AFI DOCS 2017: The BYT Preview
BYT at large | Jun 15, 2017 | 9:00AM |

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 14th through June 18th, 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).

For Ahkeem – review by Max Bentovim

Equal measures troubling for what it says as for what it is, For Akheem is an intimate portrait of a black teenage girl trying to make it through high school in North St. Louis. Taking place over a multi-year period which encompasses the killing of Michael Brown just a few miles away, the film’s strengths are manifold and obvious: its omnipresence in Daje’s life, its relentless humanity, its willingness to let its subjects speak for themselves, and finally its its pitch-perfect cinematography/editing. Daje desperately desires her high school degree, even as her very teenage choices interact disastrously with a social and institutional system that seems almost designed to magnify the negative consequences of those choices to absurd and tragic degrees.

The film has its weaknesses; its intimacy is at times claustrophobic or myopic, with a steadfast refusal to step back from its subject so the chronology ultimately feels blurred. But more urgently, For Akheem begs questions. Why did the filmmakers chose Daje? How were they so present at so many crucial and/or intimate moments in her life? Given the way the film is shot and edited, were there multiple crewmembers in her tiny house, apparently unheated in winter, or it was edited in a way at least slightly deceptive in how it constructs the rhythm of conversation and events? How could people act natural, be natural, make organic choices in the presence of cameras? Did the filmmakers ever help Daje and her family in their times of need? Could they have? Should they have? For Akheem’s strengths exacerbate those questions until they veer into vague suspicion, threatening to undermine its purpose.

In the end, For Akheem is perhaps most useful not as a study in its subject, but as a study in the moral quandaries that come from documentary filmmaking. Its problems are big ones, but they’re the problems of a film worth watching, pondering, struggling with.

For Ahkeem screens on Thursday, June 15, at 1:45pm at AFI Silver, and on Saturday, June 16, at 9:15pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

The Work – review by Jeff Spross

The Work is not a documentary for the cynical or the faint of heart. It follows the Inside Circle, an emotional group therapy process at Folsom Prison, in which inmates — many servicing life sentences for murders and violent crime — deal with their histories, rage, fears, and wounds. But that isn’t all: directors Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary focus on a four-day period in which a troupe of everyday civilians join in. The sessions are all-male, and draw on a combination of street talk, secular therapy methods, and the spiritual backgrounds of the various facilitators — often inmates themselves. The Work is at its best when observing the raw animal physicality of human emotion. The group coaches an inmate in how to physically relax so the emotions can come out. then there is someone held by the crowd so they can physically rage against the universe and themselves. In another moment, an aloof and judgmental civilian angers one of the inmates, then almost immediately breaks down himself upon realizing the way he’s betrayed the values of the space. Watching these men confront their demons cannot help but implicitly indict the U.S. justice system, and the self-defeating idiocy of locking people up, exiling them from civilization. The therapy session operate by creating an extraordinarily unusual social context, with completely different priorities and expectations from everyday life. At first, that might seem like a response to the equally unusual challenges of the inmates’ lives. But it eventually becomes clear the civilians need this as much as anyone. Ultimately, the bars are pretty much the only thing separating the men inside and outside of Folsom Prison.

The Work screens on Thursday, June 15, at 2:45pm at E Street, and on Saturday, June 17, at 6:30pm. Buy tickets here!

Muhi: Generally Temporary – review by Trisha Brown

Like many documentaries, Muhi: Generally Temporary considers a phenomenon of nearly unfathomable proportion – in this case, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Gaza – by looking at a microcosm of it. And like the best documentaries, Muhi’s microcosm focusing on the story of a Palestinian boy and his grandfather trapped by circumstance in an Israeli hospital, is so unique and so compelling that in watching it, you gain a new perspective on the larger issue even if your opinion of it doesn’t change.

Muhammad “Muhi” El-Farrah was born in Gaza with a rare immune disorder, and was immediately rushed to an Israeli hospital. As a result of his chronic illness and a surgery that led to the amputations of his hands and feet, Muhi’s condition is such that it’s unlikely he can survive away from a high-quality hospital. In short, he cannot survive in Gaza. So as the film opens, 4-year-old Muhi and his caretaker grandfather, Abu Naim, are confined to that same Israeli hospital: Muhi is cared for by Israeli doctors and nurses. The hospital parking garages and hallways are his play areas. Hospital volunteers are his friends.  His primary language is Hebrew.

Between Muhi’s health and the political and humanitarian crises in the region, the film deftly illustrates how circumstances can stack on top of each other in such a way that options become non-existent. You can feel the hospital walls closing in on Abu Naim when his family in Gaza is in crisis. He has to decide between staying with Muhi and going to Gaza, knowing that it may be very difficult for him to get back to the hospital. The only thing that packs a bigger punch that seeing how Muhi’s situation can be both so impossible, so inevitable, that an innocent the young boy finally begins to understand it as well.

Muhi: Generally Temporary plays Thursday, June 15, at 4:15 in Silver 2, and Saturday, June 17, at 12pm at E Street. Buy tickets here!

Waiting for the Sun – review by Trisha Brown

Whatever stigma children in the United States may bear as a result of having incarcerated parents, the impact for children in China is significantly more measurable. To the extend that it exists, the safety net is far more porous. Seeing that, former Chinese prison officer “Grandma Zheng” has been running foster homes for children of prisoners since 1995 with no support from the state.

Waiting for the Sun chronicles life for children through a series of vignettes that looks at their lives in one such home, Sun Valley, and briefly explains how each ended up there. The style works well, offering a variety of stories and perspectives, and often juxtaposing life in Sun Valley with gut-wrenching scenes of parental visits who have become strangers after years of imprisonment and separation.

The subtle tragedy in director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s documentary is that Sun Valley is a type of prison too – the best possible kind, of course, with loving adults who care deeply about these children and where they end up. Many of these children find safety and stability in Sun Valley, and that’s such a relief and comfort to them that the very idea of leaving – notably when they visit a parent or when a parent is released from prison – is devastating. But it can’t be ignored that the children who go to Sun Valley go there because they have no choice. Those who want to leave can’t, and as one boy point out to another, “Even if you are heartbroken, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Waiting for the Sun plays Thursday, June 15 at 6:15pm at E Street, and Friday, June 16 at 11:15am at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Unrest – review by Vesper Arnett

Director Jennifer Brea cannot get out of bed without astronomical pain, and she is not the only one. Brea suffers from myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome, together known as ME/CFS, It is the little-respected illness that is crippling people globally for reasons that are still unclear. It is twice as common as multiple sclerosis, affects mostly women, and a quarter of the sufferers are homebound and bedridden. Though there is essentially the equivalent of a “spectrum” to the illness, where some sufferers can go into the world and still suffer (Brea among this group), and others who, like one young Englishwoman, cannot even touch their feet to the ground.

Not only does Brea highlight the illness as one we really should have awareness campaigns for, she also educates the audience by turning the camera on herself to challenge viewers’ preconceived notions of what chronic fatigue syndrome really does to its sufferers. Despite her high level of academic achievement and physical fitness, Brea got sick one day with a fever that turned into a nightmare of pain, exhaustion, and immobility that has persisted over years. In the past, the illness was one of many grouped into the now archaic name of “hysteria.” For sufferers, the Internet renewed the possibility of remaining an active part of the world, even if it is through virtual means.

Ultimately, the film presents the uncomfortable truth of what it means to love and care for someone who might be chronically ill, without hope for a cure, and what it’s like to try to fight out of it using whatever means necessary. Most of the people with ME/CFS are not as lucky as Brea, but perhaps this film will raise the profile of the illness and the efforts of researchers to end it.

Unrest screens on Friday, June 16, at 3:45pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

New Chefs on the Black – review by Ross Bonaime

Starting your own restaurant is a gargantuan task, but keeping it open and successful for years in near-impossible. This is what New Chefs on the Block director Dustin Harrison-Atlas tries to convey to his audience.

Harrison-Atlas follows two DC chefs opening their first restaurants: Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury, who is detail-oriented and dedicated to doing what is best for his restaurant and his employees. Then there is Frank Linn or Frankly…Pizza!, a more free-flowing spirit, ready to keep things small, stay optimistic, and not get overwhelmed with the day-to-day pressures.

It’s not as if Silverman and Linn aren’t fascinating to bounce between, as they deal with the struggles of their new enterprises, it’s just that Harrison-Atlas’ thesis for the difficulty of such a venture gets lost along the way. We see the ups and downs, but lets just say one side overwhelms the other in both stories. New Chefs on the Block handles the individual stories with care, but the variety in these could’ve used a bit of seasoning.

New Chefs on the Block screens on Friday, June 16, at 4pm at E Street, and on Sunday, June 18, at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Gentlemen of Vision – review by Vesper Arnett

Gentlemen of Vision follows a group of talented teen step dancers from the St. Louis area who see their step team as a path out of and away from the tough streets. Some of them straddle the line between the step world and the streets, and it concerns their coach, a counselor at one of the high schools. Coach Marlon Wharton volunteers to lead them with a toughness that makes some of the boys feel conflicted about his disciplinarian approach, but through it, he builds them up  from boyhood into manhood. The young men are required to behave as gentlemen: they must wear dress shirts and pants, bow ties, and treat their meetings with the level of professionalism we would expect from experienced adult businessmen. All the young men featured have goals outside of step; one wants to finish writing a book in the next couple of years, another wants to study biology in college, and another wants to go into music. But for Coach Wharton, when they are in step practice, they must step. No homework, no talking about anything not step, because it should be an immersive escape from everything else going on in their lives. His method seems to work: the team is one of the top high school step teams in the nation.

Gentlemen of Vision takes the famed dance style and shows the work that must be put in to achieve. Their practices are like ballet in their intensity and choreographic precision, but are rooted in black tradition and community. It is a brutally honest portrait of a community that embraces the positive message behind step, and is exemplary in presenting black excellence not rooted in academic, scientific, or political achievement.

Gentlemen of Vision screens on Friday, June 16, at 4pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide – review by Ross Bonaime

In 2008, 32 Pills’ director Hope Litoff lost her sister Ruth to suicide. After years of living in the shadows of this death, Hope attempts to solve the “mystery” of why her sister would take such a drastic step and questions her own place in her sister’s passing. In doing this, Hope unpacks her sister’s storage center full of her belongings, packed with Ruth’s artwork, stuffed animals, and an unbelievable amount of drugs, which Ruth used to kill herself.

This unpacking of a person’s life after their passing is highly reminiscent of Finding Vivian Maier, but with a more personal bent. The more Hope learns about her sister, the more she seeps into the depression and substance abuse that caused Ruth to lose control. What starts as a discovery of a person that was lost quickly becomes about something more, with a focus on the way we attach grief to ourselves after losing those close to us.

While Hope’s first-person account of her search does bring the audience in deeper, it also leads to some questionable jumps that do feel like they could be taken for the sake of the story. The deeper Hope goes into the life of Ruth, the more Hope is also recording her own self-destruction, documenting her own deterioration, and essentially acknowledging the similarity in her and her sister’s stories. These parallel stories end up more questionable with her at the helm of her own downward spiral.

The mirroring of her sister’s life thankfully is secondary to 32 Pills’ glimpse at the power of grief, and how it shapes those that are left behind.

32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide screens on Friday,  June 16, at 6pm at E Street, and Saturday, June 17, at 11:15am at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Recruiting for Jihad – review by Max Bentovim

For one full hour, Recruiting for Jihad is red hot stuff. A project of journalist Adel Khan Farooq and filmmaker Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen, the film follows Ubaydullah Hussain, the spokesperson and leader of a Norwegian Islamist group as he goes about his business from 2014 through the present. His business is primarily recruitment; he believes that not only should Norway come under Islamic law and government, but that it will in the foreseeable future. He doesn’t seem focused on making change in Norway as much as he tries to funnel people into hotter spots, namely Syria.

When he isn’t sending bodies to the grinder, he travels about Norway and Northern Europe, making and shoring up connections, swapping notes on recruitment tactics, and making a show of solidarity with other Islamist actions. We see him at work, and more importantly, we see why he works. He’s charming, warm, engaging; a careful wordsmith, eager for media attention and always able to dance right up to the line in terms of what he says and how he says it. He’ll gladly argue with fellow Muslims, canvas downtown Oslo, or get out his message on social media. His determination and energy are genuinely in line with the zealotry and absolutism of his ideology. The film never shies away from the gravity of his beliefs and the horror of their human consequences, but it also never shies away from shining a light on what it is about this person that might entrance and ensnare lost souls.

The film is crisp and direct; more importantly, it’s organized, informative, and transparent, laying out its biases, its context, and its MO at every step. For that first hour, you could find fault with the film, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a whiff of evasion or opacity. Its approach to its subject is as refreshing as its content is gripping.

Then the film takes a wrenching twist. It’s one driven by exogenous events, and one that puts the filmmakers in a hard spot; ignoring it would be futile and self-defeating, and the unexpected turn in the story is just as compelling and important in its own right as the story the filmmakers set out to tell. But it’s a different story, and one inescapably about the filmmakers in a way the rest of the film isn’t, and it feels like a separate episode stapled onto the film. I don’t know if there was a better way to grapple with the paradox, but the way they do it doesn’t feel like the right one. Nonetheless, Recruiting for Jihad remains urgent, compelling work.

Recruiting for Jihad screens on Friday, June 16, at 8:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

An Insignificant Man – review by Brandon Wetherbee

This political documentary about the recent past is billed as a, “real-life House of Cards.” That’s not true. It’s an Indian version of the 2016 US presidential election. It’s so much better than House of Cards. This is exactly the type of film that should thrive in DC and AFI Docs.

My ignorance of global politics made this documentary about Arvind Kejriwal so much more captivating. Filmmakers Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla have crafted the kind of film that should – and hopefully will – be screened for both political science and film classes. Though anyone with a basic understanding of party politics knows what’s going to happen, it never feels predictable, boring, or faxed in.

Arvind Kejriwal is the leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, translated to Common Man Party), a party that formed to fight corruption, plain and simple. He decided to run in the 2013 Delhi Legislative Assembly election. But dirty tricks are dirty tricks, regardless of the country or election. A tape controversy, extremely similar to the Planned Parenthood tape controversy, that nearly brought down the AAP. Reputations were seemingly ruined. For days, evidence didn’t matter. Once a lie is spread, it is difficult to see the truth.

Related, did you know Hillary Clinton sent emails?

Anyway, in An Insignificant Man‘s case, a doctored tape did not bring down the AAP or Kejriwal. He was able to focus on his big issues that concerned Delhi residents: water and electricity. Kind of like how health care is our issue. Candidates make populist promises that are difficult to deliver. Like how our presidential candidates make populist promises that are difficult to deliver. Without giving away the ending, politics in Delhi aren’t that much different than DC. Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the endings are what’s different.

An Insignificant Man screens on Saturday, June 17, at 11am at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Cine Sao Paulo – review by Vesper Arnett

In the small Brazilian city called Dois Cárregos, there is a man with a mission: to restore his father’s theater. The theater was condemned by a judge because it was in such disrepair, but Mr. Telles has ambition that is driven by nostalgia and fueled by a love of cinema. Telles is like the kid from Last Action Hero, minus all the cool bits and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If anything, Telles is more conscious than all his detractors of the grand undertaking of restoring a building that is over 70 years old. In fact, this passion project reminds me of the recent restoration of Baltimore’s Parkway Theater, home to the Maryland Film Festival.

Cine São Paulo follows Telles’s work and his reminiscing, which at times makes the film lose focus.  He gives a tour to children at the beginning of the film, and again at the end when the building is ready. Mr. Telles’ personality is lively; he is ready to share his love of cinema to the youth of his city, who have grown up without a local theater of any kind. The building can accommodate film and stage productions, and Telles installs an old projector to play films from film (everything is mechanical). The first film that the revitalized Cine screens is Ciudad de Deus, a nod to both Brazilian cinema and the promise of the future generation.

Cine Sao Paulo screens on Saturday, June 17, at 1:30pm at AFI Silver, and on Sunday, June 18, at 6:45pm at E Street. Buy tickets here!

Dries – review by Brandon Wetherbee

What are your thoughts on fashion designer Kanye West? Is he an artist you respect, trying to create in works in different arenas? If your answer is “yes,” you might enjoy Dries. Are you indifferent to the West working with fabrics, rather than sound? Dries is fine background Netflix viewing. Think Kanye should stick to what he knows? Maybe AFI Docs isn’t for you.

Dries is about fashion designer Dries Van Noten. It’s not as fun as Iris. It’s relatively drama free, as far as you can get from The September Issue while being about fashion. It’s in the same universe as First Monday In May, but feels worlds apart.

Dries’ runway shows, especially the 2005 summer collection edition, are captivating. It’s obvious why filmmaker Reiner Holzemer  wanted to make a documentary about Dries. I just wish it was more about the show and less about the man behind the clothes.

I really enjoy films about fashion. It’s one of the best subjects for documentary, because even if you despise the designer, you may love the designs. If you could care less about the motivation, the process remains fascinating. There’s inherent drama whenever there’s a deadline attached to art. Despite build in advantages, Dries is just fine. It’s a well shot, 90 minute glimpse into the motivations behind a well respected and relatively simple designer. But simple is boring. And who wants simple in fashion?

Why did I mention Kanye? He briefly appears in the beginning of the film. His appearance is the most exciting thing about Dries.

Dries screens on Saturday, June 17, at 6pm at E Street, and on Sunday, June 18, at 11:30am at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Spettacolo – review by Brandon Wetherbee

Each year a small Italian town puts on an original play. That seems like it could make for an interesting 90 minutes, right?

Spettacolo is not interesting. It’s a bit too slow and boring. It’s a beautiful film in a beautiful setting, but I think I’d prefer to see the play rather than the history of the plays. Then again, I don’t speak Italian and it’s much easier to read subtitles than learn a new language.

I’m being way too generous. It’s way too slow and really boring. It romanticizes small towns. This would not be any better if it was in another language. These plays are not for me. They’re not meant for me. Nor is this film.

Spettacolo is a film about progress and tradition and small towns and greed and banks. It’s difficult to care. How is that even possible? One of these ideas is big enough for an interesting 90 minutes. How is this so boring?

If you turned this on at home, you’d turn it off around minute 20. If you saw this in the theaters, you’d fall asleep by minute 30. If you’re still watching after an hour, you’re upset with yourself for wasting time.

One of the stories is about a young boy who would rather play soccer than participate in the annual play. He made the right decision.

Spettacolo screens on Saturday, June 17, at 9pm at AFI Silver, and on Sunday, June 18, at 11:15am at E Street. Buy tickets here!

The Farthest – review by Ross Bonaime

As the first spacecraft to leave the Solar System, the Voyager is humanity’s first attempt to leave some lasting remnant of our existence in the universe. The Farthest records the first 40 years of Voyager’s journey through the solar system and beyond, but is also fantastic in how it documents mankind’s attempts to stay relevant, even when we’re just a blip on the radar.

The Farthest spends plenty of time on the Voyager’s Golden Record, an album that tries to compromise the entirety of humanity in just a few songs and photos, to any far away intelligent life that might find it. How do you boil down the accomplishments into two hours of music and about a hundred photos?

It’s this type of reflective nature that makes The Farthest more captivating than your typical space documentary. Director Emer Reynolds shows the wonder of this staggering achievement, but also reflects on the incredibly personal nature of recording mankind’s existence. We feel the wonder of doing something so great and groundbreaking.

The Farthest screens on Sunday, June 18, at 12pm at E Street. Buy tickets here!