We’ve been going to AFIDOCS since 2014. It’s usually a great long weekend of documentaries and mixing with film lovers and filmmakers. This year because of COVID-19, it was a virtual festival, entirely online and though the films were great, I really missed that human interaction, as well as the live Q&A sessions after many of the films. Nevertheless, it was a great few days of intensive documentary watching. Here are my takes on what I saw.
JIMMY CARTER: ROCK & ROLL PRESIDENT is without question my favorite film of the festival. I cast my very first presidential vote for Carter and have respected the man for decades for his heart and his work. But this totally engaging documentary made me love him even more. Plenty of politicians invite musicians to the White House, but for Carter it was more than a photo-op. He knew a slew of them personally and in every genre. In fact, his best friends to this day are Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan! And if not for The Allman Brothers he might never have been president. This one is a feel-good must-see. (Clip here.)
CODED BIAS is a truly frightening film. It explores all the ways that algorithms are controlling our lives, but scarier still how biased they are and what they can do to us. At the center of the film is Joy Buolamwini an MIT Media Lab researcher who created the Algorithmic Justice League after finding that flawed Facial Recognition software is being rolled out with no regulation and with inherent biases against women and people of color. She points out that we have naively given unfettered power to AI in so many areas of our lives and that our blind faith in big data is dangerous. You’ll be looking at what kinds of information you share online in a very different way after viewing this film. Be afraid. (Clip of Joy Buolamwini here.)
WHITE NOISE follows three leaders in the alt-right community as they travel around and spread their hatred. Richard Spencer is famous for organizing the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville march, though he takes no responsibility for what happened. Mike Chernovich is an alt-right media personality who has pushed conspiracy theories (remember Pizzagate?) and men’s rights propaganda. And Lauren Southern is a Canadian White Supremicist who had a huge following on social media. The filmmakers had amazing access to all three. It’s a film that will make you mad and frequently make your jaw drop, though by the end Spenser is in hiding in Montana, Chernovich is selling skin care products, and Southern is, with no sense of irony, having a child with a person of color. (Film excerpt here.)
SING ME A SONG is a beautifully shot film about Peyangki, a young monk in Bhutan. It began with another documentary when he was just 8-years-old and full of life. Then 10 years later, the filmmaker Thomas Balmès catches up with him again. Smart phones and satellite dishes have come to the village and he’s as technology addicted as any kid in the world. And he’s using WeChat to talk with a girl. Even though he’s warned by the Master that he’s falling behind in his studies, he can’t seem to give it up and eventually heads to the city to find the girl. It’s a very sad story. What’s remarkable about the documentary is how much it feels like a narrative film with plot twists and a tragic love story. It’s also a damning piece on the dangers of technology. I kind of hope the filmmaker keeps up with Peyangki. (Trailer here)
ONE LIFE takes the audience into the biggest refugee camp on earth in Pakistan. The people there are Rohingya who escaped from Myanmar (Burma) after the state carried out mass killings, rapes, and burning of houses. It is estimated that 95% of Rohingyas are now in the camp in a tragedy is could have been prevented had the world not looked the other way. The film humanizes the story through a beautiful little girl in the camp who just wants to hang out with her friend and go to school, though she’d eventually like to go back to Rakine State to look for her father who disappeared in the chaos as they were escaping. The film also spends time with the head of the World Food Program who’s working to feed 800,000 people everyday in the camp and describes how the majority of hunger in the world can be traced to man made conflicts. It’s a tragic situation with no obvious solution.
THE REASON I JUMP is based on a bestselling book written by 13-year-old Naoki Higashida a Japanese boy with autism who was able to describe to the world what it was like to live in his non-verbal world. The film takes several non-speaking people from around the world and shows how they are able to find their own paths to communicating with the outer world. It’s a beautiful and eye-opening film. (Trailer here.)
BLOOD ON THE WALL is a hard film to watch. It begins with the story of one of the caravans of Central Americans coming up to seek asylum in the US. The filmmakers chose two characters to follow through the film – a mother with many children, and a young woman traveling with her boyfriend. Their stories are counterbalanced with a comprehensive history of violence in the Americas, the reason that so many choose to leave home and make the dangerous journey north, and how the drug trade has made Mexico such a dangerous country to live in, much less to pass through.
FREEDIA GOT A GUN is the personal story of Big Freedia, a well-known New Orleans bounce musician whose brother is killed, turning her into a gun violence activist. Her brother’s killer is not found, but the search educates her about New Orleans’ horrifying rates of violence particularly within the African-American community and how it has become all to common. She’s out to change that. She meets with wide range of people in the community who are working to stop the cycle. And she intervenes in the life of a young man who seems destined to fall prey to the lure of guns. It’s a sad, but ultimately hopeful film.
BULLY. COWARD. VICTIM. THE STORY OF ROY COHN is a scathing indictment of the man made by the granddaughter of Cohn’s most famous victims, the Rosenbergs. (Full review here.)
THE FIGHT will make you love the ACLU lawyers who are trying their best to save the country from the current administration’s attack on the constitution. (Full review here.)
THE LETTER tells the story of a young man in Kenya whose Grandmother is accused of being a witch and his journey back to the countryside to get to the bottom of it. It’s fascinating tale. (Full review here.)
AKASHINGA: THE BRAVE ONES takes you inside a training camp in Zimbabwe where women are trained to be rangers protecting elephants from poachers. Their oath includes the words, “I’m prepared to give my life.” Most of the women who are there have gone through adversity in their lives and this is a great opportunity to show their strength. It’s a great #GIRLPOWER story. (Trailer here)
FLOWER PUNK is all about plant artist Azuma Makoto who does things with flowers like no one else I’ve seen. They’re gorgeous and creative and many are more conceptual than decorative. He’s sent arrangements into space and into the depths of the sea. His aesthetic comes from the same philosphy as his former punk rock days. “My artwork is a prayer.” It’s beautiful film of a fascinating man and his art. (Here’s a clip about him)
PATTY ARE YOU BRINGING WEED IN FROM JAMAICA? is a funny little animation about a flight attendant who back in the day did in fact bring weed back from Jamaica. Some of it even made its way to Woodstock. (Trailer here.)
THE DEEPEST HOLE is a bizarre story about a big hoax. In 1961 the US and the USSR were in competition to see who could dig the deepest hole. The US lost bigly, but the Russians dug really deep and recorded what was down there and it sounded like a million people screaming. Russian scientist Dr. Assarov leaked the tapes and the Christian broadcasters had a field day proving that hell really exists. Only it wasn’t true. (Here’s the sound that they faked.)
MEMOIRS OF VEGETATION is a very short short about the castor bean and its uses from castor oil to supertoxin ricin.
I’m hoping that next year we’ll be sitting in theaters, seeing the films on big screens, and sharing our thoughts with other film lovers while waiting in line for the next doc to start. Meanwhile, the film viewing will go on online in our living rooms. There are still so many to see. I hope you can catch as many of these as possible.
Note: For Mainstream Chick’s perspective on AFIDOCS and the films she saw – including Boys State, The Fight, Dads, A Thousand Cuts, Miracle Fishing, Women in Blue, The Lost Astronaut (short), Rebuilding Paradise, and Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President – check out these editions of the Cinema Clash podcast!