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Hard-Hitting Films Unspool at AFI Docs Film Festival

Guest blog: Last week in D.C. was a glorious one for networking with top talent and seeing great films with the potential to move audiences to action

Washington, D.C., audiences benefited from living in the nation’s capital last week with the 11th annual AFI Docs Film Festival. This year’s festival offered a plate full of riveting documentaries that explore hard-hitting contemporary issues to jam packed audiences.

Among the 53 docs featured were a couple gala events focusing on political figures and themes. The opening night film, Bill Couturié’s “Letters to Jackie,” poignantly pictures the reading by famous actors of citizens’ letters to President John F. Kennedy’s widow after his assassination interspersed with nostalgic archival footage from the JFK administration.

Another gala evening featured Michael Stevens’ “Herblock-The Black and the White,” a loving film about how the Pulitzer prize-winning Washington Post editorial cartoonist covered politics for 55 years with wit and satire that spared no politicians. Innovative documentary filmmaker Errol Morris‘ career was featured during the annual Guggenheim Symposium.

Several talented female filmmakers showed their compelling films about difficult issues. Cecilia Peck’s gripping “Brave Miss World” traces the bravery of Miss Israel, Linor Abargil, who was raped just before her Miss World reign and bravely confronts her attacker as well as advocating for other rape victims around the world.

Barbara Kopple’s uplifting “Running from Crazy” examines the Hemingway curse of mental illness and suicide through the insights of granddaughter Mariel Hemingway who tries to confront the family legacy with wisdom and action.

Also in the town where it all started was Freida Lee Mock’s “Anita,” the story of Anita Hill’s brave testimony about the sexual harassment behavior of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in front of the Senate Judiciary committee in 1991. This powerful documentary also traces Hill’s life since the hearings and the effect her testimony had on raising consciousness about harassment.  

Another hot topic, immigration reform, is poignantly discussed in journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ very personal “Documented,” the story of how he became a DREAM Act poster child activist after outing himself as undocumented two ago. The camera follows his life after his courageous confession as he lives stateless for years.

Festival director Sky Sitney correctly writes in the catalog that they want to “use films as the starting point to engage our nation’s leaders with filmmakers in a dialogue on the most important issues of our day.”

This premiere documentary film festival rebranded its sponsorship by switching from Discovery as a sponsor to the Audi car company. The festival has expanded its venues from centralizing at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring, Md., to destination places in Washington, D.C., and took advantage of being held in the nation’s capital.

Filmmakers spoke on Capitol Hill, engaged with government officials at the White House and had journalists and government officials participating in their discussions. It was certainly the best use of the seat of the government venue and a film festival I have ever witnessed.

This past week also featured another D.C. film event: the annual CINE awards ceremony.

CINE is an organization that “recognizes non-theatrical film and video production through its semi-annual film competitions.” The highlight of the evening was the CINE Lifetime Achievement Awards to the classy film producers Albert Berger and Ron Xerxa. Described as a foil to the Hollywood image of nasty producers, these lifetime award recipients were described as “really nice guys” who want to ask “hard questions and not make explosions.”

Xerxa jokingly asked, “are we old enough to receive the awards?” He offered the advice that “everything takes longer” to make, and Berger claimed they were proud to “explore the American landscape.”

Berger also claimed since his mother went into labor with him in a movie theatre he was fated to go into the business. But he quipped that although they make “films we care about, maybe we should consider making some money.”

Taking advantage of the fact that the two producers showed up to receive their awards, a special screening of their early film “Election” was shown. This satiric feature about a high school election also launched the careers of director Alexander Payne and actress Reese Witherspoon

Independent filmmakers love receiving a CINE Golden Eagle award because they are able to claim their films are award winning. And after last week’s event, CINE can claim it have upped the ante by initiating a new prize for emerging film composers. The audience was treated to seeing the same four-minute animated film scored by five finalists who had composed music. CINE also hosted with the MPAA a discussion about scoring movies with veteran sound composers. 

Undoubtedly last week in D.C. was a glorious one for networking with top talent and seeing great films with the potential to move audiences to action.

Aviva Kempner is the co-director with Ben West (Cheyenne) of "Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting" documentary. Jessie Atkin is the communications coordinator for the documentary.