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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 17 through June 21, 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).

Check BYT this Thursday and Friday for additional coverage!

Welcome to Leith review by Max Bentovim

Leith, North Dakota is small. Like, couldn’t field a baseball team small; 16 people total, two of whom were children. Sleepy, shrinking, and remote, I’m not moving there anytime soon, but beyond those Leith has two distinctive features: municipal incorporation, meaning a handful of new residents could theoretically seize the government, and proximity to an oil boom that made well-paying employment easy to come by. The latter  made the town especially attractive to an unusual cadre of emigrants: white nationalists. Led by Chris Cobb, Nazis started relocating to Leith, buying old, decrepit properties (without even running water) in an attempt to build an intentional community that could quickly come to dominate local institutions.

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Welcome to Leith, cleverly taking its name from the rotting sign unwelcomingly greeting newcomers and passer-throughs, is a clever little film. With a little help from Kickstarter, directors Michael Nichols (no relation) and Christopher Walker spent long stretches in Leith, ingratiating themselves with both the townsfolk, who engage in ever-more vitriolic resistance to the Nazi invasion, and the nationalists themselves. The story they document is as harrowing as it is increasingly confusing and complex; subtly but ingeniously, the story shifts from one about good American townsfolk resisting monsters to one about unwanted, unwelcome outcasts facing persecution in their search for a new community.

Welcome to Leith is, in many ways, a parable about the paradoxes of liberal society that tend toward dormancy, at least until an extreme case arises. It isn’t, however, a perfect film; despite its intertitles deliniating the months, the sequencing and purpose of events is a little tough to follow. The filmmakers’ on-the-record devotion to Errol Morris leads them astray, as the abstract dealings of law and government in particular need the kind of clarification that omniscient narration provides. The score by T. Griffin is, in isolation, a small masterpiece of eerie, menacing ambiance, but the filmmakers overuse it, leaving a strong feeling of having the events emotionally overdetermined. That in turn blows up the inherent ambiguity of the film’s conclusion, as the strong sense of narrative momentum turns into an anti-climax that has might have had thematic and emotional resonance. These flaws, however, don’t fatally wound a compelling document of a fascinating, scary microcosm of 21st-century society.

Welcome to Leith will screen on Thursday, June 18, at 6pm at The AFI Silver, and on Sunday, June 21, at 2:15pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

Listen to Me Marlon review by Alan Zilberman

The annoying thing about a documentary festival is that so few entries have any formal daring. Many filmmakers follow the video-journalism format, as if a feature-length episode of 60 Minutes has anything cinematic. Listen to Me Marlon has a remarkable departure from a traditional narrative, so it has more to say about its subject than a typical biography.

The premise is simple: director Stevan Riley obtained hours and hours of Marlon Brando recording himself, sometimes as a form of self-hypnosis, and those tapes serves as a de-facto autobiography. Riley goes in chronological order, more or less, so we hear about Brando’s rise into Hollywood’s A-list, his rejection of fame, his encroaching eccentricities, and finally the tragedies that would define the last years of his life. Riley juxtaposes the tapes with archival footage, including clips from his films, and a haunting electric-blue digital scan of Brando’s face.

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Brando is cagey about his personal life, not his career, so the most fascinating parts of Listen to Me Marlon are when he discusses acting as a vocation. His early performances are mesmerizing, and just because he was so handsome: it is easy to forget his contribution the movies as we know them, since his modern acting style is unaffected in comparison with the stilted, theatrical style that preceded it. We also learn about Brando’s activism, and his insatiable appetite for women (at one point, I’m pretty sure we hear some discreetly recorded bedroom talk).

Riley strives for an impression of the man, not a history, and ironically the cumulative suggestion is Brando’s films were more autobiographical than they initially seemed. Brando resented Bernardo Bertolucci, for example, since he forced so much intimacy from Brando for Last Tango in Paris. There is similar discussion for all his roles, including blunders like Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando had his demons, and the tapes cannot be probing about certain matters by design, there is more introspection here than we could hope to get from anywhere else. The best compliment I can give Riley’s remarkable film is that it’ll make anyone who watches it want to revisit Brando’s triumphs, which are still better than most films out there.

Listen to Me Marlon screens on Thursday, Jun 18, at 9pm at E Street Cinema and Saturday, June 20 at 6:30pm at The AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets review by Vesper Arnett

Everyone has had, or was, that one friend who loved to play their music loud. Everyone knows that one person who sometimes might get into trouble because they’re sassy, or they have a big mouth. So when I first heard about a Florida teen that was murdered by a stranger over the volume of the music playing from the car he was riding in, I felt deflated. It happened on Black Friday in 2012, at a gas station. His name is Jordan Davis, and the documentary 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets follows the trial of his killer, Michael Dunn, but it’s not about Dunn at all.

This film is not easy to watch. It gives an intimate and moving portrait of Davis’ personality as told by his parents and friends. Those same friends were in the car with him when he was shot, and testified against Dunn during the trial. They remember Jordan as a fun-loving kid who recorded videos dancing to his favorite songs, and visited his girlfriend in the minutes before his life was taken.

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Davis’ parents played a significant role in the pursuit of justice for their son, and the director, Marc Silver, made sure to give significant focus to how their lives drastically changed, especially as the trial began. This focus is easily one of the strongest aspects of the film, as the director is also the cinematographer. The film is constructed largely out of their interviews, the trial itself, and images of the city of Jacksonville. The story unfolds through audio clips, playing against a background of suburbia, beaches, and traffic: it is a portrait of life moving forward despite the deep tensions. This approach allows the audience to listen to the voiceovers that are talking about the events of the trial, from reporters, to community members, and the Davis family themselves.

In a way it reminded me of another documentary, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. Unfortunately, the biggest strength of that film is not possible in this one: that story is told from the perspective of the documentarian who was close with the subject, as well as their friends and family. 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets loses steam quickly as it tries to mimic this film, but it simply does not have the personal element that made the other special.  On the contrary, we have The Jinx, the HBO docu-series that showed reenactments of crimes, until the filmmakers suddenly found themselves in the story. It was engaging and at times shocking, but it was filmed with that intention. If you enjoyed either of those documentaries, this is an entirely different idea.

Perhaps it’s more of a question of preference than anything. If you prefer documentaries that attempt to stay a bit distance, with little interaction from the filmmakers themselves, this is more for you. Silver keeps the focus on the family and the trial, but the visuals falter they look like like TV footage. Distance doesn’t work well with a story driven by emotion and a devastating loss of life. While it is a real look at the trial for what it was, and how it affected a community, the filmmaker’s distance from his subject means the audience experiences it, too.

3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets screens on Thursday, Jun 18, at 8:30pm at E Street Cinema and Friday, June 19 at 3:30pm at The AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution review by Alan Zilberman

This year AFI DOCS honors Stanley Nelson, the prolific filmmaker whose work includes The Murder of Emmitt Till and Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple. In addition to a symposium where Nelson will discuss his work, Nelson has a new film that’s in competition. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution is a completely traditional documentary, but it’s compelling since Nelson is a smart, inquisitive filmmaker who has patience to tell all the sides of a complex story.

Depressingly, the start of The Black Panther Party has striking parallels to the systemic racism that remains a problem today. Co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale instructed early Panthers to follow the police while armed, ensuring that their activities did not violate the civil rights of black people. One former Panther makes a shrewd insight: while the Civil Rights Movement had a southern, rural perspective, the Panthers provided an urban alternative. They led by example, both in terms of aesthetics and innovative community organizing programs, and Nelson follows their complex history until the Panthers imploded.

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The best thing about Vanguard of a Resolution is how Nelson includes criticism of the party, from fellow members and the white establishment. Women discuss sexism within the Panthers, while Nelson also interviews former police who are frank about their hostility to them. The opening section discusses the Party in a broad sense, including cooperation with whites and the their successful breakfast programs, then Nelson turns his attention to two deadly police raids. By placing the raids alongside discussion of J. Edgar Hoover’s loathsome COINTELPRO tactics, Nelson ultimately invites the audience to decide just how much of their fiery radicalism was justified.

Of course, the ideals of the Panthers fell apart once Huey Newton developed a messianic complex and got lost in drugs. Compared to the FBI’s successful efforts, the party at times felt disorganized, so the government’s subversion of them would ultimately be victorious. But the fiercely intelligent, plainspoken ex-Panthers refuse to dwell on the Party’s mistakes, so parts of Vanguard of a Revolution are as galvanizing and immediate as anything we’ve seen on television or YouTube in the past few months.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution screens on Thursday, Jun 18, at 4pm at The AFI Silver and Saturday, June 20 at 6pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

From This Day Forward review by Jeff Spross

Perhaps the greatest strength of From This Day Forward is its relentless pragmatism. Here in Washington, DC, the increasing visibility of transgender Americans has produced a debate shot through with jargon, abstract theory and ideological grandstanding. But filmmaker Sharon Shattuck and her family are midwestern stock. So when she brings a camera into their midst to recount her father’s transition into a woman – back when Shattuck and her sister were teenagers – everyone approaches the subject with a particular mix of painful honesty, simple language, and humble pluck.

Shattuck keeps the proceedings briskly paced and doesn’t go in for melodrama, so you could almost miss how deep some of the interviews cut. Both Sharon and her sister confess to wishing their parents had divorced at various times, and wanting to hide their father from their peers (Shattuck observes it was easier to explain things to her friends in college, when she could do it on her own terms without the possibility of her father suddenly entering the room). Family friends recount some of the fear and hostility that Shattuck’s father, now named Trisha, inspired from town locals. And Marcia, Trisha’s wife, talks through the couple’s decision to stay together, her struggles with not being attracted to Trisha’s feminine expression, and the deeply personal negotiations between the two of them that ultimately led Trisha to forego the final sexual reassignment surgery.
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What really stands out in these interviews is how mundane the family’s struggles seem: they could just as easily be talking about a parent who made a mid-life career shift, or who decided to write a novel or go into the army. Limits are tested on all sides, with each family member learning what costs they can and cannot bear for the one another’s sake.

Trisha herself is a remarkable presence, and From This Day Forward is the better for it. She’s a gangly oddball, relentlessly methodical in her speech, a musician, and an accomplished painter. She is also remarkably candid, discussing everything from her early forays into cross-dressing, her surgeries and hormone treatments, the mercurial-yet-deep feeling that something was off in her personality as a man, and at least one brush with suicidal tendencies. She acknowledges the hardship her transition put her daughters through, and confesses she regrets the timing of her transition in that sense. You get the impression Trisha wishes she could have lived with her own internal pressures and tensions a bit longer, if only for the sake of her daughters, but couldn’t do it.

There are also light-hearted moments, like discussions over pronoun usage, whether “dad” is still an okay term, and the “dress or tux” question for Shattuck’s own wedding, which concludes the narrative. The camerawork is standard documentary-with-talking-heads stuff. But the cinematography is crisp, vivid, and inviting. The music is your standard guitar-laden indie-doc score, but it still works. And other than indulging in a few too many scenes at the end, the film never stumbles in its execution.

From This Day Forward certainly invites questions about how much everyone is really sharing with the camera — especially Marcia. But at the end of the day the only evidence we have to go on is what’s in front of us. In this case, that’s a family that stayed together through a remarkable reckoning for one of their members; a reckoning that our society is only now, in fits and starts, developing a language or conceptual framework for. The film wisely uses the question of how that happened to get at the interiority of both Trish and her wife and daughters.

Like every other family, the Shattucks were simply four humans, each with their own web of needs, trying to figure out how or if they can mesh those needs into a coherent whole. We all face certain traditional narratives of normalcy for how that’s supposed to look; we all seek, to some extent, to embody those narratives; and none of us really do so. Then we must decide just how far to bother with trying to close that gap, and whether the costs are worth it.

In that regard, the Shattucks were dealt a relatively unusual hand. But they seem to have played it well.

From this day forward screens on Thursday, June 18, at 3:45pm at The AFI Silver and on Friday, June 19, at 6:45pm at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

That’s it for today’s coverage! We’ll have more reviews for you as the festival is underway.

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