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 19 through June 23, 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.
Law and Order – review by Beatrice Loayza
Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s 1969 study of the tensions between police and the black citizenry of Kansas City, Missouri remains eerily relevant today. His third film in an expansive and ongoing career dedicated to capturing institutions and communities (Ex Libris, a behind-the-scenes of the New York Public Library, and Monrovia, Indiana, a montage of the namesake small town’s people and their livelihoods, are his two most recent films), Law and Order is an uncompromising look at a primarily white police force as its members go about their often questionable daily activities. It’s sort of a minor miracle that Wiseman was given such access at the time. Today it would seem out of the question for a filmmaker to so thoroughly infiltrate a police department.
Wiseman has always had a knack for organically capturing metaphorical images (a white cop escorting an abandoned black child to the station) even though his methods are very uninvolved, a fly-on-the-wall approach to accruing footage. The poeticism of his observational gaze comes through in the editing, the way he juxtaposes images to encourage his audience to critically think through what he’s laid out. Here for instance, banal talk of salary is contrasted with footage of police brutality on the streets, although Wiseman is not as predictably clear-cut in his ethical position as you’d expect from a film about bad cops. He gives the men opportunity to speak for themselves. What’s revealed from these stilted confessionals is a psychology that is unfit and unprepared to reckon with the ugly realities of the job. Nearly fifty years after its release, Law and Order remains a must-see.
Law and Order screens on Thursday, June 20 at AFI Silver at 9 p.m.. Buy tickets here!
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am – review by Ross Bonaime
The world of documentaries is full of autobiographical looks at important figures in the world, packed with archival footage and talking head interviews with the people that knew that figure well. The difference between those films and Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is that the subject at the center of the film is hardly as charming, electric, and wonderful to watch as Morrison.
Morrison’s insights and humor when it comes to her life and work are truly a joy. Morrison has a way of cutting to the point of the matter and simplifying her ideas in brilliant ways. When an interviewer asks her what made her deserve the Nobel Prize over others, she easily says, “I think I’m a good writer.” Her simple explanation for why her writing is so unique is that she eliminates the white gaze from her stories. This glimpse into Morrison’s opinion of her writing is magnificent, even the standard biographical episodesl feels fresh just because of Morrison’s sensational viewpoint.
A remarkable round of interviewees, including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis and Walter Mosley, flesh out what could’ve easily been a standard, talking head documentary. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’s subject elevates the classic documentary format with a fascinating deep dive into one of the most vital writers in recent history.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am screens on Thursday, June 20 at Navy Memorial at 7:30 p.m. Buy tickets here!
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem – review by Ross Bonaime
There’s already a multitude of reasons to hate the National Football League, but A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem shows one of the biggest problems within the NFL happens on the sidelines. With cheerleaders getting paid far less than minimum wage for decades, and having to pay out of pocket for transportation, outfits and hotels, A Woman’s Work brings attention to the massive contrast in how the NFL treats their players versus their cheerleaders.
A Woman’s Work centers around two former cheerleaders and their lawsuits against the NFL for wage theft and breaking labor laws. Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields files a lawsuit against her former team, the Oakland Raiders, due to practices that allowed her not to be paid for nine mouths. Maria Pinzone – a former “Buffalo Jill” – files a suit with several other cheerleaders against the NFL and the Buffalo Bills, claiming that both knowingly try to avoid playing their cheerleaders. As one interviewee states, the NFL tries to get away from paying their cheerleaders because they can.
Director Yu Gu unveils the sexism within the NFL, and extends his story to point out how the vast discrepancy in how gender is viewed in the U.S. workforce at large. Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone are more interested in making the future brighter for up-and-coming cheerleaders, but some of A Woman’s Work’s most harrowing moments come from interviews with other former cheerleaders, who have accepted the devaluation of their jobs, believing that their services and bonds with the other cheerleaders are much more important that any sort of paycheck. A Woman’s Work shows just how massive the disparity between gender wages remains, and how major corporations can see this more as an opportunity to save money, rather than a problem that needs solving.
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem screens on Thursday, June 20, at 6:30 p.m. at AFI Silver and Friday, June 21, at 9:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
We Are the Radical Monarchs – review by Diana Metzger
This is an uplifting and inspiring look at two women in Oakland, California that started a Girl Scouts-esque troupe but, geared toward young girls of color. This is the ideal documentary for parents, teachers, or truly anyone that wonders how to engage with young girls on serious issues happening in the world. While the leaders of this group are truly impressive, it’s the girls that really stand out and shine. The second grade girls featured speak so bravely, candidly, and with such maturity about how they see the society in which they live. They easily discuss sexism, LGBTQ issues, Black Lives Matter, and so much more with curiosity and with zero artifice. The documentary follows the leaders Marilyn and Anayvette and their first group of Radical Monarchs as they engage with their fellow troupe members, as well as other multiple troupes, to help keep up with nationwide interest and media attention. Audiences hopefully will come out of this documentary with a desire to grow the Radical Monarchs, but mostly to engage and listen to young girls because they have a lot to say.
We Are the Radical Monarchs screens on June 20 at 3:45 p.m. at AFI Silver and on June 21 at 2:15 p.m. at Landmark E St. Buy tickets here!
Chez Jolie Coiffure – review by Beatrice Loayza
Not a traditional narrative documentary by any means, Rosine Mftego Mbakam’s hour and ten minute long feature is a profile of Sabine, a Cameroon-born woman working as a hairdresser in Belgium at the titular Chez Jolie Coiffure. Although the film is set entirely in the one insular room of the Brussell’s hair salon, the atmosphere maintains a vivacity by the conversations between the African women who work and frequent the establishment. The salon is not merely a place where beautification services are provided. It’s a refuge and often the only communal space for these African women living abroad.
Sabine, however, lacks paper and and constantly fears deportation. Penniless and alone, she intimately describes her frustration, anger, and sorrows. There’s no plot perse, or much action. The film relies entirely on dialogue, and consequently audiences might feel like they’re an eavesdropping customer. This is a no-frills documentary, but the way Mbakam lovingly and patiently captures the lives of these immigrant women is powerful, deeply empathetic, and a peek into a neglected peripheral community.
Chez Jolie Coiffure screens on Friday, June 21, at 6:15 p.m. at AFI Silver Theater, and on Saturday, June 22, at 7:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Tongues Untied – review by Ross Bonaime
Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the essential and unconventional documentary Tongues Untied combines poetry, personal stories, and fascinating camera work in this groundbreaking look at black gay men in the 1980s.
Director Marlon Riggs – who died 25 years ago from complications caused by AIDS – depicts the struggle of being both black and gay, whether being asked to choose whether they are more black or gay, or being seen as feminine in communities that aren’t accepting. The interviewees present their case through poetry or examples of their difficult lives. Riggs’ subjects keep coming back to the idea of silence, stating that “silence is the deadliest weapon that a person has,” and that “it is easier to be angry than to hurt.” These men’s heartbreaking testimonies show a group who often are complicit in the bias against them, critical of people similar to themselves and quiet when they should fight for their right to be heard.
Even sadder after thirty years, Tongues Untied still feels as integral as ever, a group clamoring for acceptance and understanding in a world that far too often pushes them away. Riggs’ Tongues Untied is unfortunately as relevant as ever, showing just how far we still have to go.
Tongues Untied screens on Friday, June 21 at 9 p.m. at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
We Believe in Dinosaurs – review by Benjamin Freed
In a late-season episode of The Sopranos, Tony and his nephew Christopher meet a fundamentalist pastor who tells the New Jersey mobsters that dinosaurs and humans coexisted not more than 6,000 years ago. Christopher’s response is uncharacteristically worldly for an otherwise bumbling mobster: “No way. T. Rex in the Garden of Eden? Adam and Eve would be running all the time scared shitless.”
Many of the people seen in We Believe in Dinosaurs, though, would disagree. Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown’s documentary follows the construction of the so-called Ark Encounter, an offshoot of northern Kentucky’s Creation Museum that claims to be a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, complete with better-than-Disney animatronic figures and sculptures of the animals that supposedly rode out the biblical flood—including dinosaurs.
But the dinosaurs—or “missionary lizards,” as Creation Museum founder Ken Ham calls them—are just a single detail in a narrative that reaches for big arguments. Ross and Brown aim to show the battle between reason and extremism, and the conflict of a small, dying town desperate for some whiff of economic activity.
Despite filming over several years from before the Ark Encounter’s groundbreaking to a year after its 2016 opening, We Believe in Dinosaurs struggles to make its case. While the Creation Museum and Arc Encounter’s pious employees—some of them frightfully so—are eager to share their work and their gospel, the filmmakers are perhaps too gentle in pushing back against group of people promoting their dangerous and dangerously wrong belief system with cult-like ferocity. Young children who are led through exhibits suggesting that 13.8 billion years of time can be compressed into six millennia, or that Earth’s topography and fossil records can be attributed to a single weather event aren’t being educated. They’re being indoctrinated.
The rebuttal comes from a few sources, the most compelling of whom is a former creationist and one-time patron of the Creation Museum named David MacMillan, who struggles to reconcile his acceptance of science with his faith. More aggressive in his opposition is Dan Phelps, the head of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, who fights against the museum and Ark Encounter’s claims to the state’s tax benefits tourist sites.
But aside from Phelps going on a few fossil digs and MacMillan retelling his conversion from Christian fundamentalist to rational blogger, the film is more bemused than alarmed. The directors throw in a smattering of news clips of a anti-science zealots who’ve climbed to high perches—Mike Pence, Ben Carson, Matt Bevin—but short shrift the locals who assumed the museums’ success would trickle down to their small towns. A venue like the Ark Encounter, designed to push a dangerous ideology on shapable minds, demands a more forceful rebuttal; alas, We Believe in Dinosaurs isn’t much stronger than that Sopranos gag.
We Believe in Dinosaurs screens on Saturday, June 22, at 11:45am at AFI Silver, and on Sunday, June 23, at 12:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!
Made in Boise – review by Diana Metzger
This documentary that looks at surrogacy feels more informational and educational than narratively compelling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but to some audiences it may not feel particularly gripping or provocative.
It follows several surrogates working through one surrogacy company in Boise, and the intended parents of the babies these women carry. The film certainly shows excellent diversity in the range of couples working with surrogates, but the film does not ever delve too deeply into the emotional complications of surrogacy. It feels more like an advocacy, pro-surrogacy video in its storytelling—not lingering too long in any moment of tension and instead highlighting all the positives. It mentions the states and countries that do not allow commercial surrogacy, but never tackles why those laws exist in the first place. At moments, it treats surrogacy like this taboo thing, but to cultured audiences who already watch documentaries, surrogacy and alternative routes to having a baby don’t feel like fresh or surprising topics at all.
Made in Boise screens on Saturday, June 22, at 1:45 p.m. at Landmark E St. and June 23 at AFI Silver at 7:15 p.m. Buy tickets here!
Autonomy – review by Brandon Wetherbee
When you hear Malcolm Gladwell’s voice in 2019, you think of podcasts. The author and frequent podcast guest now has his own very popular podcast on his own very popular podcast network. So when Autonomy opens with Gladwell’s voice and the first person we see is Gladwell, you instantly think, would this be better as a podcast?
Maybe. But it would be better as a How Stuff Works? podcast rather than anything associated with Gladwell.
Autonomy is not well-made, or maybe just a lot of money was spent on this doc. The soundtrack is good. It’s got all of the songs you think of when you think of cars, George Thorogood and the Destroyers” Bad to the Bone,” Kraftwerk’s “Autobohn,” and Gary Numan’s “Cars” are all used. But why?
It’s not a focused film. There are short asides about a Japanese Porsche modifier, an Australian woman long haul trucker working in America, a German engineer in Munich designing a self driving car through forests. Each garner a minute of two or screen time with no real reason. Each of these people have an interesting story, but in this film, there just isn’t enough time to explore them. You know what’s a great medium for deep dives about interesting individuals you didn’t know existed? Podcasts.
After watching Autonomy, I couldn’t figure out the audience. I still can’t. If this is aimed toward Malcolm Gladwell fan, it would have been better as a podcast. If it’s aimed at anyone else, I don’t see an audience.
If Malcolm Gladwell wasn’t the executive produce of this film, I doubt it would be part of this festival.
Slay the Dragon – review by Ross Bonaime
Politics – especially in the last few years – can often feel like a constant uphill climb with no respite. Slay the Dragon explains the reason for that: meticulous gerrymandering that allows a political party essentially to do whatever they want. Slay the Dragon analyzes how dangerous gerrymandering can be, and how it turns the party in power into a consequence-free entity with terrifying amount of impeachable power.
Slay the Dragon tackles gerrymandering in two different ways. On one hand is Katie Fahey of Flint, Michigan, who after the water crisis in the area, decided to create the group “Voters Not Politicians” to help stop gerrymandering from hurting the people of her hometown again. On the other, a group of lawyers in Wisconsin fight clearly partisan gerrymandering by taking their case to the Supreme Court. Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance present scenarios where the everyman can make a difference against the big issues of the country, even if attempting to do what’s right is incredibly difficult.
Slay the Dragon is an informative and indispensable look at gerrymandering, showing how voter suppression is alive and well, and yet everyone can do their part to fight to make sure that all votes matter.
Slay the Dragon screens on Saturday, June 22 at 6:30 p.m. at E Street Cinema and Sunday, June 23 at 3:30 p.m. at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
Midnight Family – review by Brandon Wetherbee
This is the kind of documentary that belongs at AFI DOCS. The film by Luke Lorentzen follows the Ochoa family in Mexico City, the owners and operators of a private ambulance. We ride with the Ochoas as they pick up uninsured patients and take them to private hospitals, bribing cops, losing money, risking and saving lives over 80 minutes. There’s action and suspense and drama without exploitation.
It’s difficult to imagine this film 20 years ago, simply because of camera size. Somewhat related, it seems like a good time to think about the health care system in this and every other country. It’s also a good time to talk about the gig economy. It’s a film that’s of the moment and timeless. As long as we’ve had modern transportation, we’ve had ambulances. As long as we’ve had modern society, we’ve had competition in fields that should not. The drivers in this film go on Baby Driver-like chases but in this case, the driver is actually 16 and the chases are real.
Midnight Family has interesting subject matter, good subjects, universal appeal, and an economical cut. It’s the ideal type of film for AFI Docs. If you can agree with Juan, our protagonist and aforementioned 16-year-old driver, “It’s cool to see a gun shot wound, a car crash,” you’ll want to see Midnight Family.
Midnight Family screens on Saturday, June 22, at 9:15 p.m. at E Street Cinema, and on Sunday, June 23 at 1:30 p.m. at AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!
Mike Wallace Is Here – review by Benjamin Freed
In an era when television news has more or less become a perpetual clown show, the name Mike Wallace sounds weightier than ever before. Wallace, of course, was the great man of broadcast journalism: relentless to the end of every story, skeptical of every interviewee, and thoroughly unconvinced by his subjects’ pleas of goodness.
And yet, the most probing question in Mike Wallace Is Here, Avi Belkin’s tribute to the newsman, who died in 2012 after an on-air career of 65 years, the last 40 of them on 60 Minutes, comes from Barbra Streisand of all people.
“Why are you such a prick?” Babs asked Wallace in a 1991 profile, one of many contentious encounters the pair had over the years.
It’s a question that Wallace, despite all his axe-picking at the lives of others, never quite answered, though Belkin tries with 90 minutes of assembled footage spanning Wallace’s career from his early days as an aspiring actor-turned-pitchman to his final sign-off from CBS News. Cobbling together his movie entirely from archives, Belkin allows Wallace narrate his own life.
When focused on Wallace’s on-air career, Mike Wallace Is Here can be thrilling as it zig-zags through a half-century of U.S. history, from his daring interviews with Ku Klux Klan leaders and gangsters in the 1950s, to his years on 60 Minutes sparring with presidents, celebrities, and industrial titans.
Yet Belkin’s style might not be up to the task of wringing out answers about Wallace’s private life. While Wallace could extract every last detail from his subjects, he almost always clammed up about himself. Belkin has found a few clips in which Wallace addresses the death of his older son, Peter, who died in 1962 in a mountain-climbing accident, but otherwise elides Wallace’s four marriages and his relationship with his younger son, Chris, the Fox News Sunday host, who did not have a relationship with his father until his teenage years (they later became close.)
Still, Belkin’s assemblage of clips reminds us frequently enough why Wallace is still so revered: the exhaustive questioning and the ballsy attitude no matter how powerful the subject. When Streisand’s riposte comes back in the form of 60 Minutes colleague Morely Safer, raising it during a tribute upon Wallace’s retirement, the answer is obvious. Yes, Mike Wallace was a prick, but to a few generations of Americans, he was their prick.
Mike Wallace Is Here screens on Sunday, June 23, at 12:30pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!