It’s mid-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 June 13 through June 17, 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). The reviews are in chronological order of the festival, so the ones happening sooner are at the top.
Kinshasa Makambo – review by Alan Zilberman
If there is one unforgettable image from Kinshasa Makambo, it is a young protestor with a hollowed water bottle over his lips and butter covering his face. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a brutal police force attacks protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas, and activists realize that butter stops the gas from taking effect. It is an extreme tactic, but a necessary one, since decades of mismanagement and corruption have left the country in utter disrepair.
Director Dieudo Hamadi follows three activists as they see an opportunity during a crisis point. Unrest is at a record high – in 2016, President Joseph Kabila would not hold open elections until protests died down – so the people want him overthrown. The protest footage is stunning: it has a visceral quality to it, exacerbated by the urban rot in the capital. It may look like a war zone, but trash is everywhere, so people clearly still live in the hollowed out buildings. There are also scenes where the protestors discuss their options. A couple of them are radicals, while another wants to put a moderate politician in power. Their squabbling, set against a country in crisis, has depressing resonance in now that democracy continues to erode.
To its credit, Kinshasa Makambo is not a thorough account of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hamadi prefers impressions of the country, and zeroing on its central three figures. This film is a snapshot of modern Africa, as well as what protestors today must face. Anyone who has followed the DRC will not be shocked by its final moments. There is bracing courage to a film that does not allow for hope, showing how things are still getting worse – if they even have a chance of getting better.
Kinshasa Makambo screens on Thursday, June 14, at 2pm at the United Institute for Peace, and at 8:30pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
United We Fan – review by Ross Bonaime
Nowadays, pretty much every television show has the possibility of being resurrected thanks to fan admiration, as most recently seen with shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Sense8. Michael Sparaga’s United We Fan shows the origin of fan campaigns to save their favorite shows, going back to a couple that helped renew Star Trek all the way to recent attempts to save Person of Interest.
United We Fan’s most interesting crusaders come from the Viewers for Quality Television – a group that united in the 80s around their desire to keep shows like Cagney and Lacy and Designing Women on the air. The group’s dedication led to their own award show and recognition from studio heads that the viewer’s input truly was important to what stayed on the air.
When United We Fan focuses on the newer, more frequent attempts to save shows, the film becomes a bit too repetitive in nature. There’s really only two different types of fan campaigns shown here: online petitions and petitions that involve sending in items to the heads of studios. The discussions of these efforts often devolve into montages of clickbait website pages, or random tweets from fans. While some of these fan’s determination can be uplifting for what they accomplish, several of them come off like fans that just can’t let go. United We Fan maybe should’ve focused primarily on the VQT, instead of trying to encapsulate all of TV fandom into once film.
United We Fan screens on Thursday, June 14, at 3:30pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
The Liberation – review by Ross Bonaime
The DC Central Kitchen Culinary Job Training Program gives a fresh start to former addicts, drug dealers, and felons through their intensive coursework. In three months, the men and women who go through the program will learn about how to work in a kitchen, undergo group where they deal with their troubled pasts and their prospective futures, and potentially receive a job.
Largely following three participants, The Liberation – directed by Christoph Green and Fugazi’s Brendan Canty – shows the difficulties of a new beginning. Michael Parson has been in the prison system since the late 80s and has a hard time dealing with the outside world. Wanda Lester is a former addict from Atlanta who joined the program to party with the new people she’d meet. Vishawn Blakey was a drug dealer who has a hard time even staying awake through the program. Green and Canty don’t sugarcoat the journey of these three. These three have done some truly awful things – and in some cases continue to falter – but it’s their attempts to start again that is truly remarkable.
Like this year’s Oscar nominee Knife Skills, this trios attempts to change are truly awe-inspiring, as we watch these people grow in a way that they never thought possible. Their dedication to bettering themselves and finishing what they start, without letting themselves down is what makes The Liberation a powerful film.
The Liberation screens on Friday, June 15, at 1:30pm at E Street Cinema (later screening sold out). Buy tickets here!
The Providers – review by Trisha Brown
After quickly establishing the national scope of the problem addressed in The Providers – 70,000 deaths in rural America could have been prevented last year with better health care – directors Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green focus in on the community of Las Vegas, NM. More specifically, they focus in on three health care providers – Matt Probst, Chris Ruge, and Leslie Hayes – who are part of a project called El Centro, which serves all patients regardless of their ability to pay.
But the film gets even more specific than that. As the stories of different patients, primarily struggling with addiction, unfold throughout the film, there is equal focus on the impact that this work has on Matt, Chris, and Leslie’s personal lives. In some ways, that may be the most important message The Providers has to offer. Certainly, we should all understand the way their patients fall into medical crises, but the unique perspective being documented here is the way all three providers are constantly navigating the way addiction and their dedication to treating it is intertwined with their lives, families, and their dedication to their community.
To say that a crisis like the opioid epidemic is a public health emergency is true and urgent, but The Providers seems to suggest that as important as those kinds of broad, national labels might be, in some ways they undermine the impact that this crisis has on the individual people fighting these battles every day and on every front.
The Providers screens on Friday, June 15, at 2pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
For the Birds – review by Kaylee Dugan
We have a weird relationship with hoarding is this country, one that goes beyond our American impulse to put horse blinders on and mind our own business. Like certain forms of addiction and other hardships, hoarding has been turned into a form of entertainment. We tune into reality shows and gasp as the camera crew pans over mountains or trash. We watch with bated breath as we see a home transform from a makeshift dump into something vaguely livable. For the Birds, Richard Miron’s first documentary (as a director, at least) is almost / kind of / sort of like that.
The film follows Kathy, a woman who owns 200 birds at her run down property in what looks like the middle of the woods. There are ducks who have never seen water, turkeys with cancer, and chickens who have been over pecked. It’s a dreary scene. One that Miron doesn’t shy away from. As animal rights groups lie, cheat and steal their way to save Kathy’s birds, Miron presents some interesting moral dilemmas. And yet, it’s not enough to save the documentary from feeling unfocused and a little bit exploitative.
While you can certainly feel the empathy drip off the screeb, the way the documentary unfolds, feels like it’s meant to catch you off guard with how bad things are at Kathy’s house in a way that doesn’t feel entirely honest. On the other hand… As interesting as Kathy’s home life is (and interesting is 100% the wrong word), if Miron wanted to focus purely on the birds, there are people working at the animal sanctuary that would make more relevant subjects, especially a Scottish woman who feels conflicted throughout the course of the film. Instead Miron sticks with Kathy and ends up diving into her far into her life after the legal battle for the birds. It’s not a bad choice, but it does seem like he was following a line of tragedy that gets away from the central subject of the film.
For the Birds screens on Friday, June 15, at 6pm at AFI Silver, and Saturday, June 16, at 2pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
The Silence Of Others – review by Alan Pyke
Meticulously framed and filmed with uncommon restraint, this recounting of the grim small-town violence that was common during and after Spain’s civil war will haunt you. An early shot shows an older woman’s silhouette, walker and all, tracking along the wall of a collapsing old farmhouse, as she recounts the night townsfolk yanked her mother out of bed when she was 6 years old and left her mutilated body by a roadside. After a younger woman helps her zip-tie a bouquet to a guardrail at the site of the mass grave, she reveals how the past is not past in her little corner of Spain. “The day after tomorrow, the flowers will be gone,” she says ominously.
What follows that early scene is richly worked, artfully told, and painfully relevant to today’s political situations across nearly every democracy from Brazil to Greece to the allied powers from whom Generalissimo Francisco Franco sought refuge by staying just-barely-out of World War II. Though the film touches on Franco personally as it must to tell its story, its focus lies properly on the everyday Spaniards who gave his vicious regime eyes, ears, and pitchforks in every corner of the country he ruled for 40 repressive years. “Fascist leaders make your fascist neighbors quite happy” is the lesson, and those neighbors don’t just evolve out of their regressive mindsets when their leader goes into the ground.
The Silence of Others screens on Saturday, June 16, at 12pm at the AFI Silver and Sunday, June 17 at 5pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
The Cold Blue – review by Alan Pyke
It’s hard to resist the thrall of that nostalgia even if you carry a heavy skepticism into this film. The footage of wingmates falling into fatal nose dives, set against the more triumphalist shots of the fliers greeting adoring fans alongside their legendary plane, will tend to stir something in even the hardest heart. Part of what’s so striking about it is how the real men of this war feel like their Hollywood versions in some of Wyler’s ground footage. In one shot of a trio leaning against the Belle, Wyler captures one guy whose pinched face and swollen gut recall a Leonardo DiCaprio gone to seed. Another has Paul Newmanish eyes and Matt McConaughey jaw, with a rail-thin Barney Fife lookalike wedged between them.
The Cold Blue screens on Saturday, June 16, at 3pm at The National Archives. Buy tickets here!
Witkin & Witkin – review by Kaylee Dugan
If you’ve got a weird family, one with an especially strong sibling rivalry or a strange creative streak through it, Witkin & Witkin might hit too close to home. Directed by Trisha Ziff (a documentarian and a professional curator), the doc perfectly captures that amorphous relationship between siblings. Jumping from one brother’s point of view to the others in seamless fashion, Ziff captures the love (and the hatred) between acclaimed photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and his talented painter brother Jerome Witkin.
As the two dance around touchy subjects like who was the favorite child and who is the most artistically successful, Ziff takes every opportunity to showcase how their work clearly builds off of one another, whether they notice it or not. Both of them explore dark and surreal scenes that aim to push viewer’s buttons, while Joel-Peter aims for black humor and Jerome has a more serious slant. The nightmarish images lend the doc a dreamlike feeling and Ziff runs with it, often times filming only the Witkin brothers mouths as they speak.
As someone who isn’t especially close to my sibling, the pain and confusion in Witkin & Witkin felt all too real. Not only is the film an interesting look at two prolific artists, it’s an apt portrayal of how difficult it feels to be distant from the person who knows you the most.
Witkin & Witkin screens on Saturday, June 16, at 4pm at The National Gallery of Art East Building. Buy tickets here!
Minding the Gap – review by Diana Metzger
Minding the Gap is a sneaky kind of documentary. At the outset, it seems like a film about a group of young men who find solace from their difficult lives through skateboarding. Yes, the boarding is a small part of the film, and the joy it brings the men is palpable, but Bing Lui’s documentary quickly broadens out into something much more complicated and emotional. Lui, a successful film cameraman, goes back to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois to face his own childhood abuse, but to also delve into the lives and struggles of two of his close childhood friends. Through looking at Lui’s friends’ lives as they deal with substance abuse, poverty, racial profiling, domestic violence, and young parenthood, the film becomes a much more interesting investigation on what makes these young people who they are.
The documentary shines when it allows moments to play out uninterrupted, whether it’s one young man searching for his father’s grave, or another dealing with the minutiae of caring for his infant son. The connection Lui has to these friends from his past are real and the scenes that work best are when he doesn’t interject. It’s difficult because his story is an important one; he’s the one that faced abuse, but also managed to get out of Rockford and find success. Still, his story doesn’t emerge until about halfway through the film, and when it does it’s powerful, but he perhaps should have placed himself in the story sooner.
Otherwise, the moments where he’s asking leading questions can come off as amateurish. The last thirty minutes of this documentary really elevate the film as a whole, as the audience sees where all these friends, including Lui, end up a couple years after this project began. While seeing these people’s lives play out, the audience finds that these people have snuck into their hearts and they want the best for them all.
Minding the Gap screens on Saturday, June 16, at 4pm at E Street, and Sunday, June 17, at 7:30pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
A Murder in Mansfield – review by Vesper Arnett
The documentary A Murder in Mansfield, directed by Barbara Kopple, follows the life of Collier Landry after the murder of his mother by his father, John Boyle. At age 12, Collier testified against his father in a trial broadcast live on television in 1990 and drew attention for his poise and composure while on the stand. Twenty-six years later, Collier returns to his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio to film a documentary about the case and its aftermath.
Collier’s relationship with his father was strained before the murder, but following the murder, Collier tries to continue demonstrating love for his father despite his father’s attempts at manipulation. Collier travels around town, visiting his childhood home and its new family, interviewing those who were involved in the investigation, the locals who looked after him during and after the trial, and eventually his visit with his still-incarcerated and in denial father.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is Collier himself. While continuing to express conflicting emotions about his father’s probable role in the death and choosing to face the facts – including footage of the discovery of the body buried under the concrete basement of their family home – as an adult, he demonstrates the continued struggle of trying to let go of his anger and still honor the memory of his mother.
The film can be difficult to watch, and there are pacing issues in the middle. Still, it’s moving to watch Collier interview those he used to know and hear their perspective on how he changed in the face one of the most challenging events that could occur in a person’s life, let alone a child’s. The final conversation is distressing but necessary.
A Murder in Mansfield screens on Saturday, June 16, at 6pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Hale County This Morning, This Evening – review by Ross Bonaime
At the beginning of RaMell Ross’s tremendous debut Hale County This Morning, This Evening, he states through interstitial card that he began filming the area of Alabama “to figure out how we’ve come to be seen.” Through his camera, Ross does just this, creating imagery that helps explore how this community lives and breathes. The result is the introduction of a great new talent in Ross, who makes Hale County This Morning, This Evening feel like a combination of Hoop Dreams, Terrence Malick’s recent work, and Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson.
Every frame fleshes out this neighborhood in simple, yet gorgeous compositions. Ross shows Hale County as an area full of repetition and stagnation, still dealing with the pains of the past and the present. Whether it’s a potentially great basketball player running drills to exhaustion, or watching a child running back-and-forth through her house for fun, Ross uses this sort of cyclical idea to showcase the nature of life in the South. Ross occasionally tosses in elements that remind of the economic and cultural limitations that still loom over this area, whether it’s archival footage of a man in blackface, or the seemingly never-ending cotton fields that still litter Alabama.
Ross does an incredible job of presenting the day-to-day, but his focus on certain individuals in the vicinity holds the film’s real power. Especially when Ross follows Boosie – a young mother who is pregnant with twins – he shows the growth and change that can come from the tragedy in this county. As a teacher in the area, Ross has a clear affinity for these people and knows that their weakest moments can become strengths in the long run. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a staggering film that is one of the finest debuts of 2018.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening screens on Sunday, June 17, at 2:30pm at E Street (Saturday’s show is sold out). Buy tickets here!
Yours In Sisterhood – review by Trisha Brown
Yours In Sisterhood is one of the most interesting ways to explore the current state of feminism I’ve seen in recent years. Director Irene Lusztig used a collection from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America that includes thousands of letters sent to Ms. Magazine between 1972 and 1980. She selected primarily letters that hadn’t been published, found readers from the same towns as the letter writers to read them. Except for a few cases in the beginning where the letters stand alone, the reader’s reaction to the letter is explored as well. It’s a simple premise, but the fact that it is so spare means the issues and the personal connections to them – both those connections from the 1970s and those from today – take center stage.
Through the letters, the film considers topics ranging from nuclear waste to guns to prisons, but the one theme that is inescapable in the voices of the writers is the desperate desire to connect and be heard. Many of these writers from cities and towns across the country felt alone, and in age before Twitter or even chat rooms, they were reaching out to connect with someone they thought might listen as they reflected on topics of sexuality, harassment, and racism. In other cases, writers were voicing the kinds of critiques of the Ms. brand of feminism that the country is still dealing with today, like a lack of inclusion of women of color, queer women, conservative women, and others. One writer angry about the heteronormative coverage in the magazine gives voice to a range of these frustrations when she writes, “It is all the more painful when the exclusion comes from a feminist magazine.”
In some ways the perspectives feel long overdue to be heard, but in others, the film is a subtle reminder that they’ve always been there for anyone willing to find them and listen. Lusztig has created a simple but exceptional way for the voices of all kinds of women to be heard. It’s well worth listening.
Yours In Sisterhood screens on Thursday, June 14, at 6:15pm at E Street Cinema and Friday, June 15 at 1pm at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
United Skates – review by Trisha Brown
I love documentaries about things I’m interested in, but my favorite documentaries are the ones that expose me to worlds I didn’t even know existed. United Skates tells of the role roller-skating rinks have played in the lives and communities of African-American skaters and the fight to save the rinks as they close at a rate of three per month. Directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown frame the story as one that’s both local and national, profiling skaters from Compton to North Carolina. They zero in on the common themes: what skating has meant to their families, what they have to do to find a good skate session as the rinks close, and the racism skaters still encounter.
Some of the most revealing aspects of the documentary deal with the role skating has played in American culture for the last several decades. We learn early on that roller rinks and music “go hand in hand.” Coolio and Salt-N-Pepa are briefly in the film, and one rink owner in Compton brags that the first DJ his rink ever had was Dr. Dre. Rinks also provided an alternative to gangs in some places. The exploration of local politics and zoning issues related to the closing of rinks is both compelling and frustrating. Ultimately, the balance of personal stories and national themes in United Skates offers a compelling narrative with important social and cultural undertones.
United Skates screens on Sunday, June 17, at 6:30 at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!