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. The virtual film festival runs today through June 21, showcasing the best documentary film the world has to offer. There’s a lot to be excited about: you can buy an $8 “ticket” to view any film, and this time, you don’t need to be in the DC area to access it. The festival has its share of issue-heavy political documentaries, but many of this year’s selections are also genuinely moving, or sometimes as tense as thrillers.
Members of the BYT film team wrote a curated showcase of feature-length documentaries you won’t want to miss (there’s a link to buy tickets at the end of each segment). Note that the capsule reviews are in chronological order, so the ones happening sooner are at the top.
Miracle Fishing – review by Ross Bonaime (available to stream Friday, June 19)
Tom Hargrove – an agricultural researcher and scientific journalist for a Colombian nonprofit – moved to Colombia in the 90s with his wife and two sons, despite the fear of drug cartels. Upon taking a detour one day while driving, Tom is kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in a process known as “miracle fishing,” where the group set up traps, hoping to catch anything of value. With Tom’s job refusing to pay the group’s six million dollar ransom, it’s up to the Hargrove family and their group of friends to try and save Tom from his captors.
Miracle Fishing, directed by Tom’s son, Miles Hargrove, is told entirely through archive footage, as Miles constantly filmed the day-to-day struggles in trying to free his father. A young friend becomes an amateur hostage negotiator, the kids are involved in money drop-offs, and Miles has to stop his mother from driving into the mountains to search for her husband by herself. Miles’ material shows a family desperate, but resilient and resourceful, without ever losing hope. The Hargrove family keeps their spirits light, in a house full of music and family dinners, all while bargaining for Tom’s life hangs over all of them. Miracle Fishing is a tense, fascinating look at both an incredible hostage situation and a distressed family trying their best to do what they can for their father and husband, without giving in to the misery of their situation.
9to5: The Story of Movement – review by Megan Burns (available to stream Friday, June 19)
9to5 was a working women’s rights organization that, despite having accomplished so much (and having provided the inspiration behind the classic 1980 film 9 to 5, as well as Dolly Parton’s anthem of the same name), might not be a household reference in 2020. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Julia Reichert and co-director Steve Bognar aim to change that with 9to5: The Story of a Movement; the film illuminates the humble beginnings of what exploded into a national movement, and it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in women’s rights, activism, and the importance of intersectionality.
While some aesthetic choices (scene transitions, soundtrack, etc.) admittedly make the film feel a bit dated, the interviews (featuring co-founders Ellen Cassedy and Karen Nussbaum, actress-activist Jane Fonda, and more), along vintage photos and footage more than make up for that. Reichert and Bognar make sure a wealth of interesting information and storytelling is finally brought into the spotlight – these were not celebrities, these were regular women who got fed up with workplace discrimination and got shit done. Lots of good lessons to be taken here, especially now.
The Fight – review by Alan Zilberman (available to stream Friday, June 19, wide release July 31)
After a week of historic Supreme Court decisions, the documentary The Fight might as well be ACLU propaganda. Director Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, and Eli B. Despres follow several lawyers for the ACLU as they argue against discriminatory Trump Administration policies. They argue in favor of abortion rights, immigrant rights, and gay rights. Their arguments are sound, but the conservative-leaning court means their decisions are far from certain.
There is a “fly on the wall” approach to the film. The most compelling scenes show these attorneys as dedicated, albeit flawed, professionals who believe in the Constitution down to the core. We see one attorney prepare his oral arguments the night before his visit to the Supreme Court. We see another read through all his hate mail, saying it’s an important part of the job. The Fight may be ACLU hagiography, but the directors all suggest that kind of fawning attention is earned. Without them, who knows what rights may have otherwise eroded?
Another intriguing scene is when the ACLU’s leadership talk about the need to defend the first amendment rights of white supremacists. You may recall that, before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the ACLU argued for their right to assemble peacefully. This stretch shows fissures within the organization – some think it was the right call, others do not – and while the film offers few definitive answers, the subtext is clear. No matter how you come down, their ability to interpret the law is an ongoing evolution, which means that the organization’s legal battles will never end. Toward the end of the film, when some lawyers breathlessly read legal decisions, feeling a surge of triumph that they won, younger viewers will set their mind on studying for the LSAT.
The Reason I Jump – review by Trisha Brown (available to stream on Saturday, June 20)
The Reason I Jump is named for the book of the same name by Naoki Higashida, but it’s an expansion rather than an adaptation of Higashida’s work. The author’s words – as translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell – about his life living with autism are used throughout the course of the film, but director Jerry Rothwell uses the book as the foundation for a broader analysis of perceptions of autism. Skillfully combining Higashida’s explanation with the impact it had on family members of other autistic people creates a story that amplifies the impact of the documentary.
Higashida was 13 years old when he wrote his memoir, painstakingly describing to readers how he experiences the world. His account struck a chord with parents of nonspeaking autistic people all over the world, and the film profiles some of them to explore the way the book allowed them both a clearer understanding of autism, as well as the vocabulary to explain to others what makes their children exceptional. As critical as that understanding is, though, it’s evident that it doesn’t erase the challenges or the communication disconnect within these families. Rothwell doesn’t shy away from those pieces either, and parental exhaustion is as evident as the frustration that occasionally spills out on all sides. The key to The Reason I Jump is that viewers are left with the sense that that frustration is entirely earned. The film shows that across the world, societies are not built to support neurodiversity, much less interested in allowing nonspeaking autistic people to thrive. The documentary feels like a subtle call to action – or at the very least, to understanding.
Coded Bias – review by Benjamin Freed (available to stream on Saturday, June 20)
Earlier this month, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM all announced they were suspending sales of their facial-recognition platforms to law enforcement agencies, as a response to the ongoing protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But resistance to the technology has been building for years, especially as researchers and privacy advocates — like the ones featured in Shalini Kantayya’s new feature — find more flaws in facial recognition, especially in its track record of accurately identifying white men, while frequently mismatching women and people of color, which has the knock-on effect of amplifying biased police tactics.
Kantayya spends much of her 90-minute film following Joy Buolamwini, an MIT researcher, as she and other activists attempt to uncover the racial and gender biases built in the cutting-edge surveillance tech being deployed on street corners, in businesses and venues, and seemingly everywhere else around the world. The AI behind at least one of these systems is so clunky that Buolamwini, a black woman, is able to fool it by donning a stark white theater mask.
Buolamwini is a compelling enough figure in her own right, that a series of interstitial sequences — in which a disembodied computerized voice brags about the powers of AI — distract from Coded Bias’s argument more than they amplify it. Still, the message is clear: facial recognition surveillance is faulty and unaccountable, and something that needs to be put in check before it’s too late.
White Noise – review by Alan Zilberman (available to stream on Saturday, June 20)
White Noise is the first documentary produced by The Atlantic Magazine. It has the careful, expertly developed argument that you might expect from their articles and cover stories. Director Daniel Lombroso has a tough needle to thread: his only editorializing is through his edit – there are few title cards or outside perspectives – so he runs the risk of making his subjects too convincing. And since he spent years embedded with notorious white supremacists, at first there is a sense Lombroso gives them too much rope before they hang themselves with it.
The principle subjects to White Noise are Richard Spencer, Mark Cernovich, and Lauren Southern. Spencer is the best-known of the three, and not just because him getting punched on inauguration weekend went viral. He wants to turn America into a white ethno-state, and was a key figure during the Unite the Right Rally. Cernovich is more of an opportunistic troll, a former men’s right advocate who helped spread Pizzagate and worked to get prominent liberals fired. Southern is the biggest “true believer,” whose most famous stunt involves stopping a cruise ship full of refugees from docking at an Italian port.
Lombroso’s strategy is patient, and ruthless. He listens to these racists, spending long periods with them to better understand their lifestyles. We slowly start to see that they all kind of hate and resent each other; these fissures are at the heart of this movement’s moral and intellectual rot. Spencer is obviously a Nazi – he uses technicalities to argue otherwise – and this gets in the way of Cernovich’s desire to sell books and lifestyle products (he is a huckster who always condescends to his target audience). As a younger woman, Southern grows frustrated with her alt-right contemporaries because she’s an anti-feminist who feels the sting of misogyny within her ranks. Funny how that happens, no?
In this current moment, it might be too much for many audiences to spend time with people like this. Lombroso humanizes them, this is true, but White Noise never once lets them off the hook. By depicting their flaws and moments where they’re a bit more vulnerable, it makes their need to cling to white identity politics all the more pathetic. If Spencer, Cernovich, and Southern saw this film, at first they would probably think it’s fair, but they’re probably too deluded to look inward and think about how its conclusions ultimately damn them.
Sing Me a Song – review by Ross Bonaime (available to stream Sunday, June 21)
In its opening moments, Sing Me a Song says that Bhutan was the last nation to receive television and internet. Sing Me a Song introduces Peyangki, an eight-year-old monk who can’t wait for his village of Laya – the last village in the country to get connected – to receive these resources. But then director Thomas Balmès jumps forward a decade, as the once simple village of Laya now has completely accepted this technology, as monks play games and watch TV on their phones while reciting their prayers. Peyangki, who once dreamed of being a monk, is now losing interest in his studies, far more engaged with his phone and his girlfriend, whom he messages constantly.
Sing Me a Song is an engrossing documentary that shows a culture torn between the past and the present through the eyes of Peyangki. But beyond that major shift, it’s also simply a beautiful tale of a teenager growing up, struggling between what he once wanted and his modern desires. Balmès films Laya beautifully, with its cloud-filled landscapes that once hid this village from the world, but no longer does through satellite dishes and connectivity. At its core, Sing Me a Song is about growth, how that change is perceived and how moving forward can sometimes be a weakness as well as a strength.
The Letter – review by Megan Burns (available to stream Sunday, June 21)
The Letter offers a fascinatingly intimate look at a very real, very terrifying problem in Kenya – the witch hunt. Filmmakers Maia Lekow and Christopher King follow Karisa Kamango on a journey to rural Kenya to investigate claims that Kamango’s grandmother has been accused of witchcraft by family members. In Kenya, being branded a witch can (and too often does) turn deadly for the accused. And the demographic being alarmingly singled out is the elderly, to the point that entire makeshift refuges exist for those who have either been cast off or have chosen to flee attacks.
Kamango’s grandmother, born in 1925, is a hardworking matriarch who still tends to her farm and her family. While she admits she was heartbroken to learn of the accusations by family members against her (which range in claims that she is causing everything from financial hardship to bodily harm), the threat of danger does not spook her away from her land. And that (land) is what many believe is the motive behind witchcraft allegations – the hope that threats will be enough to drive an elder from his or her property so that younger relatives may snap it up. That’s not to say all threats (which often come in the form of anonymous letters) are empty; staggering numbers of elderly people have been gruesomely murdered in vigilante attacks, often with machetes. And because there is still a real sense of superstition surrounding witches and witchcraft in Kenya (which the documentary treats respectfully), it seems many are unwilling to do much about, or even speak out against, the complex and deeply rooted problem.
While the balanced and thought-provoking documentary offers few concrete answers, one thing is clear: Kamango’s grandmother isn’t going anywhere without a fight. “I won’t die today, those words won’t kill me…let them talk until they tire, maybe they’ll try to kill me at home, but I know they can’t hurt me, because God will protect me. They can’t.” It seems that if things stay as they are, that’s about the closest thing to a happy ending a viewer can hope for.
The Dilemma of Desire – review by Trisha Brown (available to stream Sunday, June 21)
One of the challenges to making a documentary is balancing the experience of viewers who are completely new to a topic with viewers who are viewing the film because they’re already passionate about it: not enough background will leave the first group lost, but too much will leave the second group bored. Director Maria Finitzo has navigated that challenge, and The Dilemma of Desire will appeal to both those who are relatively new to social and cultural messaging around female sexuality as well as those who are already aware of and engaged with the problem.
The key is the way Finitzo balances the data around female sexuality with personal narratives that illustrate the impacts behind the facts and figures. An artist dedicated to “clitoracy” can’t get a book deal because publishers are uncomfortable with discussions of female sex organs (if only there were more books about them to increase comfort levels). A start-up that allows people to design their own pleasure products can’t advertise on social media because “adult products and services” are banned. Multiple young women express frustration and sadness over their lack of vocabulary and confidence to ask for what they need from their sexual partners. The different perspectives and narrative threads create a multitude of avenues for engagement, drawing viewers into the documentary no matter why they’re watching in the first place.
The major shortcoming of The Dilemma of Desire is the way the film ties the clitoris to women and womanhood throughout. There’s some discussion of queerness and the fluidity of sexuality, but Finitzo ignores the fact that not every woman has a clitoris and not every person with a clitoris is a woman. The omission of trans perspectives and experiences is particularly noticeable given author J.K. Rowling’s most recent transphobic comments, and while Finitzo couldn’t have predicted the details or timing of Rowling’s awful display, the erasure of trans women in a discussion based in feminism is a problem regardless of the current social context.
Blood on the Wall – review by Benjamin Freed (available to stream on Sunday, June 21)
“Americans engage in the wars they want. In Mexico, the wars just show up,” a masked cartel soldier, polishing and assembling his rifle, says minutes into Blood on the Wall, Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s gripping look at the drug trade, migration, and the increasingly belligerent posturing of the United States against its southern neighbors. And for this cartel soldier and the other people Junger and Quested follow — including several members of a migrant caravan making its way from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border — the conflict is inescapable.
Though the title nods at the intentional cruelty with which the federal government has treated migrants since early 2017, Donald Trump is more of a spectral problem than one attacked head-on. Rather, Junger and Quested focus directly on the drug trade and migrant crisis’ victims: soldiers conscripted into cartels for lack of any better opportunity, the young travelers hoping desperately that they might find safe harbor in the U.S., once-vibrant communities — like Acapulco — that’ve been waylaid over the decades to feed Americans’ thirst for illicit substances.
Like Junger’s previous work, especially his Afghanistan war trilogy, the director shoots his subjects fearlessly, combining stunning, high-altitude drone shots with visceral close-ups. But as with Restrepo, Korengal, and The Last Patrol, he’s quick to reveal their humanity. It’s a skill that can allow a cartel soldier brought up in violence to offer sorrowful wisdom, and the journeys of yearning migrants to end in hope and heartbreak.