2015 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

The 13th edition of the festival showcased 81 films representing 25 countries, including four world premieres, three U.S. premieres and four East Coast premieres.  For the second year, ATandT continues as the main presenting sponsorship for one of this nation’s premiere documentary film festival.

For the third consecutive year, the venues again expand from the previous Silver Spring Maryland home base at the AFI Silver Theater into downtown Washington DC where many of the filmatic issues that are presented on screen are hoped to generate immediate dialogue, and possible change, between Congress, the President’s Cabinet, Supreme Court, and journalists.

Also, the festival now has a permanent director.  Effective January 1, Michael Lumpkin (producer of 1995’s The Celluloid Closet) succeeds temporary Director Christine O’Malley (producer of Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.) who replaced the very competent Skye Sitney after an eight year stint. Lumpkin was director of the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival and served as a Sundance Film Festival juror.  Most recently he was the executive director of the L.A.-based International Documentary Association.

A couple of noted adjustments from the previous two years included tightening the distance between venues in DC’s Penn Quarter, allowing film goers the opportunity to travel to screenings within a seven block radius.  Also, those wishing to stay put in Silver Spring to avoid the traffic and parking hassles involved in negotiating the seven mile trip south to DC, were rewarded this year by the festival organizers who presented nearly all of the features and shorts programs at the glorious AFI Silver Theater over the course of the five days.  However, one disappointing change for those who wished to see docs that were missed during the five days was shortening the day-after Monday schedule at the AFI Silver to only four films in the smallest theater (the Audience Award winner and three festival favorites) instead of using all three theaters for multiple screenings throughout the day.

Finally, the festival also included special screenings with expanded QandA panels, a two-day Filmmaker Conference and presented its annual Guggenheim Award to Stanley Nelson whose major focus has dealt with African-American History. Among his numerous achievements is The Murder of Emmett Till, which won Sundance’s 2003 Special Jury Prize, the George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy for Best Director-Nonfiction. The film was instrumental in the reopening of the case by the Justice Department in 1955. Other noteworthy works include Beyond Brown:  Pursuing The Promise, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple and Freedom Riders.  His latest film The Black Panthers:  Vanguard of the Revolution screened at the festival.  Distinguished Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, was once again on hand to moderate and expertly interview Nelson following a retrospective presentation.

NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? which was directed by Liz Garbus (THE FARM: ANGOLA, USA) which made my top 10 (see below for synopsis).  The Audience Award for Best Short went to A CONVERSATION WITH MY  BLACK SON directed by Blair Foster (co-producer of TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE) and Geeta Gandbhir (editor of BY THE PEOPLE:  THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA) which consists of a series of interviews with racially diverse parents describing conversations they had with their young black sons about dealing with racism and their interaction with the police.


(1)  Peace Officer  (**** out of 4 – 109 minutes)

Directors Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, in a brilliantly constructed first feature, examines the increasing militarization of  America’s police forces by focusing on William “Dub” Lawrence, a retired police officer who founded Utah’s SWAT in the 1970s.  When his son-in-law was killed during a stand-off with police in September 2008, Dub launched an independent investigation to prove he was murdered as a result of unnecessary excessive force.  Other examples are presented which mirror the recent headline grabbing incidents involving police misconduct in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York.  However, it is the extremely likable and charismatic Lawrence who steals the show as the filmmakers detail his incredible detective skills that will have you amazed.   The increasingly disturbing trend in police tactics, a potentially depressing scenario, is made tolerable and gripping that ultimately raises Dub to hero status by films end.  Winner of two awards at this years SXSW Film Festival, the doc is scheduled for an early October theatrical release followed by an airing on PBS’ Independent Lens series in 2016.

(2)  Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine  (*** 1 /2 out of 4 – 128 minutes)

Academy Award winner (Taxi to the Dark Side) Alex Gibney begins his CNN-produced exposé on the late computer genius with the announcement of his death in October 2011 showing the immense world-wide outpouring of grief that resulted-mostly by Apple consumers.  However, those who aren’t privy to the particulars of his life and dealings at the start, may have a completely opposite reaction by the end of the film.  Gibney encapsulates the highlights of his achievements beginning with his partnership with friend Steve Wozniak in 1971when they designed a digital-circuit blue box designed to rip off long distance calls from phone companies.  At the time of his demise, under his second leadership stint, Apple had become one of the most successful corporations in the world. Expertly edited by Michael J. Palmer, the film could have benefited from some judicious cuts.  However, the numerous controversies swirling around Jobs’ personal and public persona, are what make these two hours totally engrossing and, in some cases, eye-opening.  Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine had its East Coast premier at the Festival and is being released on September 15.

(3)  Uncertain  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 82 minutes)

First time documentary feature directors Ewan McNicol and Ann Sandilands were making a short film in Lafayette Louisiana.  Having three days to kill they looked at a map of nearby areas and noticed a town named Uncertain next to a body of water on the Texas-Louisiana border.  Their curiosity led them to the sparsely populated town which totaled 94 occupants.  Their planned short film about the unusually named town turned into an 82-minute gem which earned them the Alfred Maysles New Director Award at this years Tribeca Film Festival.  This quietly haunting film, beautifully complemented with an infectious banjo/violin score by Daniel Hart, focuses on three of Uncertain’s residents:  a twenty-one diabetic alcoholic living day-to-day lamenting the lack of work and available women, a reformed ex-con who matches wits throughout the film with an elusive boar and a 74-year-old reborn Christian fisherman who sees nothing but positives in his meager existence.  A back story about Caddo Lake, the town’s main attraction and economic foundation being threaten by an overgrowing weed infestation, weaves in and out of the narrative.  However, it is the personal lives of these three individuals that will hold your interest and have you marvel at those who try to survive in such paltry conditions.

(4)  Welcome to Leith  (*** 1/2 out of 4 86 minutes)

As gripping as any good fictional horror story is this feature by directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker.  Leith is a sleepy 3-square mile town in rural North Dakota with a population of 24.  When bearded loner Craig Cobb arrived in 2012, little did the handful of townsfolk realize the threat to their very existence was at stake.  It turns out Cobb was a neo-Nazi intent on overtaking the enclave by buying property and bringing in his white supremacist cohorts with plans on outnumbering the town council and making Leith their own personal mecca.  The filmmakers show amazing objectivity while raising pertinent questions involving first amendment and legal gun carriage rights as they document a nightmare scenario facing many communities who just want to be left alone in peace.  A brilliant electronic score by Tim Hecker accompanies the amazing footage obtained by the directors.

(5)  What Happened, Miss Simone?  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 102 minutes)

Biopics as a documentary genre are helped immeasurably when the subjects are complex and talented.  Twice Oscar nominated competent director Liz Garbus, had both of these attributes available to her by the bucket loads with this fascinating profile of the soul/jazz/folk/classical/gospel diva Nina Simone.  Beginning with her performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Garbus then takes us through her complicated life.  Growing up in Tyron, North Carolina as Eunice Waymon (born in 1933) Simone began training at the age of 3 as a classical pianist, her first love, and eventually dreamed of becoming the first black female classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall.  Ironically, after the husky voice tenor had her breakout year in 1959 with the standard “I Love You Porky”, she performed there in 1964 as a pop singer.  Garbus infuses the doc with tons of archival footage, photographs, interviews, letters, and diary excerpts that reveal a tortured soul who embraced the Civil Rights movement in the 60s while suffering an abusive relationship with a demanding husband.  In the 70s she later exiled to Liberia.  In the 80s Simone was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder.  However, it is the amazing concert and TV performance footage (often complete takes) showing her enormous talent that makes this film a standout and a must-see.  The film had a limited theatrical beginning June 24 but is currently available on NETFLIX.

(6)  Tyke Elephant Outlaw  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 78 minutes)

In March of this year, Ringling Bros, under pressure from animal activist, announced they were phasing out their use of elephants by 2018.  When Tyke the circus elephant killed her trainer and severely injured her groom before going on a rampage in Honolulu in August 1994, one has to wonder, after seeing this important heartbreaking film, how it took over 20 years to announce the ban.  Directors Stefan Moore and Susan Lambert takes the viewers into the world of circus elephant training where abuse and torture are the norm so that these majestic creatures can successfully entertain humans.  The filmmakers interviewed circus performers and obtained fascinating eyewitness testimony from those present under the big top when the incident took place.  Also included are interviews with those who worked closely with Tyke and who knew and warned others that she should not be be allowed to perform after previous close calls in the past.  Their unheeded warnings resulted in her violent unnecessary death at the hands of the police on the streets of Honolulu.   The film is expertly edited and is yet another obscene example of man’s continual quest for entertainment at the expense of animal cruelty.

(7)  Prophet’s Prey  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)

Cults have long been a favorite topic for documentarians.  From Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple to most recently Scientology, there exists an endless fascination of the inner workings of  these leaders and the people who follow.  With Prophet’s Prey, Amy Berg tackles the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its now incarcerated monstrous leader Warren Steed Jeffs.  Using instructive animation at the start, Berg gives a history of the LDS in the 1800s which led to the emergence of the FLDS in the early 20th century.  After  founder Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 (it is strongly suggested that it was the result of foul play) his son Warren took over.  What follows are comprehensive incriminating evidence from some of his 63 wives (some as young as 12 years old) as well as interviews with victims, former members and outside investigators which document repeated sexual abuses (including those with relatives).   A chilling audio recording of Jeffs’ rape of a twelve year old victim is also presented.  The self-proclaimed god also managed to gain complete financial control of  his congregation before his capture.   Despite his 2011 sentence of life plus 20 years, Jeffs still maintains control behind bars of up to 10,000 members that continue to blindly follow him.  Berg includes an effective haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which complements the disturbing story.  The doc will have a fall theatrical release before premiering on Showtime.

(8)  King Georges  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 77 minutes)

King Georges is French chef extraordinaire Georges Perrier.  His landmark Philadelphia restaurant, Le Bec Fin (“fine palate”), was considered the nation’s best French dining experience during its over 40-year existence.  When director Erika Frankel heard that the restaurant was closing, she turned her cameras on the passionate owner and exquisite legendary eatery to document its last days and dealings with the changing times and tastes of its customers.  The unexpected twist that transpired after filming began when Le Bec Fin received a surprisingly negative review, could not have been scripted any better.  The doc is made even more enjoyable while profiling Georges’ exuberant fiery personality.  A foodie’s delight.

(9)  The Russian Woodpecker  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 80 minutes)

Ukrainian eccentric artist Fedor Alexandrovich was 4-years-old and living in Chernobyl during the nuclear disaster in 1986.  He has always been bothered about the cause of the meltdown-the details of which have always been shrouded in mystery.  He was also aware of an abandoned enormous structure, the Duga, located next to the plant.  The Duga cost twice as much to construct as the nuclear plant and transmitted a rapid fired clicking signal (hence the title of the film) that supposedly was designed to interfere with Western government communications.  Fedor theorized the two were connected and set about to prove his theory that the nuclear catastrophe that killed and poisoned  thousands was no accident and was part of a cover-up.   First-time director Chad Gracia follows Fedor as he visits the disaster site and interviews (sometimes with hidden camera) former high ranking Russian officials in order to get at the truth.   Also  included are historical perspectives and current Ukranian unrest footage to place proper context to the overall proceedings which mixes dark comedy (some of Alexandrovich’s antics are outrageous) with sobering realizations. The film was this years winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize For World Documentary.

(10)   Best of Enemies  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 87 minutes)

Ever wonder about the origins of todays political debates between the multitude of talking heads held on a myriad of networks such as CNN and FOX?  Director Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon have the answer.  Their hilarious look back at the infamous Buckley/Vidal debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions is a total hoot.  ABC, languishing in the ratings basement, decided to enlist right-winger William F. Buckley, a mainstay on PBS’ “Firing Line”, to debate left-winger Gore Vidal, author of the scandalous “Myra Breckinridge”, during the coverage of the conventions.  The match seemed ideal – particularly since it was known that each had total political and personal disdain for the other.  The ideological live clashes between two of the most pompous celebrities of this or any other time reached its nadir near the last of the ten debates when Vidal called Buckley a “neo-Nazi”, who promptly retorted by calling Vidal a “queer”.   The result was delicious television history and sheer fun for all of us.   Best of Enemies has a limited theatrical release on July 31.
City of Gold
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead:  The Story of The National

Frame By Frame
The Yes Men Are Revolting


(L-R)  BEST OF ENEMIES filmmakers Robert Gordon and
Morgan Neville with AFI DOCS Festival Director, Michael
Lumpkin and American Film Institute President and CEO,
 Bob Gazzale on the Opening Night Red Carpet

Former ABC news anchor Sam Donaldson on the Opening
Night Red Carpet
AFI President and CEO, Bob Gazzale, welcomes the Opening
Night audience to AFI DOCS and the screening of
(L-R) Kristin Roberts, Managing Editor of the National
Journal during the post-screening QandA of BEST OF
ENEMIES with filmmakers Morgan Neville and
Robert Gordon
Guests of the AFI DOCS Opening Night reception at the