AFI Docs: New Name, Same Mission

Ten years ago the American Film Institute took a chance on Silverdocs, a film festival devoted entirely to documentaries. The gamble paid off as Silverdocs became a key documentary showcase and provided innumerable opportunities for filmmakers. For me and so many other film lovers in the DC area, it grew into an annual event. So I was somewhat concerned upon learning that Silverdocs is now AFI Docs. Instead of residing solely at the AFI Silver and nearby screens in Silver Spring, the revamped festival is split between the Silver and various DC venues. The opening night, closing night, and all of the festival centerpieces are in DC. AFI Docs runs from June 19 to the 23rd and tickets are available here.

With the appearance changing, itís gratifying that the festivalís goal -- bringing out the best the documentary world has to offer -- remains constant. That became clear as I once again sat down with Festival Director Sky Sitney:

Adam Spector: Thereís a new name and new locations. What prompted these changes?
Sky Sitney: Thereís no question that it was precipitated by the shift to a new presenting sponsor because of the vacancy that Discovery was leaving the festival.... Needless to say, the festival had to find a way in order to sustain itself, we needed to find new partners. Audi, while a new sponsor for the festival, has actually been a very long-term sponsor for the American Film Institute in general. Quite frankly what was interesting was that Audiís interest in having a presence in DC was aligned with the American Film Instituteís broader mission to have a presence in the heart of the nationís capital.

AS: How do you think the festival experience will change for filmmakers and audiences?
SS: These are different constituents. I do think for the filmmakers, and Iím already seeing this, itís a very exciting opportunity. I think that filmmakers, particularly working on social issue documentary films are deeply honored to be presenting their films in such iconic venues Ė the National Portrait Gallery, the American History Museum, the Newseum, and I also think that their ability to attract Congressional Members to their screenings when it's blocks away from the Capitol vs. a number of miles away has definitely enhanced their experience.

I think both symbolically and literally within the heart of DC itís very impactful. I think from the perspective of general audiences, particularly regional audiences, not the audience that necessarily comes in from out of town, I definitely think that itís going to be an adjustment. This is the first year of a new chapter for the festival. Thereís a lot of learning to be had. I think itís going to be morphing and growing.

All the pieces of the puzzle came together quite late in the game. When we learned about Discovery no longer supporting the festival and the window before Audi coming on board was quite extensive. So the festival that typically has almost a year to plan had to do that in maybe a quarter of the time. There are a number of things, such as the absence of the conference, this year that are being understood as on hiatus. Thereís only so much that can be achieved in such a small window and we really wanted the things that we did do to be extraordinarily well executed. We needed to triage, and make some important decisions.

Where there is a sense of resistance to what the changes are I think itís definitely from the dedicated largely Silver Spring audience that might make a staycation out of the festival. Thereís no question that itís not as efficient to have two campuses. Hopefully as the festival grows through the years with this new model ... it wonít be a matter of shifting audiences from Silver Spring to DC but rather growing both audiences.

AS: So you expect the conference to come back?
SS: I definitely think that what the festival had accomplished, through having the strong industry presence that the conference enabled and the professional development opportunities, was a distinct part of our signature. I know that a lot of people miss it. Iíve heard that left, right and center, and I think it would certainly be wise for us to ponder that very seriously. I canít guarantee it because in some ways itís not my executive decision.

AS: There seems to be a DC, political junkie focus. Your closing night film is Caucus and one of your gala screenings is Herblock Ė The Black & the White, about the longtime political cartoonist for The Washington Post. Are these films that you were looking for or did they just present themselves?
SS: Inevitably it's always films that present themselves because we canít make the films. With the Herblock film, not only is the subject matter very wonderful for our presence in DC, but the producer is the original founder of the American Film Institute, George Stevens, Jr. and the film was made by his son Michael Stevens. With Caucus, itís also a filmmaker whoís been a big part of the festivalís family through the years, AJ Schnack. We had the world premiere of his film Convention (about the 2008 Democratic National Convention) from about three years ago. For the galas, I think there was definitely a thoughtfulness that went into the selection of the films in this new moment of the festivalís true footprint in DC. There are certainly a lot of spotlight films that are political in nature. But if you look at the totality of the lineup, thereís still the wonderful art films such as Cutie and the Boxer, films dealing with really important social issues, or films like The Crash Reel that are extraordinary human interest stories. So I think that the totality of the program has that same diversity of thematics, including a number of films that have animation, which is interesting in a documentary festival.

AS: Many of the issues that are dominating the news are represented. With abortion you have After Tiller, with health care, Remote Area Medical, gay marriage, The New Black. You have a couple of films on Afghanistan. You have a couple of films dealing with immigration. Is this relevancy something youíre proud of?
SS: Without a doubt when we sit around the program table making decisions, we are asking the question: Does the lineup reflect the most important issues of our day? Obviously at the end of the day the quality of the work has to be the first and foremost consideration. Itís not just this year, as weíre having the stronger footprint literally in DC, and I say that because obviously Silver Spring is considered part of DC. So weíve always been a part of DC but we do want the program to connect back with the most important issues of our day and to be relevant and to be timely.

AS: After Tiller is about literally the handful of doctors in this country that are still performing late term abortions. Given that some of these types of doctors have literally been killed are they putting themselves at risk by even going on camera?

SS: At the premiere screening at Sundance, they had to have extra security, not knowing how people would react. The doctors featured, many of them had their roots in midwifery and obstetrics. What drew many of these doctors to this was actually a profound commitment to womenís health care. A lot of the women that you see, you realize that the decisions they are making are the most devastating of their lives. They practically have no choice in the matter. Itís a very profound film that shows people who are not only putting themselves at risk by appearing in the film, but by virtue of what they are doing. One of the doctors is actually right here in Germantown, MD.

AS: Speaking of which, Maryland recently became one of a small number of states to legalize gay marriage. Iíve read that many black voters in the state were conflicted about that issue. Do you think that The New Black has a particular resonance to MD?
SS: Definitely. Ideally a good film can be regional in focus on screen but be national, if not universal in its broader themes. This particular film is talking about the way in which they believe the black church was in many ways manipulated by the government to create a divide amongst its community and to become a kind of anti-gay voice.

AS: Itís also a little ironic, given the seminal role that black churches played in the civil rights movement not all that long ago.
SS: He [the filmmaker Yoruba Richen] is not unaware of the irony. This issue is of great importance regionally, but the broader issue of the disenfranchisement of the church when it comes to supporting all of its flock... Thatís something much broader than Maryland.

AS: With Documented, the filmmaker, Jose Antonio Vargas, ďcame outĒ as an undocumented immigrant. I imagine that one will have a particularly fascinating post-screening discussion.
SS: Jose Antonio Vargas will be in the discussion moderated by Juan Williams. Vargas describes himself as having come out twice in his life, first as a gay man and then, many years later, as undocumented. He had already developed quite an illustrious career. He was part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist team. He had a good gig with The Washington Post, The New York Times, and I think that it was a very brave and scary thing to do. In many ways Jose became the poster child of immigration reform. Itís a very timely discussion clearly and itís a world premiere ... so I think itís a wonderful thing to be able to create a platform for that.

AS: One of the more topical films is Remote Area Medical, about these clinics in rural areas for people who donít have health insurance. It seems that people like that almost get lost in the health care debate. The film is reminding us why thereís a problem in the first place.
SS: Thatís exactly what a great long-form documentary can do, tell these stories. Essentially what the film does is it follows the setup of one long weekend of the RAM to its conclusion. You see it from every perspective, from the volunteer doctors, nurses, and dentists that come in from all over the country, and indeed the world to volunteer their time over a long weekend to serve hundreds of people, to the people themselves, who line up for days in advance. They camp out for days before the opening of this thing to wait for their number to be seen. So you also see the operation itself, the setup, how many truckloads of equipment are brought in. Huge tents with one dentistís chair after the other. And then you follow a few specific people. For example, you see a story about a woman who clearly, clearly has cancer. The tumor is discovered, but you get the sense that when she walks out, sheís not going to do anything about it, because she canít really. The creators [filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Fariah Zaman], said that when it was created it was to go to the hinterlands of South America or Africa. But now they didnít leave the United States because the need is so great here.

AS: Anita covers one of the big controversies from years past. Anita Hill faded from view and now through this film, sheís making a conscious choice to reenter the discussion. Do you think this film is aimed at shedding new light into what happened back then?
SS: The film delved much more deeply into what happened at that time. It also looks at her legacy and what sheís done since. How sheís been a figure for feminism and for workplace equality and for sexual harassment. Before Anita Hill, sexual harassment wasnít a word that was part of peopleís vernacular. The feminist movement has really embraced Anita as whistleblower for this kind of thing and that has really opened the doors for future generations to absolutely expect to be in a work environment that is free of that kind of harassment. Anita did not proactively voluntarily reveal this information. She was obligated to reveal this information in the context with which it was asked of her. It was her civic duty. She would have been lying otherwise to a governmental agency. She did not intend for it to go where it did. But she stood by her own word and you really see the dignity with which she carried herself. The film certainly does her justice.

AS: Another controversy from later in the 90s was trying juveniles as adults. Lost for Life deals with this issue head on.
SS: Itís a world premiere as well, produced by Ted Leonsis. Whatís great about the film is that is looks upon the issue from every angle, from the perpetrators who have done some heinous absolutely awful, awful things. The families that are impacted by them. Theyíre the victims. It really presents the issue in an extraordinarily complex way. It doesnít try to steer the audience to one interpretation or the other. It just presents the complications of it. There are a variety of different perpetrators who have various degrees of either consciousness, regret or denial of their actions ... denying their responsibility ... ďI was influenced by my peers.Ē Some things that suggest that this person has not grown. But there are others where you get the sense that they have really transformed. I love the film because of all the questions it raises. We really are going to have a wonderful panel discussion following the film.

AS: Your opening night film is Letters to Jackie. Thereís some timeliness with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination coming up. With that, Our Nixon, and The Trials of Muhammad Ali, you have three seminal figures of the 1960s revisited.
SS: And from different angles. Whatís interesting is that the filmsí entry point into them is from a completely different place than weíre used to seeing. So, for example, with Muhammad Ali, much of the ample work out there on his life and career, focuses on his boxing. The film takes a very particular moment in his life, which his conversion to Islam, and his attempts to have status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, the way that it impacted his reputation ... Iíve never seen this particular angle magnified.

In terms of Our Nixon, itís extraordinary to see literally something weíve never seen before. The filmmakers had access to the Nixon archives that was recently made public and housed at the National Archives, a lot of home movie footage and secret footage that was shot by Nixonís closest aides during his term. You see their first trip to China. Itís very intimate. Itís not exactly home movies. Itís work movies, [as if] I were to carry around a secret camera at the office, documenting my colleagues as if they were family members.Very revealing, very intimate, funny, fantastic footage from the 1960s. Of course Letters to Jackie is based on a very popular book made in the immediate aftermath of JFKís assassination. Jacqueline Kennedy received hundreds of thousands of letters from not only all around the country but all around the world, from all different walks of life. This film takes this wonderful treasure trove of archival footage, set against the reading of the various letters that represent an incredible cross-section of people, and the impact that the assassination and/or Kennedy had on their lives.

AS: One of your staples is the Guggenheim Symposium, honoring great documentary filmmakers. This year itís Errol Morris, who changed the way documentaries were shot, getting people to look directly into the camera.
SS: He called it the Interatron. Itís a kind of mirror device where he gets the people heís interviewing to look into the camera lens, because right above the camera lens is a mirror of his own face. So when the subject whoís being interviewed is looking into the camera, what theyíre really looking at is a picture of Errol Morris, as if theyíre in conversation.

AS: He also changed the perception of what documentaries can achieve, with The Thin Blue Line actually freeing an innocent man from prison. I imagine youíll have a lot to cover.
SS: Another important part of Errol Morris, is that in The Thin Blue Line he introduced the reenactment. He challenged people to recognize that all documentaries are constructed. Even if itís a cinema verite that looks very observational thereís still construction going on in the choice of editing, in the choice of where that camera is focusing, and in some ways Errol Morris thought that by creating these highly stylized noir-like lit reenactments was not necessarily any less authentic than the choices of editing you see in a different kind of documentary style. Today, as I said earlier, we even have a couple of films that are animated. The fact that within the documentary genre that can be comfortably included is a testament to the moment that Errol Morris came on board and challenged people about the previously very rigid parameters in the definition of documentary. And I think heís responsible in many ways for the kind of playfulness and artistic license that many documentary filmmakers feel entitled to explore today, for better or for worse.

AS: Barbara Kopple, a huge name for people who follow documentary films, tackles another huge name, Hemingway, in Running From Crazy.
SS: The film certainly focuses on Mariel Hemingway, but also her sister Margaux, who unfortunately committed suicide just as her grandfather (Ernest Hemingway) did. I believe there is an extraordinary lineage of suicide in the Hemingway family, so many generations. And itís a combination of looking at their legacy, looking at the unfortunate component of mental illness, depression and suicide in that family, her own work, both as an advocate as well as personally, to keep herself mentally healthy.

AS: One of my favorites from Silverdocs a few years ago was Jesus Camp. God Loves Uganda almost appears to be a sequel.
SS: There was a film last year called Call Me Kuchu (about anti-gay hatred and bigotry in Uganda). God Loves Uganda looks more broadly at what is going on. The evangelizing of American Christians going to Uganda in particular and preaching particular values including homophobic values is planting a seed for a community thatís becoming deeply homophobic and where gays are being persecuted. This is looking at the roots of it and seeing unfortunately, that a great deal of that is coming from the West. Itís disturbing. Itís a brilliant film, made by the Academy Award winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams.

AS: On a completely different subject, thereís Mistaken for Strangers, which follows The National, a hot band. But the AFIDOCS description referred to it as like This is Spinal Tap.
SS: The lead singer (Matt Beringer), his brother (Tom Beringer) made a film ... the head singer has this semi-bumbling younger brother, and the younger brother makes a film about it. Itís very easy to think that this film may be an intimate behind the scenes look at The National on tour but thatís really not what itís about. Itís about this brother relationship, one whoís very successful and one who isnít. There are tensions there, and itís also kind of funny. It has a This is Spinal Tap quality. It also has An American Movie quality, which is from a filmmaker who not necessarily has an absolute skill set to make the film.

AS: Another film that struck me as maybe on the lighter side is Rent-A-Family, Inc. Thereís a service in Japan that offers professional actors to come and be your family. This begs the question, are they going to open up a branch in America, and when can I hire them?
SS: Exactly (laughs). It is a great film. Itís funny but itís also kind of somber in a weird way, because clearly, for people who feel the need to rent a family, thereís something kind of lonely about them. Whatís interesting about the film is the man who runs this business and who is almost always himself involved in the performances, so to speak, has a bit of loneliness in his own family life, a lot of estrangement from his own wife and son, so itís very interesting. Itís not a depressing film by any means but itís a dark comedy.

AS: A few years ago Silverdocs featured The Cove, about the killing of dolphins in Japan. Blackfish seems to expound on the themes of The Cove. What happens to whales when they are taken out of their natural habitat and put in captivity?
SS: Itís one of the most devastating films Iíve ever seen. But itís really important and exquisitely done, because it gets you so deeply involved in the story. You hurt across the board. You hurt for the animals. You hurt for the trainers.

AS: Some of the trainers have been killed.
SS: Yeah, and the film really looks at why. Itís not just happening because itís inevitable, which in some ways it is. These are wild animals held in captivity, which by itself is a problem. But thereís many different things that go wrong Ė the way the animals are treated, that lead to a certain level of frustration. A lot of culpability along the way, thatís leading to an industry thatís inhumane to the animals, but is also putting trainers, who love these animals, in unnecessary risk. The trainers donít have the control. Itís the industry. The trainers are getting blamed as a cover-up for what the real problem is.

AS: Another film, Life According to Sam, covers a boy who ages prematurely.
SS: Progeria is the disease. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, local DC filmmakers who just won an Academy Award for Inocente and were also nominated for War/Dance. Sam (the boy) will actually be here. Very few cases in the world, maybe 200 at any given time, of this very rare genetic disease, which does create accelerated aging. Sam was very unlucky to have this mutation, but was very lucky to be born in a family of doctors. When his mother in particular learned that there were no studies being done because thereís not going to be a lot of motivation in the pharmaceutical industry to do something because thereís not going to be a huge base of people. She took it upon herself to start some research. We learn from this film that this woman has actually come across some things that are profoundly promising in terms of moving towards a cure. Sam is an extraordinary young man, and his family is doing amazing things in the fight against this disease.

AS: Are there any other films youíd like to highlight?
SS: The Crash Reel by Lucy Walker is ostensibly about a young man, a snowboarder who was seriously hurt in an accident in his practices leading up to his Olympic tryout and develops a significant brain injury. But interestingly in his recovery you also get to learn about his family. He has a brother with Downís Syndrome who becomes a very important character in the film. Both men have mental disabilities but from different sources and itís amazing how much they have to teach each other. The film was about that but also about the industry that continues to escalate the stakes. They are constantly raising the bar in how high these jumps are, how many twists and turns you have to do. Constantly elevating it almost impossible standards to keep it exciting. But at what cost? The kinds of injuries that are happening to the young people ... it questions the industry that continues to put these young people at risk.

AS: In A Will for the Woods, a terminally ill man decides he wants a green burial without any chemicals or fancy caskets. Iíd imagine this was one of the lump in your throat ones.
SS: Definitely. This won the audience award at Full Frame. During the course of the film you get to feel a great deal of passion for this wonderful man, this young man who has to face his death. Heís such an extraordinary person who lives life to the fullest. He is deeply committed to a green burial. I personally had never really thought about the environmental impact of our funeral systems. Everything from the kind of chemicals they pump into bodies to make them deteriorate more slowly and the non-biodegradable caskets that are put into the earth. When you think about things like recycling, being somewhat limited with your water use, all the things one thinks about to minimize waste, Iíd never really thought about the death industry. The film does a number of things. On one hand, you get to meet this extraordinary man and be part of his journey towards accepting his own death. So thereís that aspect of the film, and thereís a very eye-opening look at the predominance of the culture about how we care for our dead and the industry around it that made me rethink how I may want to be buried.

AS: This is really a new chapter for the festival, which we touched on earlier. Silverdocs built itself up to be one of the preeminent documentary festivals in the country, and now youíre trying something really different. How do you feel about that?
SS: I wouldnít say weíre trying something really different, because at the core weíre still showing documentary films. Weíre creating a wonderful space for filmmakers to connect with audiences, in those kind of panel discussions. Weíre still creating networking events for filmmakers and the industry that will be here. The thing that might be really different is the campus, rather than it all being concentrated in Silver Spring, itís concentrated in Silver Spring and downtown DC.

AS: The DC venues are all very close to each other.
SS: That was very intentional. We wanted to create as intimate a campus as possible, so there was a very clear footprint. Everything is within easy walking distance. No doubt the Silver Spring campus has been reduced slightly. Itís hard to say whether thatís purely an outcome of the year of transition. I donít quite know what the future forecasts in terms of whether that will get built back up or remain like this. Thatís not necessarily my decision to make, letís put it that way. The other radical shift is the absence of the conference, which I hope will be explored as something to consider for the future to bring back.

I truly believe that, for documentary films and filmmakers, itís extremely exciting to be able to have a distinct presence in DC. Iím really excited about expanding our audience base there. Iíve heard through the years so many people say, ďOh Iíve heard so many great things about the festival but I just couldnít make it up after work to Silver Spring.Ē I hope that this is an opportunity to bring it to them. I, of course also feel compassionate for people worried about whatís going to happen, and I understand that. Itís a year of growth and change and weíre all going to see how things come together.

Adam Spector
June 17, 2013

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