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2016 Investigative Film Festival


The second annual Investigative Film Festival and Symposium (AKA Double Exposure) would have been hard pressed to top last years inaugural opening night film. Spotlight, which was screened at the I.F.F over one month before its theatrical release date, ended up winning Best Picture at this years Academy Awards. Although I doubt The Ivory Game will win a top prize at the upcoming AAs, the Opening Night film was compelling and competent (see my review below) and succeeded in embodying the principles on which this festival is based.
Festival co-creators and co-directors Diana Jean Schemo and Sky Sitney return to present films and symposiums meant to whet the public's appetite for superlative investigative journalism. As these organizers stated in their open letter, “Today, we are seeing visual storytellers and journalists venture deeper into each others' traditional territory, as boundaries collapse, collide, and sometimes melt.” Over the course of three days, eight documentaries (including one U.S. premiere and six D.C. premieres) hammered home the need for a continual search for the truth and to unearth and challenge the abuse of those in power.
Once again, the festival is a project of the non-profit news organization 100Reporters that works with worldwide journalists to bring investigative reporting to an international audience. Principle sponsorship was provided The MacArthur Foundation and The Reva and David Logan Foundation. As last year, the films were all screened at the National Portrait Gallery. Last years symposium location Hotel Monaco served as such once again, while the Woolly Mammoth Theater and Newseum venues were replaced with the National Press Club. Again, all these D.C. Downtown locations were within easy walking distance for attendees.
This year, the I.F.F. opened its three-day run on a Thursday night (last year Opening Night was on a Wednesday). This was a smart move to allow patrons the opportunity to attend this important entertaining festival over the better part of a weekend. Perhaps next year it could start on a Friday evening to totally encompass a full weekend to allow maximum access to one of this nations most unique film festival.

BELOW ARE REVIEWS, IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER, OF THE EIGHT FEATURES PRESENTED AT THIS YEARS 3-DAY FESTIVAL

(1)  A Leak In Paradise  (**1/2 out of 4 - 76 minutes)
The D.C. premiere of director David Leloup's expose on Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer is yet another example of the extreme professional and personal risks one undertakes in order to expose corruption and greed. The subject is bank secrecy laws and tax havens of the rich. Elmer was the former senior banking executive for Bank Julius Baer in the Cayman Islands who broke the Cayman banking secrecy law when he turned over sensitive CDs detailing hundreds of offshore accounts to WikiLeak's Julian Assange in 2008. This leak was the first of its kind on the Internet. The director follows two story lines as he chronicles the consequences both on Elmer's life and the resulting effect on the global financial system which faced a crisis the world hasn't seen since 1929. Regarding the former, the film relates how Elmer spent time in prison, was banned from the banking industry, was considered a fugitive from justice who is constantly being stalked by private investigators and who has no secure income. As for the latter, there are consequential links to the subprime crisis and its effect on the economy, the Madoff scandal as well as the tax evasion improprieties in Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The director provides a somewhat stodgy pedestrian narration and I would have liked more information on the tax evasion tactics outlined on those CDs. Overall, despite its scant running time, the film seemed a lot longer than it should have.

(2)  Abacus: Small Enough To Jail  (*** out of 4 - 90 minutes)
Director Steve James burst onto the doc scene in 1994 with his critically acclaimed inaugural Hoop Dreams. He has consistently directed superlative documentary films ever since, including 2014's loving tribute to Roger Ebert, Life Itself. His latest, the D.C. Premiere and the closing night film at the festival, is an eyeopening look at how the 2008 subprime mortgage financial crisis nearly destroyed an established Chinese immigrant family-run business. Would it surprise you that the Sung family's business, which was founded in 1984, was the only U.S. bank to face criminal charges during this dark period in our financial history? Not Lehman Brothers. Not Merrill Lynch. Not Bear Stearns. No – it was the Abacas Savings of Chinatown, New York – the 2,651 largest bank in the US. James follows the 5-year legal battle that began in 2012 involving the septuagenarian founder Thomas Sung as well as his daughters - several of whom are executives of the bank. One actually works in the DA Office which handed down the indictment which included 19 employees. It was discovered that a single employee, a loan officer, was taking bribes while pushing through mortgages. Although James implies that the family-run business was a scapegoat for the big boy institutions (he opens the film showing the family watching the iconic It's A Wonderful Life foreshadowing the financial travails yet to come), the evidence presented is scant and left me desperately wanting more proof as to whether the charges were valid and just.


(3)  All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and The Spirit of I. F. Stone  (***1/2 out of 4 - 91 minutes)
When covering the topic of investigative reporting, what better timely way than to include this tribute to independent journalist I.F. Stone by first-time director Fred Peabody. Stone, who published the weekly investigative newsletter I.F. Stone's Weekly from 1953-1971 and who died in 1989, dedicated his life to uncovering lies and untruths propagated by the government and by the mass media. Operating way before the coming of the Internet, he could easily be labeled as his era's first political blogger. An example of one of his most famous reports was the discovery that the trigger to start the Vietnam War in 1964, The Gulf of Tonkin incident, was misrepresented by then President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – a fact the mainstream media missed for years. I liked the fact that Peabody takes a totally nonpartisan view of his subject; and, using archival footage over the past 6 decades as well as numerous talking heads (including Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader), the director successfully conveys the importance of the existence of a truly free press. I would have liked a deeper profile of Stone as the film is more a tribute as it reflects on his influence on present-day journalists such as Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and Matt Taibbi – all of which are mentioned in the documentary. In this age of fake news and a ever-growing mistrust of the media, you will undoubtedly leave the film with a greater appreciation of the integrity and due-diligence of these tireless journalists. The documentary had its U.S. premiere at the festival and began a limited theatrical run beginning last November.

(4)  Betting on Zero  (***1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)
Yet another look at the inner workings of Wall Street is this eye-opening documentary by director Ted Braun (2007s Darfur Now) which had its D.C. Premiere at the fest. Hedge funder Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital believes the nutritional supplement company Herbalife, which was aimed primarily at working class Latino communities, was offering them riches based on what appeared to be nothing more than an elaborate pyramid scheme. He spent three years of his life in his quest to bring down the supplement giant – all the while betting on their bankruptcy by taking a short position and betting a billion dollars that Herbalife's stock value was zero. 2015's The Big Short dramatized the activity of short selling which is the sale of a security that is not owned by the seller or that the seller has borrowed. In the meantime, Herbalife execs contended that the short selling was motivated purely for profit in the belief that their stock price would decline so that Ackman would make a profit by it being bought back at a lower price. Braun adds another layer of intrigue by introducing Ackman's arch rival, billionaire Carl Icahn of Icahn Enterprises, who swoops in and tries to boost the floundering Herbalife's stock value. So as not to present a story of pure greed about a couple of richer-than-rich characters, the director interweaves the devastation of lives of those poor souls who devoted their life-savings by believing the get-rich-quick sales spewed by Herbalife's CEO Michael O. Johnson. Johnson, who ran Disney's international operation under Michael Eisner, is shown leading a Herbalife convention and comes across almost more as a cult leader than as a CEO. Ackman infuses his compelling doc with composer Pete Anthony's equally ominous soundtrack, which serves to emphasize the subterfuge that will ultimately have you debating which side, if any, is operating with a true moral compass. Betting on Zero will be given a limited theatrical distribution on March 10 while the film will be available via video-on-demand and online platforms such as iTunes and Google Play on April 7.

(5) Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare)  (**** out of 4 – 108 minutes)
The Italian island of Lampedusa, the largest (8 square miles) of the Pelagie Islands about 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, is depicted as a land of stark contrast. On the one hand it is a sparsely populated idyllic fishing village. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi turns his camera onto the mundane quiet everyday activities of several of its residents such as a housewife, a DJ, a family at dinner, a 12-year-old boy in search of materials to make a slingshot. On the other hand, it is a first stop for hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping from their abominable and intolerable living conditions in Africa and the Middle East in overcrowded dilapidated vessels. The director informs us at the start that 400,000 refugees over 20 years have been successful, while over 150,000 have died trying. The locals, despite being geographically separated from the refugees, are well aware of their almost daily arrival by radio announcements of their plight and tragedy. The survivors are relegated to a detention camp whose milieu is as different from the rest of the island as day is to night. The only human link between these two alternate universes is an island resident doctor who constantly determines which of the refugees are well enough to remain in the camp, which need hospitalization, which need to be placed in a morgue. Rosi set up residency for a year on the island to be certain his trained eye correctly captured the humanitarian efforts this crises presented as he intermixes island resident rescue efforts and life in the shelters with the everyday existence of the island inhabitants. Reminiscent of the style of the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the film, which had its D.C. premiere at The Investigative Film Festival, is devoid of narration and soundtrack - which only adds to the starkness and desperation of the refugees whose plight is consistently hammered home by the visuals. A film that will stay with you long after the lights come up, the movie won the Berlin Film Festival's prestigious Golden Bear and has been nominated for an Academy Award Best Documentary.

(6) Solitary  (*** out of 4 – 82 minutes)
Director Kristi Jacobson takes a sobering look at solitary confinement inside one of the nations most notorious “supermax” prisons: Red Onion State Prison in southern Virginia's rural Appalachia. There are 44 such prisons which were constructed to maintain its entire incarcerated population in solitary confinement. A total of 100,000 prisons are held in this capacity throughout these facilities where prisoners, most of whom have violated general population rules, are held for months and, in some cases, years, at the whim of prison officials absent reviews by courts or any other outside oversight. A Step-Down program is usually the determining factor as to when the inmate can return to the general population. The director interviews both prisoners, who are in solitary for 23 hours daily in an 8 X 10 foot cell, and those who guard them, providing an intimate examination into the physical and psychological manifestations such confinement has produced. Jacobson spent over a year shooting the documentary which drives home the point that such segregation leads more to madness than rehabilitation. A little more backstory of some of the interviewees would have been a welcome addition rather than the static presentations of interviews over the course of the 82 minutes. However, at its conclusion, one clearly will debate whether it is an effective punitive or rehabilitative answer or just a way to punish extreme offenders. The HBO-produced documentary premiered last September and is currently available on-demand.

(7) Sour Grapes  (*** ½ out of 4 – 85 minutes)
The crime of fraud is usually nothing nothing to smile about. However, when little sympathy can be drawn for the victims, then the subject of fraud can become a somewhat humorous affair. 2014's brilliant Art and Craft focused on Mark Landis, one of the most prolific art forger in U.S. history. He donated his handiwork to museums across the country with no questions asked by the recipients. The irony: he was never arrested because he received zero remuneration for his donations. The end result was total embarrassment of those museum officials which displayed his works on their walls. Directors Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas' D.C premiere of Sour Grapes deals with another kind of fraud perpetuated by one Rudy Kurniawan (labeled "a Gen X Great Gatsby by one investigator), an Indonesian whose mastery of producing counterfeit wine ultimately swindled many rich wine so-called “connoisseurs”. Kurnaiwan was actually re-bottling and re-labeling right in his Southern California residence. Although he ended up being caught and rightly prosecuted in 2013 when he tried to sell his counterfeit ultra-fine wine at auction (one such bottled was labeled with a vintage year that didn't exist), the story's parallel to Landis' escapades cannot be ignored. The embarrassment of the duped elitist target group, many of whom spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on what they believed to be bottles of vintage vino, will bring a lot of smiles but little compassion from those in the audience. The caper, which is presented as a detective story in a light breezy manner with an excellent accompanying score by Marseille's Lionel Corsini (aka DJ Oil), is currently available on Netflix.

(8) The Ivory Game  (*** out of 4 – 116 minutes)
There have been several outstanding documentaries recently dealing with animal abuses, most nobly 2009's The Cove about the Japanese dolphin slaughter and 2013's Blackfish about the treatment of killer whales at performance parks. The former won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, while the latter didn't but should have. The D.C. Premiere and the festival's opening night film by directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani is not quite in the same league as these outstanding works. However, the revelations here, concerning the possible near future extinction of the largest mammal on earth, the African elephant, due to ivory poaching, is no less important and eye-opening. The filmmakers spent 16 months investigating this activity which has resulted in over 150,000 elephants killed for their tusks in the last five years, which, in turn, are sold over the black market where a single kilogram of ivory can sell for as much as $3000. In the past 100 years the population has dwindled 97%. At that rate, extinction would be a reality in 15 years. The doc is presented as an international thriller complete with a dramatic score that at times seem contrived, as the directors traveled to Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam to expose the extent of the slaughter and the trading of ivory. Most successful is the story of Hongxiang Huang, a Chinese investigative reporter who tries to reveal the insidiousness of the ivory trafficking, and Georgina Kamanga, head of intelligence for National Parks and Wildlife in Zambia whose passion fuels her efforts to end the poaching and save the elephants. However, despite the fact that the filmmakers spread themselves too thin and offer little explanations behind some of the intrigue, there is no doubt that this dour subject demands immediate attention and action. The Ivory Game is currently streaming on Netflix.



OPENING NIGHT PHOTOS:

ON THE RED CARPET (l to r):  Hongxiang Huang, 
independent journalist featured in "The Ivory
Game"; Andrea Crosta, executive director and
co-founder of WildLeaks; Diana Jean Schemo, 
co-creator and co-director of Double Exposure;
Kief Davidson, co-director of "The Ivory Game;
Sky Sitny, co-creator and co-director of Double 
Exposure; Richard Ladkani, co-director of  "The
"Ivory Game"


(l to r)  Co-creators and directors of  Double
Exposure, Sky  Sitney and Diana Jean Schemo
open the Investigative Film Festival


Opening night panel discussion (l to r):
moderator Diana Jean Schlemo, Andrea Crosta,
Kief Davidson, Richard Ladkani and Hongxiang
Huang


AFTER FILM PANEL PHOTOS:


"A LEAK IN PARADISE" (l to r):
New York Times correspondent and moderator
Eric Lipton; Director David LeLoup; Film subject
Rudolf Elmer


"ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE:  TRUTH, DECEPTION,  
AND THE SPIRIT OF I.F. STONE" (l to r):
Moderator and journalist Ray Suarez;  Journalist
with The Intercept Dan Froomkin; journalist and 
grandson to I.F. Stone Peter Stone; Director Fred 
Peabody; Executive Producer Peter Raymont; 
Author of "All Governments Lie" Myra MacPherson


"BETTING ON ZERO" (l to r):
Moderator and journalist Ricardo Sandoval-Palos;
Activist and film subject Julie Contreres; Film subject
Bill Ackman; Director Ted Braun


"FIRE AT SEA (FUOCOAMMARE)":
Moderator and co-founder of the Migration
Policy Institure Kathleen Newland; New York
Times journalist Ron Nixon


"SOUR GRAPES":
Moderator and  National Feature report  for The
Washington Post Manuel Roig-Franzia; Film subject
and wine expert Maureen Downey


"SOLITARY" (l to r):
Director Kristi Jacobson; Moderator and freelance
journalist Lisa Armstrong



"ABACAS:  SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL" (l to r):
Producer Mark Mitten; Director Steve James;
Journalists Dave Lidorff and T-Hua Chang; Film 
subjects Chanterelle and Vera Sung


UPCOMING LATER THIS WEEK:  My annual Academy Award predictions-What will win and what should win

"LA LA LAND " - **** (128 minutes)



Tuesday December 13, 2016

Christmas comes in December.  And so does the release of the majority of the best films of the year - many of which will be vying for The Academy of Arts and Sciences biggest prizes come February 26.  Sure to be leading the list is this masterpiece and third directorial effort by Whiplash writer and director, Damien Chazelle who has successfully captured the old Hollywood musical genre utilizing  a modern day milieu replete with style, music, dance, and romance.  

Ryan Gosling (who is quickly proving that no role is above his talent or capability) is Sebastian -  a down-on-his-luck pianist whose love of jazz knows no bounds or monetary future.  His dream: opening his own jazz club.

Emma Stone (nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Birdman) is Mia - an aspiring actress who pays the bills as a barista on a studio back lot. Her dream:  making it as an actor in Hollywood.

Their paths cross over several instances during the first reel and not always in favorable circumstances until one night the spark finally ignites inside and outside the Griffith Park planetarium (Chazelle's nod to an iconic Hollywood movie landmark).  From there, over the course of a year (as the director humorously winks to the audience by dividing the action into four seasonal chapters with nary a change in the L.A. weather) their budding relationship takes the tensioned reality most face when career and romance clash and hard choices have to be made between the two.  

Along the way there are a couple of spectacular exhilarating musical sequences counterbalanced with a few quieter ones involving the two principles.  Gossling and Stone (this marks their third film together) will never be mistaken for Astaire and Rogers, and their singing abilities are pedestrian at best.  However, their skills, or lack thereof, is part of the wonderful charm of La La Land.  Afterall, they are representing everyday folks whose dreams of "making it" mirror the majority of us whose singing and dancing abilities are equally unremarkable.

Notable is a haunting score by Justin Hurwitz infused with terrific song lyrics by Benj Pasik and Justin Paul-all nicely interspersed among Chazelle's intelligent script.  Special mention also to Whiplash's Academy Award winning film editor Tom Cross, who is likely to be nominated once again for his superlative work here.  Also on display are all too brief but appealing supportive work by Whiplash's Best Supporting actor J.K. Simmons who plays Sebastian's boss at a piano bar,  Rosemarie DeWitt who plays Sebastian's contentious sister, and musician John Legend who convinces Sebastian to join his pop band.

A word of caution:  do not be late (no spoiler alert here) as the first ten minutes are almost worth the price of admission.  And bring a Kleenex or two as the touching conclusion had this reviewer practically emotionally overwhelmed.

The film has already garnered numerous awards including the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Film and the Audience Award at this years Toronto Film Festival.

As 2010s Best Picure The Artist did in resurrecting a long forgotten movie art form-the silents, La La Land is a gloriously successful return to Hollywood musicals of the past.  Chazelle, who said it took him to six years to bring his musical idea of love vs  ambition to the screen, mentioned in an interview that he wanted the audience to float out of the theater rather than walking out.  

I am still floating.

UP NEXT:  COVERAGE OF THE 2ND ANNUAL DC INVESTIGATIVE FILM FESTIVAL


Sebastian (Ryan Gossling) explaining jazz to Mia (Emma Stone)

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Sebastian and Mia dancing among the stars in the Griffith Park planetarium

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Bill the boss (J.K. Simmons) discussing his preferred choice of music to Sebastian

2016 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

 
Fourteen years and counting as the prestigious AFI Docs keeps merrily rolling along. What began in 2003 as AFI Silverdocs based solely at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring Maryland outside of DC, continued its expanse into the nation's capitol for the fourth consecutive year.
As the President and CEO of the American Film Institute Bob Gazzale pointed out in this year's program, the decision to expand into DC was made, “to bring together leading storytellers with world leaders – filmmakers with policymakers – those wishing to effect change with those who have the power to do so.” To that end, I am certain that bringing the festival into the political heart and soul of our country is one of the best ways to effectuate change by presenting the various issues expounded by the documentarians.
The always fluid D.C. venue locales changed once again from those in 2015. Gone were screenings at the National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center - all replaced with an extra auditorium utilized in the Landmark complex.
The festival presented 94 films from 30 countries and included three world premieres, seven North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, twelve East Coast premieres and one international premiere. Most notable were the outstanding opening and closing night films: Alex Gibney's “Zero Days” and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's “Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You”, respectively - both scheduled for theatrical release in July. (Each made my Top Five list and are reviewed below.)
Included in the impressive programming: an ESPN produced baseball biopic on Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden by Hollywood directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfigli entitled “”Doc & Darryl”; the first film by Ben Lear (Norman's son) - a hard-hitting juvenile justice doc entitled “They Call Us Monsters”; “Sonita” about a teenage Afghan refugee and aspiring rap artist living in Iran – which won this years Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary.


And the annual Guggenheim Symposium honored one of cinema's most iconic filmmaker: the great Werner Herzog. The discussion, led admirably by director Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), lasted over 90 minutes, which, thankfully, extended past its allotted time as the affable director shared entertaining anecdotes and experiences spanning his nearly 65 years of distinguished fiction and nonfiction movie-making. At one point, the prolific filmmaker mentioned that he was currently completing three films that were already “in the can”. Sprinkled throughout the interview were several clips from his abundant catalog. The evening concluded with a screening of his excellent “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” which is due to be released theatrically in August.
Finally, despite the overall excellence of this years festival, two significant changes had many of the patrons grumbling. For the first-time since 2003, only two of the three AFI Silver Theaters were utilized. This absence of programming in the largest Silver venue meant fewer film choices and ticket availability for the paying public. I heard many folks lamenting whether this portended a total move to DC in the future - leaving a wonderful venue where the festival was born and consistently flourished, and whose location was a total convenience for the Silver Spring locales and those not wanting to venture inside the Beltway. Also, for the first-time, no screenings of the Audience Awards or Best Of Festival films were shown at the AFI Silver on the day after the festival concluded - leaving an empty void for those not able to attend a screening during the five days. Here's hoping the AFI Silver will continue to be a viable festival location and that additional presentations return post-festival.
NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”, which was directed by U.S. directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack. The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Snails” directed by Grzegorz Szczepaniak (Poland) which told of two friends whose dreams of becoming millionaires lead them to snail farming. (Neither film was screened by this reviewer).


MY TOP 5 AT THE 2016 AFI DOCS


(1-Tie)  Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You  (**** out of 4 - 91 minutes)
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for Jesus Camp. Their latest has an excellent chance to make the Academy’s short list as well. Their documentary on the life of the television icon, whose ground-breaking comedy series in the 70's (including All in the Family, Good Times and The Jeffersons) were landmarks in the industry, is nothing short of superb. The creator, writer and producer at one point had six shows in the Nielsen top 10 rating. His All in the Family (1971-1979), which started it all, was so influential in the American consciousness that it's lead character's chair has been placed in the Smithsonian Institute. Using a somewhat unconventional approach, the directors utilize a child actor (Keaton Nigel Cooke) to recreate Lear's “child's-eye view” as an analogy throughout the biopic- a device that is quite effective as the images jump back and forth covering his life and career. Lear, who is now approaching 94 years of age, as a youth growing up in Connecticut, was strongly influenced by his environment consisting of a detached mom and a bigoted father (an inspiration for All in The Family's “Archie Bunker”?). He eventually was raised, beginning at age nine, by uncles and grandparents and later abandoned education for the military. Ewing and Grady cover Lear's early Hollywood years including his start with early TV variety show writing credits that lead to screen-writing (The Night They Raided Minsky's and an Oscar nominated script for Divorce American Style) and directing (Cold Turkey). When his partner, Bud Yorkin, viewed the British Comedy series Till Death Us Do Part about a married working-class conservative and his clashes with a son-in-law, Lear had an inspiration. The revelation became the landmark CBS show that raised this country's social consciousness by satirizing issues never before addressed on a weekly basis on television. Ewing and Grady included some classic comedic bits from Lear's series, but also unearthed a fascinating interview with Good Times lead Ester Rolle who was continuously bothered by Lear's portrayal of J.J., played by Jimmy Walker, yearning for “comedy without buffoonery”. Other clashes are revealed indicating that not all were beds of roses behind-the-scenes. Also covered were Lear's two marriages (he left television after he and his first wife separated), his geriatric turn at fatherhood and his founding of the political left-wing People For the American Way in response to the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. Of particular note is the professional editing work of J.D. Marlow & Enit Sidi along with a well rendered jazz score by Kris Bowers. The film, which Lear stated during the symposium that he was given no artistic control, had its North American premiere at the festival and was given a limited theatrical release on July 8. It will eventually be presented on PBS' American Masters series sometime this fall. Not to be missed.


(1-Tie)  How To Build A Time Machine  (**** out of 4 - 82 minutes)

Rob Niosi viewed George Pal's 1960 adaption of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine as a youth and from that experience his fascination with time travel led to an obsession on building a full-scale replica of the time machine prop used in the classic sci-fi film. Trying to recapture the nostalgia of his viewing experience, Niosi, a stop motion animator on Pee Wee's Playhouse, spent over nine years and thousands of dollars on his compulsion to complete his project at his wooded upper-state New York home. (When asked during the Q&A how much he spent, he sheepishly declined to reveal the actual cost.) Ron Mallett, a PhD physicist at the University of Connecticut, also took in the film as a child with his dad and brother. When his beloved father passed away unexpectedly when Ron was 10 years old, devastated by his passing, Ron began a life-long quest to calculate the feasibility of time-travel in order to reunite with his father and warn him of his impending heart attack-and also to tell him how much he loved him. Cheel juxtaposes each story beautifully. You'll observe the overly meticulous Niosi and the extreme, at times comical, measures he takes to recreate, in the minutest detail, the symbol of time travel embedded in a memory from his youth. The director was obviously influenced by the great documentarian, Erroll Morris. He effectively utilizes Morris' Interrotron (a variation of a teleprompter) to interview Mallett as he relates his educational journey exploring the possibility of time travel using Einsteins' theories and the science of black holes. Most interesting are the questions that time-travel raises such as the grandfather paradox, as well as social and ethical issues of traveling to the past or future and making changes. The movie also confirms the notion of the power of cinema and how it can shape the life journeys of its audience. Would Mallett have ever devoted his life to physics and a determination to prove the possibility of time-travel if he didn't attend that screening early in his youth? Director Jay Cheel shot his film over nearly five years and includes a wonderful soundtrack by composers Ohad Benchetrit & Justin Small. Cheel whimsically develops both of the story lines in such an entertaining and informative way that the documentary will have you emotionally involved in each character's quest. Coming in at a crisp 82 minutes, I actually wished the film lasted much longer.


(2)  Following Seas  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 94 minutes)


Following Seas is both an adventure story and a love story on many levels. Nancy's first love was life on the high seas. Bob Griffith gave up his successful veterinarian practice after a heart attack to devote his life to sailing. When he pulled into a Hawaiian harbor in 1960, Nancy first fell in love with his 53-foot cutter, and then ultimately with Bob. Over the course of their relationship they embarked on 13 major voyages including circumnavigating the world three times. And their shared love of exploring the world on the open seas is well documented with over 28 hours of Bolex 16mm film footage and a multitude of 35mm slides. With a wonderfully fluid narration provided by Nancy in her 70s, and skillful editing by co-director Araby Williams, their perilous voyages without radio, radar, and modern navigational aides, will have you in total awe. Their circumnavigation of the Antarctic (a first) in a small boat encompasses a good portion of the film. This exploit took them 111 days and earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Included is a spectacular segment when their boat, the Awahnee, crashed on a nearly deserted Pacific Island of Vahanga where, with the help of a couple of Tahitian prisoners, it took them nearly two months to rebuild. Also included was an incident involving Nancy falling overboard without a life preserver in shark infested waters. Directors Tyler J. Kelley and Araby Williams complemented the amazing visuals with recent footage and the use of a terrific soundtrack provided by All Them Witches, Woodsplitter, Teho Teardo, Luke Tromiczak and Christopher Lancaster. The doc serves as a fitting tribute for two of this country's finest sailors. As Nancy lamented, the English honor outstanding sailors with knighthood while the French bestow ribbons of honor. Unfortunately, America largely ignores them. This film provides a long overdue acknowledgment of two of the most courageous adventurers that you will not easily forget.


(3)  Obit (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)
Who would have thought that a documentary about obituaries would be interesting, or, for that matter, fun. However, director Vanessa Gould accomplishes both in spades. Gould became interested in the subject when she was contacted by a member of the NY Times obit staff for information on the late French sculptor Eric Joisel, her friend and the subject of her 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Between the Folds. Making a doc involves hard work and a lot of luck. Once filming begins, a film's success or failure often depends on being in the right place at the right time. Here, success was achieved at the time director Vanessa Gould was given full access to the New York Times obituary staff writers which consists of obit editor William McDonald as well as past and present writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello. It turns out there are only a few editorial obit writers in the world. Of course the demise of celebrities, politicians, or anyone who made news in their life would be worthy candidates. However, as McDonald pointed out, “We look for people who changed the way we live.” And about 70 percent of obituaries cover the lives of folks no one has ever heard of. The director offers many examples including the inventor of the Slinky, the pilot of the Enola Gay, an exotic dancer with ties to Jack Ruby and the last surviving plaintiff from Brown v Board of Education. Besides including interviews and archival material, most of the film covers the anatomy of a single day. When Goald arrives for filming, Bruce is in the process of constructing an obit for William P. Wilson. His subsequent research, done over the course of several hours reveals that he was the first television consultant whose decision in 1960 to apply makeup to a youthful John F. Kennedy before his milestone debate with Richard Nixon could have possibly led to JFK's election. Also, time is given to ad exec Dick Rich who was responsible for several landmark commercials in the 60s including Alka-Seltzer and Benson & Hedges. But it is the time the filmmaker spends with Jeff Roth, the quirky eccentric sole caretaker of “the morgue” (which consists of thousands of file drawers containing old photographs, weathered clippings, and advance obits) that elicits the most joy. The overseer of the newspaper's history was so memorable that the audience clapped when his visage appeared over the closing credits. In the end, you'll realize that Obit is more about the celebration of life than the morbidity of its subject matter.


(4)  Tower (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)

The country has become somewhat numb to the seemingly constant barrage of mass shootings whether at a mall, workplace, campus, etc. Long before the words “active shooter”, “SWAT teams” or “grief counseling” were a usual part of the vernacular, there was the shooting 50 years ago by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin. That day, the 27-year-old Whitman mounted the campus clock tower and, after 96 minutes, the shooter lay dead but not before randomly murdering 16 and wounding 32 innocent victims. Director Keith Maitland spent 10 years creating an extraordinary document. Its genius is in the film's presentation and the techniques he used to convey the horror of that day. Using brilliant rotoscoped animation by Minnow Mountain (think Richard Linklater's 2001Waking Life), actors using scripted words over the action, archival footage and live action, Maitland creates a disturbing emotional suspenseful experience one will not soon forget. Shifting back and forth from these narrative styles, and concentrating almost totally on the memory of the surviving victims instead of the shooter's motive(s), Maitland recreates in the first hour a minute-by-minute account of the events on that fateful August day from their viewpoint. And the constant barrage of gunfire heard over the soundtrack creates an unnerving milieu that, despite the animation, will ultimately have viewers feeling as if they were there. As in all of these situations, several examples of individual heroism are illustrated as well as one “survivor remorse” and one of cowardice. The stories are riveting and beautifully rendered throughout. The compelling standout is the first person shot. Claire Wilson was pregnant and forced to lay on cement in the hot sun next to her deceased boyfriend for an hour while onlookers, including news cameras, looked on. Her heartbreaking story and how she survived is nothing short of amazing. The last half hour is less stirring as it concentrates on the present day appearance of the actual survivors portrayed earlier, relating the aftermath up to the present and the inclusion of reunions. The film also ties in more recent mass shootings as it tries to put in historical perspective this event which quite possibly started mass shootings on college campuses. And most disturbing, depending on one's point of view, is the final pronouncement that, coincidentally, on the 50th anniversary, Texas law will permit open-carry of firearms on the Texas campuses, which is vehemently opposed by the shooting victims. Tower, a PBS Independent Len production, will have a limited theatrical release beginning October 12.


(5)  Zero Days (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 114 minutes)

The latest from prolific Academy Award winner Alex Gibney is perhaps one of his most chilling. Computer hacking, as with mass murder (see above), is becoming an almost daily frightening reality of our modern times. However, this activity is not confined to individuals or groups of individuals intent on stealing information as governments are using the capability to conduct cyberwarfare. After a brief history, Gibney concentrates on the 2008 joint action of the U.S. and Israel (although neither will confirm it) to introduce a computer malware into the Iranian nuclear facility computers at Natanz intent on destroying centrifuges in order to shut down their nuclear capability and growth. What follows was its initial discovery of the “worm” (self-replicating malware meant to spread from computer to computer) which was named “Stuxnet” based on 2 syllables uncovered in the code. How it was uncovered by antivirus experts Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu of the cyber-security company Symantec Research Labs, is one of the more fascinating aspects of the doc. The unfortunate consequence was that the initial damage was merely temporary as Iran's nuclear program came back stronger than ever. Worse yet, the worm opened a Pandora's Box by ultimately spreading around the globe. After we are presented with a long series of on-camera denials of the covert operation from a multitude of government officials (at one point Gibney frustratingly proclaims “This is really beginning to piss me off!”), the director begins presenting testimony from a number of anonymous whistle-blowers. To protect their identity he combines their information into a script and utilizes an actress (Joanne Tucker) to read it showing her onscreen by using an eerie digital filter effect. What clearly comes into horrifying focus is that cyberwarfare is now readily available to all the powers. Each has the capability of controlling nuclear power plants, disabling power grids, and creating total chaos to such a degree that the end result would make the damage done by an atom bomb seem like a pipe bomb in comparison. Gibney deploys effective graphics throughout to illustrate the technicalities involved as well as employing a terrific soundtrack. Zero days (the term refers to the time between a computer's vulnerability is discovered and the first cyber attack) is part investigative journalism, part spy thriller and part science fiction, and will have you hoping that its implications will be addressed by the candidates in the upcoming election instead of our government's continued secrecy and silence. The film, which had its North American premiere at AFI Docs, opened in limited released on July 8.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World-The East Coast premiere of Werner Herzog's frightening essay on the increasing technology and its past, present and future affect on humankind.
The Islands And The Whales-The East Coast premiere about the people from the North Sea's remote Faroe Islands and how their centuries-old subsistence for food from native birds and whales is being threaten by changes in their environment, mercury in the whales and anti-whaling activists.

OPENING NIGHT SNAPSHOTS

Opening Night at The Newseum

On the Red Carpet (l to r):  AFI DOCS Director Michael
 Lumpkin,  New York Times' David Sanger, filmmaker
 Alex Gibney, film subjects Eric Chien and Liam O'Murchu,
executive producer Sarah Dowland and AFI President and
CEO Bob Gazzale
AFI President and CEO, Bob Gazzale,
welcomes the Opening night audience to
AFI DOCS and the screening of Zero Days"

"Zero Days" post-screening panel discussion and Q and A
 with (l to r) moderator Washington Post film critic
 Ann Hornaday, director Alex Gibney, anti-virus experts
 Liam O'Murchu and Eric Chien, and New York Times
journalist David Sanger

The Opening Night after-party in the Newseum lobby


GUGGENHEIM SYMPOSIUM SNAPSHOTS

On The Red Carpet (l to r):  AFI DOCS
Director Michael Lumpkin, symposium
moderator director Ramin Bahrani,
Guggenheim honoree director Werner Herzog
and AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale




CLOSING NIGHT SNAPSHOTS

On The Red Carpet (l to r):  Director
Rachel Grady, Norman Lear and director
Heidi Ewing


Director Ben Lear and dad Norman


AFI DOCS Director Michael
Lumpkin addresses the closing
night audience






The post-screening discussion with (l to r) moderator
PBS News Hour's Jeffrey Brown, Norman Lear, Rachel
Grady and Heidi Ewing



(l to r) Michael Lumpkin, Norman Lear and Bob Gazzale
at the after party