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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).

Here are days one and two of our coverage this year. There are still some docs screening this weekend, so check it out!

First and 17 by Trisha Brown

You don’t have to be a sports fan to know that college football is a financial juggernaut – albeit a controversial one – at the intersection of American athletics and education. Top high school recruits are tracked by national sports media, and going in to the 2013 football season, Rivals.com ranked a 17-year-old senior from Woodbridge, VA named Da’Shawn Hand as the #1 high school football prospect in the country. Da’Shawn was consequently flooded with scholarship offers from nearly 100 schools. First and 17 follows him and his team through the 2013 season, leading up to Da’Shawn’s eighteenth birthday – the day he’ll announce which college he’s selected and which team’s jersey he’ll wear the next fall.

It’s immediately obvious that director Brad Horn hasn’t set out to make a film about any of the current “hot topics” in football or college athletics. He’s not commenting on modern understanding of football-related concussions or the power of the NCAA or even player recruitment, although Da’Shawn’s long-term future prospects are discussed honestly throughout the documentary. With a tone – and definitely a score – reminiscent of the television show Friday Night Lights, Horn focuses instead on the stories in the shadows around Da’Shawn’s spotlight and examines how his position impacts the school and people in the periphery.

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Da’Shawn is likeable and seems grounded, but as charming as he is, the film is at its most engaging when the focus shifts off of the star player and on to the people and situations around him.  The more compelling characters are people like Karibi Dede, the first year coach trying to balance the needs of an entire team; and LeVar Francis Jr., a friend and teammate of Da’Shawn’s who wants and needs the scholarship as badly, but whose offers aren’t coming in by the mailbox full.

The story at the core of the film is not Da’Shawn’s, but that of a team – whether it’s dealing with the charming but slightly condescending relationship the guys have with their female kicker or a devastating tragedy the players and the community face in the early weeks of the season. Horn seems to know where his real storylines are, and in the minutes leading up to the big reveal of which college Da’Shawn has selected, Horn wisely focuses less on artificially raising the stakes and more on the personal details of the selection day – Da’Shawn figuring out to get a silk handkerchief to sit correctly in his suit pocket, the birthday balloons in the car on the drive over to the event, and his trip to the mall to buy hats with logos from each of the three schools he’s considering, though we all know he’ll only pull one out from under the table on decision day.

By the time Da’Shawn finally makes his decision, the reveal feels a little anticlimactic – not because we don’t care about Da’Shawn, but because even if we don’t know exactly where he’s going, we know where he’s going: college, on a full scholarship. From the opening credits, we’ve understood that Da’Shawn has an important opportunity, though we don’t know any more at the end of the film that we do at the beginning about whether or how he’ll use it. But an absence of manufactured drama doesn’t make the documentary any less appealing. Horn tells an accessible story that balances heart with honesty and reality. The only people who will be really disappointed at the end will be ones who thought the film was just about one defensive end deciding where to go to college.

First and 17 shows on Saturday, June 20 at 3:15pm at the Naval Heritage Center and on Sunday June 21 at 2:30pm at Silver 1. Buy tickets here!

Radical Grace review by Vesper Arnett

This is the coolest movie about nuns since Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. These are the nuns who were investigated by the Vatican for six years and censured for much of that period as well. These nuns are, in the words of the Vatican themselves, “promoting radical feminism” and I think I might just love them.

The documentary Radical Grace follows three nuns who all are driven to help the less fortunate in the name of morality and their faith, but because they supported the Affordable Care Act, church leaders decided they were not representative of the church. The Vatican ultimately will decide whether or not they are faithful, and could order them to completely abandon their modern work and lives, or be excommunicated.

The major issue that the church has with ACA is that it promotes not only contraception, but also held provisions about abortion. American bishops took a pro-life stance, directly contradicting that of the work the nuns were doing to help the ACA get passed. One bishop even questions whether or not the nuns were even still religious in his condemnation of them. As a result, the nuns must grapple with what they feel is a betrayal.

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The struggle between the sisters and Vatican is a long-term one, and all three sisters acknowledge that will soon be out of time to see the kind of reforms they desire to see within Catholicism. Sister Jean, a fiery community worker out of Chicago, helps ex-cons rebuild their lives after being released from prison, and teaches high school equivalency classes. She sees unconditional love as a sacred duty. Sister Chris is active working with younger female leaders, and pushes for more action and even the possibility of priesthood for women. Sister Simone is a lawyer and lobbyist on Capitol Hill, and also the director of NETWORK, promoting the ACA. She embarks on a bus tour called Nuns On The Bus to protest Paul Ryan’s proposed budgets for congress that would adversely impact the needy. All three women may have different spheres of influence, but all of them were seen as threats.

The documentary is a fascinating glimpse into some of Roman Catholicism’s struggles after the molestation scandals, and the upheavals they hope to see within the framework of the church itself. Though it is a narrow focus, it is an impassioned effort with a strong perspective from the nuns. It’s easy to see why they stir controversy for many, especially in their choice of words: one nun mutters a “holy shit” and another suggests just blowing up the church to fix the problems. She was joking, of course, but this is not what I was expecting nuns to be like. It’s real, because these are not the type who wear full robes and fall in line. These nuns are fully modern, fighting against what they believe are destructive anti-progressive patriarchal systems. They’re not wrong.

The film has true humanity. Director Rebecca Parrish makes it easy to want to root for the nuns, and finds compelling villainy in the monolith of the church leadership. Additionally, the filmmakers highlight key events as text title cards, including important background information. This choice is great because it allows the story to move forward, instead of slowing for explanation at every turn. As a result it doesn’t have a barrier of understanding, and demonstrates that nuns don’t have to fly to be cool. But these nuns do dance on camera, so I guess it kinda is like Sister Act.

Radical Grace screens on Saturday, June 20, at 1pm at The Naval Heritage Center and Sunday, June 21 at 7:15 at The AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

Fresh Dressed review by Kaylee Dugan

One of my favorite moments in Fresh Dressed is when Kanye West honestly explains, “I only wanted money so I could be fresh.” Kanye is pretty funny whenever he appears in the doc, but in this moment, he adeptly summarizes what many of the interviewee’s repeat throughout. That, for them, fashion and looking good was about more than “dressing for success” it was a way of cutting class lines. It was a form of liberation from your surroundings. Sacha Jenkins fashion documentary has a lot of interesting moments like this. While die hard Kanye fans probably already know about his fashion aspirations, Fresh Dressed has a lot more to offer than a cursory look into hip-hop’s connection with the fashion industry. While it takes a broader look than Just For Kicks (which I highly recommend if you’re interested in sneakers and hip-hop), it’s a great overview of how fashion and hip-hop have grown together.

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Of course, hip-hop is not the only genre with ties to fashion. Rock, country, indie, emo, punk, EDM, and any other genre you can think of has it’s own type of uniform. What’s interesting about hip-hop, and what Jenkins documentary explores, is what influenced its specific style in the culture. What makes Ralph Lauren cool in the 90’s? What made BAPE cool in the early 2000’s?  Many of the people interviewed in the doc, who range from rappers, to store owners, to those in the fashion industry, all seem to agree that fashion in hip-hop was driven by the need to be distinct and to cut class lines.

From Shirt Kings to Cross Colours to Karl Kani, Fresh Dressed covers quite a bit of fashion history, but I never felt rushed or bombarded while watching it. Even though many of the people interviewed come to similar conclusions, Jenkins did a good job of presenting related ideas in different ways, whether he was using interviews to tell a story or pulling up archival footage to give you a direct look back in time. Although, I have to say, some of my favorite stories and insights came from Andre Leon Talley, former Vogue Editor-at-large, and (of course) Kanye West, who at one point charmingly yells “THANK YOU, RALPH!” while talking about his old obsession with Polo.

If you have any interest in hip-hop, high fashion, or the rise of streetwear, this documentary definitely has a lot to offer. If you just want to hear some of your favorite rappers (like Kanye, Nas, P. Diddy, and more) enthuse over clothes, then this doc is fine for that, too.

Fresh Dressed screens on Saturday, June 20, at 9pm at The AFI Silver and Sunday, June 21 at 7:15 at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

Love Marriage in Kabul review by Trisha Brown

There’s plenty to be said about American marriage rituals, but most can agree that several of our customs defy logic. If you’ve attended a wedding recently, that context will almost certainly seep into your experience viewing Love Marriage in Kabul. The film is anchored by the story of Abdul Fattah, a young man who grew up in an orphanage, and Fatemah Akbari, who is literally the girl next door. The two are in love, and Love Marriage in Kabul is the story of the intense business-like negotiations that need to take place before they can wed. Spoiler alert: no one’s worried about a DJ.

The true star of the film is Mahboba Rawi, the Afghan-Australian founder of Mahboba’s Promise Charity. She is a woman of significant power in the community; her organization supports several Afghan orphanages, including Hope House, the orphanage that has been a home to Abdul. Abdul’s faith in “Mother Mahboba” is so strong that he believes she is the only person who can convince Fatemah’s father to let Abdul marry her. Consequently, he asks Mahboba to persuade Fatemah’s father and to help throw the wedding, all in the less than two weeks Mahboba is spending in Kabul visiting her programs before returning to her home in Australia.

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The marketing of the film seems to highlight the dramatic possibilities of the storyline. Forbidden love, after all, has sold many a movie ticket. But despite several long shots of pensive faces and a few tears, almost every action in the film is driven by practicality. Love and affection are important, but financial issues are also real, and when someone in any country is poor, money plays a role in all decisions. That reality makes a story of dowries and arranged marriage feel a little less objectionable and a little more… reasonable.

Perhaps related to the lack of high drama, the pace of the film is a bit slow, and at times pieces of the story are a little unclear. The role of a few of the characters is never fully explained, and director Amin Palangi often seems happy to let the footage speak for itself. It’s a noble idea, but it can be a little confusing.

Even if some of the details are muddled, the film succeeds on a number of levels. Most significantly, Palangi challenges viewer expectations by keeping his tone non-judgmental and his story telling impartial. Palangi is an Iranian born Australian filmmaker, and he knows he’s presenting a story of marriage that many in his audience will find starkly different from their own experience. But although the traditions are unfamiliar – even unenlightened by American-documentary-audience standards – the world does not seem entirely differently from our own.

The same is true of the people. If this were a fairy tale, the conflict would be between starry-eyed heroes and the villains who oppose them. But life, as the documentary captures, isn’t nearly that simple. A viewer who expects Fatemah’s father to be completely reprehensible might be surprised to see that he is on fairly good terms with Abdul and Mahboba throughout most of the film. Mahboba is generous, compassionate and savvy, so when she’s trying to recruit a wife for Fatemah’s brother – almost any girl will do – in trade for Fatemah, it’s hard to reconcile the work of a woman who is a champion for the education of girls with an action that feels, to many Westerners, archaic and chauvinistic.

Despite a few flaws, Love Marriage in Kabul tells a unique, instructive story and opens the door to some interesting consideration of love marriages in the United States. Marriage for love is a relatively modern concept, and those of us who have the luxury of it go into a documentary like this one expecting a striking juxtaposition of our own experiences with this particular Afghan wedding story. It’s a little jarring to realize that despite the geography and different traditions, this community and the motivations that drive it aren’t particularly foreign.

Love Marriage in Kabul shows on Saturday, June 20 at 4:30 at The AFI Silver and on Sunday June 21 at 12 noon at E Street Cinema. Buy tickets here!

Tyke: Elephant Outlaw review by Kaylee Dugan

If you’re looking to cry yourself to sleep, you’ve certainly found the right film to fuel your tears. Tyke: Elephant Outlaw is a bleak and relentlessly straight forward look at the life of Tyke, an African elephant, who killed her trainer and injured her groomer, as well as another civilian, when she escaped mid-show and went on a rampage through the streets of Honolulu. The film draws strong comparison to a past AFI Docs film, Blackfish, which shocked the world with its exposure of the mistreatment of whales at Seaworld. While Tyke is not as thrilling or as well put together as Blackfish, it certainly packs a punch. The film does not shy away from showing the abuse circus elephants suffer first hand, and even displays Tyke’s final moments.

Owned by the Hawthorne Corporation, who was at one point the largest provider of performing elephants and tigers in the United States, Tyke was always an especially intelligent elephant. Many of the people who worked with her, including her old trainer and groomer described her as willful and rebellious. She was slow to do tricks and often stepped out of line. Before she killed her trainer in Honolulu, she twice ran away during performances and caused serious structural damage to buildings. After her second escape, her consistent trainer Tyrone recommended that she not be used during any more performances.

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Of course, that’s not what happened. Tyke was shipped to Hawaii and was shot down in the streets of Honolulu after killing her trainer. If you can’t stand to see animals injured, or see them hurt others, you may want to skip this doc all together. The death of her trainer was captured on film by a circus goer, and her own death in the streets was captured by the numerous reporters and civilians who flocked to the area when they heard an elephant was on the loose. While the film is grainy and erratic, it’s still incredibly disturbing. It’s also compounded with interviews from people who used to work for the Hawthorne Corpoation, who dance around claims of abuse by describing the trainers holding their batons menacingly or awful language.

Like I said, it’s nowhere near as polished as Blackfish, but it’s sure to rile up animal activists just as much. The only difference being Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey have already announced plans to phase out their use of elephants during performances. While that may relieve some audience members, it didn’t negate much of the pain I felt while watching the documentary. There’s nothing you can do to take away the decades of abuse that Tyke and her heard delt with. The damage is already done.

Tyke: Elephant Outlaw shows on Saturday, June 20 at 9:15 at The AFI Silver. Buy tickets here!

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