It’s late June, which can only mean one thing for movie fans in the D.C. area: it’s time for AFI DOCS, the city’s best film festival. It runs from June 22 through June 26, showcasing the best documentary film the world has to offer. There’s a lot to be excited about: now the festival has even more screenings in D.C. in addition to Silver Spring, so it’s easier to catch a doc than ever. The festival has its share of issue-heavy political documentaries, but many of this year’s docs are also genuinely moving and sometimes are as tense as thrillers.
Members of the BYT film team wrote a curated reviews of documentaries you won’t want to miss (there’s a link to buy tickets at the end of each capsule review).
Farewell Ferris Wheel – review by Trisha Brown
Viewers will learn quickly while watching Farewell Ferris Wheel that although it is about many interwoven things, none of those things is a Ferris wheel. At its most basic, the film is about men who leave their families and homes and low wage jobs ($4 per day) in Mexico to come to the United States and work better paying but still low wage jobs ($360 per week) with carnivals.
Farewell Ferris Wheel is also about the H-2B visas that bring those men here legally, the man who procures those visas for the vast majority of carnival workers, and the impact the visas have on the economy, the labor market, and wages. In a relatively brief running time of 70 minutes, filmmakers Jamie Sisley and Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez do an effective job of presenting multiple facets of the issues at play as well as a variety of perspectives related to both the politics and the realities of the H-2B program.
Films around these kinds of social issues can feel like a call to action, but Farewell Ferris Wheel’s more thoughtful, expository approach is likely to resonate in a different way with a broad audience of viewers. Although you get a sense, particularly at the end, of where Sisley and Martinez stand on the issues in play, the documentary makes clear that the questions around temporary workers are nuanced and complex and that answers are elusive. They present different stories and perspectives and let viewers uncover the question at the core of Farewell Ferris Wheel: what are our national responsibilities toward people who come into this country to become, even temporarily, part of our workforce? Getting audiences to answer that question, or at least consider it, is what the film is really about.
Farewell Ferris Wheel screens on Saturday, June 25, at 5:30pm at E Street Cinema, and on Sunday, June 26, at 11am at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
Shalom Italia – review by Max Bentovim
Roughly midway through Shalom Italia, Andrea Anati carves the name “Edna” into a tree. Edna, we learn, was his wife, who died too young after an accident in her mid-70s. Andrea is in his 80s. It’s a touching moment, and one that at first glance seems tangential to Shalom Italia’s central narrative. But thematically, as a rumination on memory, loss, and carrying on, it fits in quite squarely.
It’s Bubi Anati – born Gnagnatti – who is the motivator behind Shalom Italia’s central quest. Bubi and his family were Italian Jews who spent the war hiding in a cave in the hilly woods northwest of Florence. Today, only Bubi and two of his brothers, Andrea and Emmanuel, survive. Driven by something, Bubi summons his brothers to Florence – he splits his time between Italy and Israel, but his brothers had never returned to Italy after escaping – to relocate the cave where they hid, hungry and scared. The brothers, old and with varying degrees of energy and ability, wander through the woods, find people and places they once knew, and complain and squabble, in Hebrew and Italian, just like brothers have to – all while never missing an opportunity to indulge in Tuscan food and drink.
Shalom Italia, so rare for a documentary, shows and doesn’t tell. It’s buoyed by an intuitive sense of character, a comfort with ambiguity and complexity, and an eye for framing that suggests a talent that could easily be applied to fiction filmmaking. Carefully assembling its captured moments, of long conversations and brief exchanges and the interstitial episodes between, Shalom Italia paints a compelling portrait encompassing the intersecting dynamics of family, of trauma, and individual and collective memory, all while being airy and funny. In the hands of a careful and insightful filmmaker, even the brothers’ bottomless appetite prosciutto takes on layered weight. Shalom Italia is documentary at its best.
Shalom Italia screens on Sunday, June 26, at 6:15pm at the AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
Contemporary Color – review by Vesper Arnett
Where has Nelly Furtado been all this time? Now we know.
My high school did not have a color guard, and after watching Contemporary Color I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Well, not enough to rush out and watch high school football games in anticipation of color guard performances, but enough to want to go out to musical theater performances for the first time in years.
David Byrne (yes, that David Byrne) discovered color guard one day and became enamored with it, enough that he eventually developed a plan to have a showcase at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY. This showcase performance pairs 10 color guard teams aged 13-18, with 10 musicians who have composed original pieces just for this event: St. Vincent, Zola Jesus, How to Dress Well, Nico Muhly and Ira Glass, Tune-Yards, Dev Hynes, members of the Beastie Boys, Nelly Furtado, Lucius, and Byrne himself.
Byrne is color guard’s #1 fan. It is a blender (the Ninja brand pulse button kind) of visual art, dance, sport, theater, and music in a way that is unique. Each form overlaps, combines, synchronizes, and pushes the performers in the color guard to present something visually that can only be described as a distinct interpretation of music that relies on the physicality of the performers as much as it does the music it expresses. You really can have it all.
The concert film is part documentary and part scripted performance piece—scenes cut between backstage giggles of nervous high school students, short sequences that lovingly highlight individuals outside of the main show, and a backstage host ties everything together into a single cohesive theatrical production.
Contemporary Color is a fun escape into a confusing world of twirls and throws and I think I like it.
Contemporary Color screens on Saturday, June 25, at 9:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Raising Bertie – review by Ross Bonaime
Within 100 miles of the 80% black Bertie Country, North Carolina, there are 27 prisons. For the students of The Hive, an alternative study program for teenagers that don’t exceed in the regular school system, they are told they can either learn at their school or more likely, learn at one of those 27 prisons. When The Hive is closed, Raising Bertie shows as three students – Reginald, Davonte and David – all have to figure out how to proceed with their lives when this opportunity is gone.
For the boys of Raising Bertie, we’re shown a combination of elements that kept them stuck in their ruts, some that have lasted for generations and have made it hard for them to get out of this oppressive hole. Their parents have worked three jobs, yet still end up having to move out of their house when they can’t keep up, or their family has dealt with drinking problems or the prison system.
Raising Bertie doesn’t give easy answers – as there aren’t any – but presents Reginald, Davonte and David’s lives with all the problems and trouble of escape that they’ve come to accept. For example, after a hopeful visit to nearby colleges, the cost of tuition acts like another way that these three have been given hope, only to be knocked back down.
Raising Bertie is a complex glimpse at the lives, friendships and struggles of these three who want to escape their boring town and the situation they’re in with little hope out.
Raising Bertie screens on Saturday, June 25, at 1:45pm at AFI Silver, as well as Sunday, June 26, at 3pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
All This Panic – review by Trisha Brown
While watching All This Panic, a documentary that follows a group of teenage girls/women based in New York City, I thought more than once about what had drawn me to the film. Who would want to go back and vicariously relive the awkward years of late adolescence?
But there’s something about the experience of running the teenage gauntlet that connects all of us. Although we move into adulthood in different ways and the road is bumpier for some than for others, each of us had to do it. All This Panic is an engaging reminder that there’s something communal and satisfying about watching someone – specifically someone else – navigate that transition.
The film introduces us to several young women, but the focus is largely on Lena and Ginger, longtime friends who are separated when Lena leaves for college and Ginger decides to stay in New York. Lena’s is a fitting heroine: her drive and emotional maturity is astounding, particularly as she deals with her father’s and brother’s mental illness. Ginger fits more in the anti-heroine role: she’s dramatic, seems unmotivated, and often she’s mean. But she’s also a kid without much parental guidance who’s stuck and a little scared. Unsurprisingly, most of us will find something we relate to in both stories.
At the beginning of All This Panic, two teenagers discuss whether they would do things differently if they could re-do high school knowing what they know now. They can’t, of course, and that’s the central appeal of the film. As an audience, we’re watching in real time as these very young women navigate life with increasing independence, learning from their experiences and being changed by their decisions. It’s an engaging peek into a part of the human experience that is both personal and universal.
All This Panic screens on Friday, June 24, at 9:45pm at the AFI Silver, and on Saturday, June 26, at 3:30pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Southwest of Salem – review by Vesper Arnett
Southwest of Salem interrogates the flaws of the criminal justice system, and arrives at the perfect moment for change. The San Antonio Four were accused of unspeakable crimes against two young girls in 1994. The accused women: Anna, Cassie, Liz, and Kristie, were babysitting the girls, who are Liz’s nieces, one week, and the next they faced accusations. The women maintained innocence to the police, lawyers, judges, and the jury. They were convicted on all counts and began their sentences in 2000.
Southwest of Salem begins by questioning the trial narrative. The women, all of whom were in relationships with women at the time, are presented as victims of not only prejudice against their sexual orientation but also because they are Latina. The filmmakers present the story as a modern-day Salem witch-hunt: the events the young girls describe are so violent and outside of normal patterns of abusers that some advocates dissected the case and the flawed methodologies, discovering that the women are likely innocent.
It is not a neutral film by any means—this is a film with a purpose—to help the women maintain the freedom they gained after one girl recanted her statements in 2012. The film goes well beyond the initial case and questions the integrity of the criminal system itself. How can our system provide justice if all of the methods of conviction come from flawed sciences, testimony from young girls who are also the sole witnesses, a court system in a state that openly condemned homosexuality, comparing it to devil worship? Is it necessary to force someone to register as a sex offender if they are released early with the possibility of exoneration? What happens next and how can we help?
Southwest of Salem screens on Friday, June 24, at 8:45pm at E Street Cinema, as well as Saturday, June 26, at 12:30pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Command and Control – review by Max Bentovim
There are a lot of things that are scary about nuclear weapons. If you were to detonate a 15 kiloton fission bomb (AKA, the “Little Boy” the US dropped on Hiroshima) at the Wonderbread Factory in Shaw, which, while perhaps a less likely target than the White House, happens to be BYT HQ, you would incinerate thirty thousand people, injure another hundred thousand, and generate a cloud of radioactive fallout that could make its way as far as Havre de Grace. And that’s outright puny compared to what you can do with a hydrogen bomb; the largest one currently in the US arsenal, detonated in the same location, would vaporize every person in DC and the majority of MoCo, PG, Arlington, and Alexandria. Fallout would reach Yonkers. Seriously, try it for yourself.
So, yeah, it’s understandable why the fear of nuclear war – that some geopolitical crisis could escalate into the deliberate application of nuclear weapons by the Cold War superpowers – kept a lot of people up at night. But perhaps we’re all still getting too much sleep. See, the thing about nuclear weapons – of which there are still thousands in the US alone – is that, fundamentally, they’re just objects. They don’t care about us. They just follow the laws of physics. Like an automobile, or the garbage disposal in your kitchen sink, they simply, mechanically, respond to their various inputs. Give them the right inputs, and you will get to your destination on time, rid yourself of eggshells, or stay cozy in a chilly office. Give them other, different inputs and you will careen off a cliff, lose a hand, or burn down your house. In many cases, we have added safety features and varying levels of human enforcement to ensure safe use. In other cases, we haven’t any – industry objections have prevented automatic stopping mechanisms to be mandatory in table saws, for reasons that might be valid, or might not. Nuclear weapons are just like that, except when they have an accident they could turn a major metropolitan area into a Bosch painting. And that is, almost, by a whisker, what happened outside Little Rock, AK in 1980, when a dropped socket caused a massive explosion in a chamber that contained a live nuclear missile.
It is that story that is told, slickly, comprehensively, and thrillingly by Command and Control. Using what is by now a standard mix of interview, archival, and recreated footage, it puts its central incident into the proper context. Its suggestion that a nuclear detonation would have rewritten history, killing then-Vice President Walter Mondale and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, is great grist for the alt-history mill. Its survey of the frequency of nuclear accidents is genuinely terrifying. And it’s recounting of the lack of systemic accountability for such accidents, substituted for by burying the handful of unlucky grunts on duty any given day, is infuriating. The lingering broader suggestion – that almost any degree of complacency in our nuclear arsenal’s safety is woefully unjustified – is deeply unsettling. Sleep tight.
Command and Control screens on Saturday, June 26, at 3pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDbXEPQrzko
Cinema, Mon Amour – review by Ross Bonaime
In the lobby of the movie theater Dacia Panoramic – one of less than thirty remaining theaters in Romania – there still remains a poster for Gladiator, which in huge letters states “A Hero Will Rise.” For the Dacia, that hero is Victor Purice, who started as a projectionist in the 70s and now is the manager of the failing theater. Very often, only a handful of people will come through the doors of the Dacia, as Purice and his coworkers hand out free drinks, give blankets out when the heating breaks, and allows kids to pick whatever films they want to watch out of their library of torrents.
Cinema, Mon Amour presents Purice as a man desperate to get back to the glory days of his theater that he clearly loves so much. Purice has a clear love for the cinema and the communal experience of watching a film in a theater with others. Purice waxes nostalgic for the days when Titanic opened, where almost a thousand people packed the one-screen cinema, but now he questions whether or not his uphill battle is worth keeping up, whether or not he should close the theater. As he states in the film’s emotional interview, “When people ignore you, it hurts.”
Director Alexandru Belc gives a beautiful look at a man who refuses to give up despite the adversity that is overwhelming. But Cinema, Mon Amour also traces the highs and lows of the cinema in general, as the Dacia gets rid of film, moving to a digital projector, in an attempt to keep up with trends to keep themselves relevant. For a man and a medium, Cinema, Mon Amour is a compelling look at the struggle to stay afloat when the world is against you.
Cinema, Mon Amour screens on Friday, June 24, at 9:15pm at the AFI Silver, as well as Sunday, June 26, at 5:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Lo and Behold – review by Alan Zilberman
The Guggenheim Symposium is an opportunity for AFI to honor the documentaries of a legendary filmmaker, and this year’s recipient is Werner Herzog. The eccentric German is known for his deep cadence, as well as films that blur the boundary between nonfiction and truth. Lo and Behold is his latest film, and his subject is nothing less the internet itself. Herzog takes several vignettes – topics include the internet’s birth, and the perils of internet addiction – and uses them as as a prism to discuss his favorites topics like insanity, and humanity’s capacity for indifference.
The key to Lo and Behold is how Herzog positions himself within the film. He’s an active participant, both in terms of narrations and his willingness to feed lines to his subjects. There is not much new territory, at least not for folks who have a passing interest in popular science or a subscription to “WIRED,” but Herzog sells the material with his curiosity and deadpan sense of humor. One of the more memorable moments is when he talks about solar flares, a phenomenon that may lead to the destruction of the electrical grid and life as we know it. This idea does not alarm Herzog, of course, since he thinks about it as an opportunity for adventure.
Lo and Behold will not cause anyone to think about the internet differently, exactly. It will cause us to think more like Werner Herzog, which is a good thing. He may be solemn, even a little elf-involved, yet this film – like all his other documentaries – is a cry against mediocrity, and the perils of an unobserved life.
Lo and Behold screens on Friday, June 24th, at 7pm at the Newseum. There are only stand-by tickets for now, but check here for more information.
Zero Days – review by Alan Zilberman
Alex Gibney can be more of an investigative journalist than a documentary filmmaker. He is prolific, and his films are exhaustive, delving into complex topics with a thirst for knowledge and a skepticism of our institutions. Even his riveting work, however, feels more like a protracted 60 Minutes segment than a film: last year’s Scientology documentary Going Clear is deep on details, light on cinematic technique. AFI Docs this year opens with Zero Days, his latest, and it also happens to be his best. It mixes a high-tech detective story with international intrigue, as well as a sense of well-founded anger.
You may have heard of Stuxnet, a malignant computer worm that infected seemingly every computer in 2010. What you may not know is that Stuxnet is an off-shoot of a joint American-Israeli cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear program. Gibney starts with an investigation of the worm itself, using internet security experts to explain how it’s the work of a nation-state, not an unhinged hacker. This is thrillingly presented, with actual snippets of Stuxnet’s code to guide us through its horrifying possibilities.
The second half of Zero Days transitions into the world of espionage, with Americans and Israelis frustrated over the the others’ conduct. The NSA intended the program to be benign, undermining Iran over many years, while Israel wanted the code to act fast – and with brutality. Gibney has access to a impressive roster of talking heads, including higher-ups in the NSA and the Mossad. But the key to the film is his secret source, someone whose face and body are distorted, who talks about NSA activity in a surprisingly candid way. The source is dismissive of Edward Snowden, and instead suggests that America’s continual reliance on confidential secrecy is what leads to the Stuxnet problem.
Gibney constructs Zero Days like a house of cards, with a solid narrative foundation, then destroys it with added context, credible details, and gnawing paranoia. This film is like a real life Mr. Robot, only the capabilities are much more destructive, and countries still rely on peace through mutually assured cyber destruction – for now.
Zero Days screens on Wednesday, June 22, at 7:30pm at The Newseum. Buy tickets here!
CARE – review by Trisha Brown
When you’re a child, it’s easy to let someone care for you. Children aren’t ready for independence, and for them vulnerability rarely results in a loss of dignity. But time passes and the human body is not powered by the Energizer batteries of the old pink bunny commercials. The same aging process that turns us from children into adults will eventually ferry most of us from an age of strength and independence to a state of illness or advanced age. CARE considers this loss of autonomy that often accompanies that transition and juxtaposes it with the dependence of caretakers whose lives are, in some ways, as vulnerable and uncertain as the elderly and aging.
CARE tells the stories of elder care workers and the people with whom they work. Director Deirdre Fishel’s approach seems hands-off, and in some ways it’s very effective to let her subjects speak for themselves on everything from the low wages to how they came to this work to the way they feel about the “caretaker” term. This is a part of life and society we don’t think much about until we have to, and the stories and experiences are enlightening.
At the same time, connecting a few more of the dots could have served CARE and its audience. Viewers will likely notice that no one – neither the caregivers nor the cared-for – in this film is wealthy or even financially comfortable, and the parity there is significant. But audiences might take for granted that all of the caregivers are women. Or that the people most likely in need of care due to advanced age are also women. The stories in CARE are compelling, but they’re also important in a way that the film doesn’t fully convey.
CARE screens on Thursday, June 23 at 3:45pm at E Street Cinema, as well as Saturday, June 25, at 10:30am at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Under the Sun – review by Vesper Arnett
This is probably one of the few times we’ll get to see North Korea outside of photographs and accounts from visitors or defectors. Director Vitaly Mansky is given unprecedented permission to film in the country by its government, with the stipulation that all footage is to be reviewed and approved. The filmmakers are escorted and exposed only to what they are permitted to see, and must shoot according to a script that is created by officials. The documentary, intended as propaganda by the government, turns into a chilling opportunity for glimpses into the peculiar sanitization of life that is presented to outsiders.
Yet Mansky manages to get what officials also did not want to be revealed—individuality. It is all faked. Retakes, kids falling asleep listening to elders, and the script itself are all there. A lesson about the history of North Korea is under every rumor about their school, slowing coming to fruition.
There is a disturbing silence throughout. Not just a silent soundtrack, but also a lack of the familiar sounds of city life. A bus is the only vehicle on the road. It passes locals who walk to work on the sidewalks, despite the open road around them: no cars. It is the anti-city.
It is more of a snapshot of a culture that is keeping up appearances than it an outright condemnation, though it does reveal the government’s attempts to control the filmmakers and film itself. The work recalls the propaganda films created by the Nazis and the outtakes as uncovered in A Film Unfinished (2010), but the extremely controlled nature of Under the Sun suggests that such a mistake could never be made in North Korea. Whatever else is going on will never be seen by outsiders – not without a fight.
Under the Sun screens on Thursday, June 22, at 2pm at the AFI Silver, as well as Saturday, June 25, at 7:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Almost Sunshine – review by Ross Bonaime
Over the last decade and a half, there have been countless documentaries about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but surprisingly few about the soldiers when they return home from war and the mental anguish they go through as they reenter society.
Almost Sunrise follows two soldiers who came home from Iraq years ago and are still trying to acclimate to their return. Tom Voss came back nine years ago and his girlfriend is becoming increasingly worried about Voss’s mental health, while Anthony Anderson has been back for five years and is afraid that his past might be holding him back for his future with his wife and child.
Trying to seek answers for themselves, Voss and Anderson decide to walk 2,700 miles from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, raising awareness for veterans along the way.
While Almost Sunrise’s premise seems like it would be the most interesting, it’s what happened before and after that makes the film so compelling. As their journey goes on, we learn more about their past in the war and the details of what they’re trying to walk away from. We also see that when they return, their problems haven’t exactly gone away. At times, Almost Sunrise can get a little heavy-handed with its messages but that never stops it from being an effective doc about how our country treats our soldiers.
Almost Sunrise screens on Thursday, June 22, at 4pm at E Street Cinema, as well as Friday, June 23, at 6:45pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
How to Build a Time Machine – review by Max Bentovim
How To Build A Time Machine has surprisingly little to do with time travel. Time machines, fictional and theoretical, are sumptuously shown. The cultural history of time travel is discussed, as are certain scientific ideas about time travel as well as the philosophy of time travel. But How To Build A Time Machine isn’t, contrary to all indications, about time travel at all. Instead, it’s a lovely, but thin, portrait of two different men whose neurosis and father issues manifest themselves through a superficially-linked theme.
Rob Niosi’s father took him and his brother to see the 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, an event which made a sufficient impact on the boy that when he grew up to become both a professional craftsman and an obsessive perfectionist, he decided to build a high-quality replica of that film’s distinctive central prop. It takes him a decade-and-a-half. Ron Mallett, meanwhile, is shattered by the sudden death of his father at a young age, planting an emotional seed that eventually manifests itself as a drive to pursue theoretical physics so as to prove, and perhaps realize, the possibility of time travel.
How To Build A Time Machine is a film that clearly exists to fulfill an elevator pitch, and does it with an excess of portentous gusto but a dearth of intellectual depth. It is unclear whether we’re intended to take note of the linked contrasts, firstly between each man’s socioeconomic status, and secondly between the project they’ve chosen to pursue. It flips between each man’s story with increasingly predictable repetitiveness, each segment itself delving into a contrast between Errol Morris-style head-on narration and (admittedly-gorgeous) documentation of the fruits of each man’s quest. The concluding sequence, finally revealing a link between their two stories, is genuinely moving, but layers the narration in a way that rings false. In the end, the film is much like Niosi’ machine. It is a beautiful frivolity, an object much less interesting than either the sum of it’s exquisite parts, or its journey into being.
How to Build a Time Machine screens on Saturday, June 25, at 4:15pm at the AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!