Major screening venues returned to the D.C. Penn Quarter Landmark E Street Cinema and the Silver Spring AFI Silver Theater. A special screening of Rory Kennedy's latest, "Above And Beyond: NASA's Journey To Tomorrow", honoring NASA's 60th anniversary, was shown in 4D at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's spectacular IMAX theater, which was utilized for the first time by the festival organizers.
AT&T was once again the Presenting Sponsor of the festival which featured the World Premiere of "Personal Statement" as the Opening Night film at the Newseum, about three Brooklyn high school students who work as college guidance support for their peers, while the Closing Night film (held for the first time at the Landmark venue) was "United Skates" about the role roller-skating plays in African-American culture.
Notable feature films: "Foster", the latest from Oscar winners Mark Jonathan Harris and Debbie Oppenheimer ("Into The Arms of Strangers" and "Stories Of The Kindertransport"); "A Murder In Mansfield" from two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple ("Harlan County, USA" from 1977 and "American Dream from 1991); "Into The Okavango" which is the directorial debut of National Geographic photographer Neil Gelinas; two Sundance Film Festival winners: "Shirkers" won the Directorial Award while "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" was honored with the Special Jury Price.
The Guggenheim Symposium, which each year recognizes a virtuoso documentary filmmaker, welcomed Steve James ("Hoop Dreams", "The Interrupters", "Life Itself", "Abacus: Small Enough To Jail"). It began with a retrospective of his works followed by a terrific interview moderated by Chicago Tribune film critic, Michael Phillips. The audience was then treated to the first installment of Steve James 10-hour documentary series "America To Me" which focuses on the examination of diversity at a Chicago high school. The series is set to debut this fall on the Starz cable network.
The fourth-annual AFI DOCS Impact Lab, produced by AFI DOCS and RABEN_IMPACT, included a three-day training program preceding the festival and, as stated in the festival guide, is "designed for filmmakers who aim to create change through the power of film." Adding, "The Lab offers exclusive trainings with sought-after tacticians in the social and political sphere . . . and are connected with policymakers and Congressional aides working on legislation relevant to their films."
Yet another festival highlight was a unique conversation between NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd and Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday asking whether a documentary is "Journalism or Art?"-or can it be both?
Finally, this was another tremendous 5-day festival which continues each year to successfully emphasize its importance in nonfiction filmmaking. Although the festival organizers indicated they would continue to maintain a presence in Silver Spring, unfortunately, the role of this birthplace of the fest appears to have diminished since its move to the nation's capital in 2013. Last year there were 22 of the 112 features, or 19%, that failed to screen at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring. This year there were 21 out of 92 films, or 22%, that played only in DC. Despite this troubling trend, here's hoping the organizers will continue to include the spectacular AFI Silver Theater in their screening venues in the future.
NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Mr. Soul!” directed by Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard about the late 1960s WNET public television series "Soul!" and its producer Ellis Haizlip who created one of the most successful black-produced TV shows in US history. The controversial series was among the first to focus on African Americans on TV shifting from inner-city poverty and violence to the enthusiasm of the Black Arts Movement. The Audience Award for Best Short went to "Earthrise” directed by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee about the legendary 1968 photo of the first image of Earth taken from space. (Neither film was screened by this reviewer.)
MY TOP 5 AT THE 2017 AFI DOCS
(1) Pick of the Litter (**** out of 4 - 81 Minutes)
We've all seen them. Attentive guide canines dutifully accompanying the disabled folks they protect and service. Ever wonder about the journey these animals take to attain this career status? Directors Don Hardy and Dana Nachman marvelously answers this question with a superb heartwarming film that also documents the plight humans undergo who are in charge of training them. A short prologue recounting the myriad of dangers impaired people face while going about their everyday lives is followed by our introduction to a newly birthed litter of five black and tan Labradors born on the nonprofit San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Training begins shortly after the Labs are born as the directors meticulously depict the extensive journey where, along the way or at the conclusion, they will attain one of the three classifications that will ultimately determine their life purpose: guide dog, breeder, or career-changed. The latter designation meaning not eligible to be a part of the program, and where they are transferred to other programs or just adopted out as a domestic pet. When eight weeks old, they are paired with "puppy raiser" families or individuals, to be socialized and trained for up to sixteen months. We find that some of these foster families with problem dogs, or novice families, don't succeed as fast as the GDB personnel would like and abruptly find a different home to continue the process. Following the initial foster care, if the pups make it that far, they begin a rigorous 10-week training and evaluation session at GDB headquarters with handlers who subject them through multiple testing scenarios - sometimes undergoing retests before their final designation. Despite GDB breeding 800 puppies a year, less than 40% are deemed suitable as guide dogs - which emphasizes the painstaking process GDB personnel and raisers face to triumphantly lead these dogs to graduation. The filmmakers wisely shift their focus back and forth from dogs to handlers, simultaneously raising the drama and emotional level each time. Filming four hours a day for 120 days makes the outstanding editing job by Hardy (who also co-wrote the script and assisted in photography) all the more remarkable as he precisely juggled multiple story lines with seemingly effortless ease. And when you add an unobtrusively perfect background score provided by British composer Helen Jane Long, you have all the ingredients for a perfect documentary. "Pick of the Litter" was bought by ITV/Sundance Selects and will be released August 31 (it will premier at the E Street Landmark in DC on September 14). One bit of advice: bring Kleenex - and lots of it.
movement when he was appointed to Eisenhower's federal Commission on Civil Rights. Comprised of three republicans and two democrats, the commission, with the independent Hesburgh providing guidance and common sense wisdom and persuasion, was incredibly able to produce a bi-partisan twelve point recommendation to Congress that would become the cornerstone of historical civil rights legislation eventually signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. (As Creadon pointed out in the post-screening interview, Rev. Ted throughout his career was a man, " who could disagree without being disagreeable.") This is just a small example of the impact Hesburgh had during his lifetime - which are way too numerous to itemize in this space. The director has added a fascinating first-person narration that will hold your interest throughout a film which also possesses a wonderful score by Notre Dame senior Alex Mansour and seamless editing by Nick Andert and William Neal. Creadon (who also did an ESPN "30 For 30" feature Catholics vs Convicts) does not just spew out historical facts; however, by using a tremendous amount of black and white archival photos, archival film and newsreels surrounding interviews with family members and clergy, he has created a fascinating human interest picture of a man the likes of which we may never see again. As of this writing, no distribution deal has yet to be firmly established.
producer and co-editor Jeffrey Star &
director and co-editor Richard Miron