and Brexit, and how our personal data are being used against us all over the place. Cambridge Analytica’s role in taking the data we all give away so callously and turning it into lists of people who are “persuadable” and then targeting them for political ends is scary and should make us try to be more cautious of the data miners. The film takes an odd turn when they start following Brittany Kaiser who worked with Cambridge Analytica and is trying to turn herself into the heroic whistleblower by telling all now that the damage is done. Near the end she’s heading over to talk with Robert Meuller and I wonder how he saw her. Mostly this doc, which is showing on Netflix, is a cautionary tale, and should call for some regulation of the corporations that are actively mining our data and selling it to people who don’t have the greater good as a goal.
Raise Hell: The Life of Molly Ivins was the perfect feel-good film to end the festival with. If you don’t know who Molly Ivins was, you’ll be a fan by the end of this doc. It’s a pretty straightforward telling of her life and times. But since she was smart and funny and tackled some of the big stories of her day with such a keen eye for people and their motivations, it’s a rollicking 93 minutes. (Clips below.)
[Note: For Mainstream Chick’s insights and highlights from the 2019 AFIDOCS, check out this special edition of the Cinema Clash podcast]
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight For Equality
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
Sea of Shadows
Cold Case Hammarskjold
Raise Hell: The Life of Molly Ivins (clips)