AFI Docs: Changing and Connecting

Last year the documentary festival formerly known as Silverdocs made some striking changes. Now called AFI Docs, the festival split its focus between longtime hub AFI Silver Theater and downtown DC venues. The festivalís opening night, closing night, and other major events moved to DC. This year a major change occurred behind the scenes as longtime Festival Director Sky Sitney moved on to other opportunities. Thankfully, the festival seems to be in good hands with Interim Director Christine OíMalley and Head Programmer Andrea Passafiume. AFI Docs starts today and runs to the 22nd. Tickets are available here.

Last week, Ms. Passafiume discussed this yearís festival with me:

Adam Spector: Last year brought huge changes to the festival. What are some of the key changes this year?
Andrea Passafiume: Last year obviously was a transitional year for the festival. We were getting our feet wet expanding our campus into DC. This year I think that weíre going to show audiences that we learned a great deal from last year. The energy around this yearís festival is really good, really positive. The films are great. The venues are great. The word of mouth is great. Weíre hoping to show that AFI Docs is continuing to move forward, that itís healthy. Itís even better than last year. We have more films, more features, and we are continuing this idea of connecting filmmakers with policymakers in DC, but also continuing the legacy of having a very diverse balanced program that isnít just issue driven films. We have a lot of those but weíll always continue to have a diverse program, with films from all over the world, with films with different tones. Fun ones, quirky ones, character driven ones, music docs on top of the issue driven documentaries.

Adam Spector: You mentioned that you had more films this year than you had last year.
Andrea Passafiume: Well this year we are happy to have 50 features total and 27 shorts. This year we have four shorts programs where last year I believe we just had two. I got a lot of feedback from people saying that one thing they particularly enjoyed in the past were shorts programs, and thatís something we put a lot of energy into putting together.

Adam Spector: Is your first priority to show a film more than once, to make sure people have a chance to see it, or having as broad a range as possible even if that means showing a movie just once?
Andrea Passafiume: There are some films that are only shown once for various reasons. With the two campuses right now, we are still utilizing the AFI Silver. The festival this year, unlike last year, is utilizing all three (of the Silverís) screens during the festival. Last year it was two. We are taking the theater over again, which is a good thing, to create that energy. So part of that is wanting to show the film at least once if possible at one of our downtown venues, to go for the audience thatís down there that maybe wonít come up here and to show it once for this (Silver Spring) community, whoís been extremely loyal to Silverdocs and AFI Docs over the years. Thatís a good thing, to get the word-of-mouth out there to two different communities. There are a handful of titles that only play once for one reason or another, but those are the screenings that hopefully weíll make a big deal out of. Films like Ivory Tower this year and Glen Campbell ... Iíll Be Me, and Freedom Summer, those are some titles that are only screening once as well as our closing night, Life Itself.

Adam Spector: What are some of the noteworthy panel discussions for the Catalyst screenings on Thursday, June 19?
Andrea Passafiume: Thursday is going to be a lot of terrific panels, which will hopefully, depending on schedules, also feature some policymakers. Our standard Q&A for any screening is 20 minutes, which already is healthy. These Catalyst screenings will feature discussions that are about 30 minutes, and sometimes 40 minutes long depending. Some of the Catalyst screenings are The Newburgh Sting, which is about an FBI entrapment case in upstate New York, where an undercover FBI agent allegedly entrapped four local men into participating in a terrorist plot, post 9/11, as a way to appear that we were busting these terrorists. Another one is Ivory Tower, about the student loan debt crisis.

Adam Spector: Thatís especially timely now, given the Presidentís recent announcement, where heís trying to ease the burden a little bit.
Andrea Passafiume: Right, weíre expecting it to have a lot of attention. Thatís a film thatís screening once, and it doesnít just look at the student loan debt crisis, it looks at some of the alternatives to traditional four year education and traditional four year universities. So I think thatís extremely timely for people. The Homestretch is another one about education, a different angle on education where it looks at homeless teens in Chicago who are desperately trying to navigate the public school system and get an education while they bounce from home to home. The Internetís Own Boy deals with Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide. He was an early ďhacktivistĒ who was a proponent of information sharing on the Internet early on. That will be a fascinating case study.

Adam Spector: That film is also part of the Washington Post series. Those three films all deal with transparency vs. secrecy. How was this series developed?
Andrea Passafiume: The Post actually ... they wanted to select three films of their choice. They didnít specify any certain kind. They do like to go with films that they find to be newsworthy or perhaps timely or worthy of interesting discussion. Topical, I guess. We send them a number of ideas, maybe something between 10 and 12. And from that list they make their own choices. Those are the films that they chose personally. This happens every year, where some kind of unofficial theme emerges, but itís totally organic. This year we happened to notice little by little that there were quite a number of films that dealt with government, with controversial government policies or transparency or government overreach, that kind of thing, but all very different films. We started to notice this very early on, so we started thinking about what we can do with this.

One of the Postís films, 1971, actually deals with a Post reporter in there, which I love, about the 1971 break in to a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, and stealing files from the FBI office, which had proof that government was spying. This was pre-Watergate, spying on civilians. They (the burglars), in turn, sent those stolen files to The Washington Post. So itís only natural that the Post would choose that as one of its screenings.

Adam Spector: And you mentioned The Internetís Own Boy. The third one in the Post series is Silenced.

Andrea Passafiume: Silenced is about whistleblowers, local whistleblowers who have suffered great personal loss, the price they paid for blowing the whistle on controversial government tactics or techniques, torture practices, things like that.

Adam Spector: You mentioned Ivory Tower being very topical. Other ones that tie into news around the world are E-Team, covering Syria and Libya. Then thereís Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, which while not covering the standoff with Russia, certainly addresses an area in the news.
Andrea Passafiume: Both films are really great, totally different films. E-Team is gripping, and I think is going to do fantastic. Of course one of the filmmakers, Katy Chevigny, is local to DC, which weíre happy about. And the other one, Ross Kauffman, is an Academy Award winner, for Born Into Brothels. So they as a filmmaking team are sensational. Both films stand incredibly on their own. They are both amazing stories, I think, for the issues they bring attention to, and I think good documentaries can do this across the board, they humanize an issue. I think many of these topical films, they make the issue that they tackle far more relatable to people. And maybe they bring them home a little bit more because you see this incredible Emergencies Team, the E-Team, of human rights workers who are on the absolute front lines of these war torn countries like Syria, whose jobs, while incredibly high risk, are to report on human rights abuses and bring them to the attention of the world. But it focuses on the human beings that actually do this and the fact that they have to deal with their own families and children while they are dealing with this very high risk job.

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is interesting because it has a very interesting kind of feminist twist in that these are women protesters in the Ukraine who claim to be part of a feminist group, wish to be (part of a feminist group), and sincerely are thinking along those lines. Yet it becomes apparent that they are being controlled by a male figure, who tells them what to do, and when to do it and how to do it.

Adam Spector: Shifting gears, your Guggenheim Symposium honoree, Alex Gibney hasnít been making documentaries all that long. Yet heís so prolific that his filmography is already extensive even though we are really talking about less than a decade of work. Did you think for a second ďIsnít it a little too early for this honor?Ē or did the work just speak for itself?
Andrea Passafiume: Prolific is a great word for him because the work does speak for itself. I have no doubt that heíll continue to make incredible and compelling films for many years to come. But you just take a look at the body of work heís already amassed, with Academy Award winning Taxi to the Dark Side on top of everything else. I think being prolific is a striking thing about his career but theyíre also quality films about compelling issues. He manages to make really gripping films, quickly. Take a look at all of his films. So completely different, but yet each has a story to tell. He becomes engrossed with an issue and he makes a compelling film about it, shares it with the world and moves on to the next thing. I think people overlook the quality of the work. Weíre also doing a retrospective of his work, following the festival, just a small cross-section. And the lineup will be Enron, and Client 9, Eliot Spitzer, and The Armstrong Lie, and Taxi to the Dark Side. Think about those titles alone.

Adam Spector: You guys have shown a lot of his work, such as Catching Hell, about Steve Bartman.
Andrea Passafiume: Yes, I love Catching Hell. A good filmmaker can make any topic interesting. I personally donít care about baseball or anything like that--I didnít even know that story that any baseball fan would know instantly. It was compelling and I was thrilled to program it. And I say, if that can speak to me who (a) doesnít know the story and (b) doesnít care about baseball, and I love it, itís one of my faves. I think thatís good filmmaking. We have another one like that this year with When the Garden was Eden, by Michael Rappaport.

Adam Spector: This oneís also topical. The Knicks just named a new coach, who Phil Jackson hired. I think this movie features him as a player.
Andrea Passafiume: It does and it features contemporary interviews with him along with the other players at the time. So thatís great. That will give them one more thing to talk about at the discussion. Again, this was a topic that normally wouldnít seem that interesting to me, the Knicks. But I also am always interested in good storytelling, good filmmaking. And itís the most delightful, fun documentary. These guys have such personality, theyíre so much fun.

Adam Spector: You mentioned Freedom Summer. This is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. This film is by Stanley Nelson, who a couple of years ago did Freedom Riders. Freedom Summer is in some ways familiar territory for him although itís a different side of the movement. When you heard he was doing this film, did it just seem natural to bring him back?
Andrea Passafiume: We based that invitation on actually seeing the film. Obviously anything Stanley does Iím interested in and interested in finding out about. So obviously when we heard of this new one, we were interested in seeing it. We watched it before we invited him. But itís compelling, and itís so well done. Again, a completely human element of the story that pulls it out of the history books, and makes it a compelling personal history, from certain people who were directly involved in it ... the idealism met with their eventual realization that they were in real danger, in this area that was so deeply entrenched with these attitudes of white supremacy, that were just completely intolerant of what was going on. And it also follows, as kind of a secondary plot, three missing men (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), who were later found murdered and tracks that throughout, as we learn of what their fate was. And it talks to one of the widows and the wife of one of the men. And that too reminds you of risks these volunteers and people went through.

Itís an important moment, an important time to bring to everyoneís attention. And to have Stanley here to discuss it is great, because heís so insightful and has so many smart things to say about it. So itís an important film to see I think, and itís a good companion to Freedom Riders, but completely capable of standing on its own.

Adam Spector: There are a few films about show business. Your opening night film is Holbrook/Twain. Of course Washington audiences probably think of Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat in All the Presidentís Men, but this looks at him spending over 60 years playing one man, Mark Twain. Other examples are Life Itself, the closing night film, and Actress and Glen Campbell ... Iíll be Me. Did these just seem like natural fits?
Andrea Passafiume: That too was not something we were thinking about while it was happening. When we program films, itís on the merits. Itís later, when you step back and look at the broad picture, you say, ďHey, wait a minute. Thereís kind of a thing here.Ē It was something that when we stepped back, we said, ďYou know what, this is kind of a bookend.Ē We have two American icons, three if you count Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook, and Roger Ebert. They are icons in their own way in American culture and pop culture. That was unintentional but kind of organic. So we just decided to go with that, because it made sense. And same thing with Glen Campbell. It was a film that was really refreshing. The music is great, that old school country is awesome music. But obviously it focuses on his Alzheimerís and his attempt to get back on stage while fighting the issues that come with Alzheimerís. That was almost a companion to another of our films called Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, about music therapy and Alzheimerís patients and dementia patients and how music affects the brain and how deeply embedded memories are with music. You see that up close and personal with Glen Campbell. Heís unable at times to remember his own wife or children but yet he can play these complex chords and remember these songs, so itís interesting, on top of seeing his own personal battle and relationship with his family.

We have a whole shorts strand called ďGone HollywoodĒ that works organically too. We have a number of shorts that deal in one way or another with show business. And thatís really a fun short strand.

Adam Spector: Going back to Life Itself, thereís an interesting connection between the filmmaker, Steve James and the subject, Roger Ebert. Jamesís Hoop Dreams was really put on the map, in large part, due to Ebert and Gene Siskel trumpeting it and helping it gain a lot of attention. Now James, who owes at least some of his career to Ebert, makes this film, which ended up being Ebertís swan song. The anticipation for this film grew with Ebertís death. Is it worth the wait?
Andrea Passafiume: Itís definitely worth the wait. Itís a very fair and honorable tribute to Roger Ebert and his legacy. I canít imagine that Roger Ebert would have wanted anybody else making the film. I think Steve Jame was absolutely perfect. Itís a rich tapestry of his life and Ebertís life was complicated and interesting. He left a remarkable legacy and it goes everywhere. His early days trying to get his life together as a journalist early on in Chicago. It goes through his romance and marriage with Chaz, his wife, and the kind of complex relationship he had with Gene Siskel, and then, after his illness. It deals with, what I think is remarkable--how Ebert didnít just fade away into the sunset once he lost his voice. He managed to find a way to maintain a figurative voice in the film community for quite a while. He found a way to engage with the public, through the computer, through machines, and continued to do his work that he loved. The film doesnít shy away from his demons as well. It makes for a really compelling, rounded, picture of his life. I think anyone who is interested in Ebert or his legacy will walk away profoundly touched by this film.

Adam Spector: I grew up watching Sesame Street, and I was struck immediately by I am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story, which covers an unsung figure in the history of that show. Spinney not only did Big Bird but also Oscar the Grouch, two ends of the spectrum.
Andrea Passafiume: The film is great fun for anybody like yourself, who was raised on Sesame Street and anyone who doesnít know Sesame Street, doesnít know Big Bird. What I find to be the thing that surprises people the most is when they realize that Carroll Spinney who has been playing Big Bird since 1969--since Sesame Street went on the air--is still playing him. Thatís pretty amazing. Heís apparently the last original Muppeteer from the original Jim Henson crew. So wow, what a life to share. You know, youíre right. Heís an unsung person. But I think people will love seeing behind the scenes footage of getting to know this very sweet, creative man. This story is also about the lovely relationship between him and his wife. His wife should also be at the festival with him. And itís about the legacy and career with Jim Henson Productions. Itís a pretty amazing story and I think itís wonderful that the story is finally being told, now that heís 80.

Adam Spector: Like many people, I loved Dog Day Afternoon. Itís weird that itís taken so long to have a documentary of the real person behind it, John Wojtowicz. Here it is these many years later with The Dog. You think this film will be a surprise to people?
Andrea Passafiume: I donít know if it will be a surprise. I think theyíll find it fascinating to get to know this man, the ďReal DogĒ as he calls himself. This is a real character. I think people will love getting to go more in-depth with this story. He absolutely embraced his association with the film, Dog Day Afternoon, and used it to become a minor celebrity.

Adam Spector: So crime does pay?
Andrea Passafiume: It paid in his case I think. Youíll have to judge for yourself. But also his ongoing, complicated relationship with the person who inspired the film, his lover that he robbed the bank for. Because this ongoing, complex relationship is fascinating, a case study, and also this ongoing look into this unique manís family life and relationship with his mother and the people around him as well as the LGBT community a long time ago in New York. Itís a really fascinating kind of case study, and a really interesting man to kind of get to know. And I think it will stand on its own, for people who havenít seen Dog Day Afternoon, just to get to know this very interesting man. But I think for people who have been fans of Dog Day Afternoon it will also be very fascinating and satisfying to show depth to his character. Based on the film, he seems to have really embraced the celebrity that came with being associated with Dog Day Afternoon--taking photographs of people in front of the bank that he robbed. He had a T-shirt saying ďI Robbed This BankĒ (laughs). Like I said, heís quite a character, kind of endearing in a unique way.

Adam Spector: Amir Bar-Lev has done other films that have played here. His new film is Happy Valley about the Penn State scandal. Do you think the film will bring the scandal back to the forefront?
Andrea Passafiume: I am always interested in seeing anything Amir has done anyway, because I love his filmmaking. I was a big fan of My Kid Could Paint That, one of his earlier films, and also The Tillman Story. And I also happen to be very interested in this case, like many people. And I think heís managed to do a terrific job of painting a fair portrait of this scandal, this situation if you will, at Penn State, examining what goes into this community thatís geared towards this athletic football culture. Some people call it the cult of football, whatever you want to call it, where people embrace their athletic leaders and coaches beyond all reason sometimes. I feel like it does a good job of allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions and thoughts. And to look at how the community dealt with it itself. Although it is called Happy Valley, itís more about the place and how it was dealt with I think. And Amir will be on hand to generate a really interesting discussion.

Adam Spector: What are some of the other noteworthy films?
Andrea Passafiume: Doug Blockís coming with 112 Weddings, which is a really interesting film about how he used to make extra money on the side by documenting other peopleís weddings, and heís done that for over 20 years. One day he said, ďI wonder whatever happened to those couples whose weddings I filmed and he went back and looked them up and checked back in with them 20 years later. How did your marriage work out? Is marriage everything you thought it would be? And of course thereís a broad range of answers from hilariously funny to just heartbreaking. Art and Craft is about a really interesting man, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, who has a remarkable talent for forging works of art. He has managed to dupe museum curators all over the country. His name is Mark Landis, and heís got this incredible talent. He uses it to forge, and heís been very successful at it until he finally gets the wrong person on his trail who decides to bust him. But his story was really interesting because he wasnít in it to make money. He was in it for the work.

And Bronx Obama has to be a hit here. This is about a man who, when Obama was running for President, was not even elected, people started coming up to him and saying, ďYou know, you look a whole lot like Barack Obama.Ē He wasnít looking to be a lookalike. He just happened to have this incredible resemblance. When he found himself without work one day, having to raise a daughter by himself as a single dad, and Obama was elected, he found that he could make a living, and chase his version of the American dream, by becoming an Obama impersonator. Then he connects with an agent who works with political impersonators, who polishes him up and kind of gets all the little touches together. By the time heís done with him itís spot on. You wonít be able to tell the difference between them. On one level, itís a sweet story of trying to be a single Dad and trying to make ends meet. Itís also really funny. He doesnít know anything about politics, and thatís part of what is funny about him making a living as the President, doing these gigs. You just root for him. Heís so likable, and heíll be here, as our guest. Iím sure that will be a scream, to watch him running around DC and downtown.

And of course Greg Louganis will be here for Back on Board, which is a world premiere sports doc. What happens to the Olympic athlete once your athletic career is over? He gets into this in the film. When your whole life for years, is scheduled to the minute, and itís all training, athletic training, and competitions and coaching, things like that. One day youíve won all the medals, youíve won all the competitions, and youíre retired. What do you do with your time then? And he focuses on that, trying to mentor and helping other athletes figure out what to do with themselves.

Adam Spector: Going back to the beginning, you talked about how much youíve learned. Whether itís about documentaries in general or putting on this festival, what have you learned in your time here?
Andrea Passafiume: I love documentaries. I champion documentary filmmakers. I think that, what Iíve learned is ... itís always quality. The quality of the films is what matters most. I like to champion great films and great filmmakers. I want the documentary filmmakers to feel welcome and I want them to feel excited to show their work. Iíve learned that itís important to create an environment where filmmakers, guests of the festival, have a chance to connect most of all. I hope that this year everybody is able to find a meaningful connection.


Adam Spector
June 18, 2014


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