AFI Docs: A Festivalís New Identity

After two years of major changes, AFI Docs seems to have found a comfortable rhythm. For its first nine years the festival was Silverdocs, based entirely in Silver Spring. In 2013, it became AFI Docs, splitting venues between Silver Spring and DC. This change was prompted in part by the Discovery Channel dropping out as a festival sponsor. Now the Discovery Channel is back, along with the festivalís Filmmaker Conference. A new Festival Director, Michael Lumpkin, came on board this past December. The 2015 AFI Docs, running from June 17-21, features 81 films from 25 countries. Tickets are available on the website. Last month, AFI Docs Head Programmer Andrea Passafiume and I discussed this yearís festival:

Adam Spector: AFI Docs has changed substantially over the past two or three years. What are some of the changes people might notice this year?
Andrea Passafiume: I think we continue to find our new identity and we have continued to learn and grow from each year, in each festival experience. If there's one thing we've heard a long time from our guests and from filmmakers it's that they miss having a conference element so I think they were very pleased to see that returning over the course of Thursday and Friday of the festival at the Monaco Hotel.

Adam Spector: Has anything changed in the way you select your films?
Andrea Passafiume: Not really. The focus is always on, number one, finding great films, just engaging, fascinating films that grab you. When you begin to watch a film and you get that feeling that I'm watching something special here. You just kind of know it after years of experience. The top priority isn't necessarily looking for specific topics or themes in the beginning. It's only later that you start to notice organic themes coming together. But itís always based on the quality of the film. And of course I do consider how it will fit in for our festival and our audiences.

Adam Spector: A good example of that is Best of Enemies, your opening night film, about the Gore Vidal-William F. Buckley debates. That certainly seems like it would appeal to a Washington crowd. Is this documentary making the case that these debates began the talking heads that such a staple of news programs today?
Andrea Passafiume: It does say that in a way. One of the things that amazed me about Best of Enemies, first of all itís really interesting and fascinating. Even though it's documenting something that happened in the sixties it's totally relevant to today's society, especially the media. I think everyone will be able to relate to points made in the film but the other really surprising element of this film, which also makes it a great choice for opening night, is that itís hilarious. Itís not dry at all. Because the debates get kind of increasingly vitriolic at some point, dare I say bitchy? It becomes quite funny. There are also some very serious points and things relevant to todayís media culture, pundit media, talking heads, shouting heads.

Adam Spector: The festival has always featured music history and this year the closing night film is about Mavis Staples. Do you think people are focusing more on music documentaries after 20 Feet from Stardom and Muscle Shoals, and those types of films?
Andrea Passafiume: I think everyoneís interested in a good music documentary, in an interesting music person. Mavis is a wonderful, upbeat joyous film about a really interesting woman and in her place within the industry. We also have A Poem is a Naked Person, Les Blank's 40-year-old film, the late great Les Blank. This is a film shot in 1973 and '74 about Leon Russell but never released until now, put on the shelf, it becomes this time capsule of that whole era. Great music, it's a great film. Itís Les Blank at his best. I think it's all about storytelling, right?

Adam Spector: Another music doc is your outdoor screening.
Andrea Passafiume: We try to do one every year. Ride Rise Roar, which is a David Byrne film about his collaboration with Brian Eno. This was a Silverdocs selection in 2010, and played very well here then. We chose that as our outdoor screening this year because music documentaries tend to do well outside. Theyíre good for crowds.

Adam Spector: Obviously there is much public focus on racial crimes and the role of law enforcement. A couple of films jumped out as having something to say about that. The first one was 3Ĺ Minutes, Ten Bullets. One white man and a group of African-American youths got into a fight in a convenience store, and one of the youths ended up being killed. Do you think this has more relevance now than even when you selected it?
Andrea Passafiume: Definitely. Even when I saw it for the first time before we chose it to be in the program, it was utterly fascinating and capable of standing on its own regardless of the headlines. This is a very relevant film. Thatís an asset and testament to the power that it has to hopefully engage the public to kind of bring attention to these issues out there. Jordan Davis, whoís the victim in 3Ĺ Minutes, Ten Bullets--his parents are very present in the film. They are such kind of pillars of strength. I think they are just going to knock the public out. I think everyone will be just stunned by how powerful it is.

Adam Spector: On the other side of it, the law enforcement end, you have Peace Officer, which is looking at SWAT teams, not in urban areas where people think of them but SWAT teams in Utah. The gentleman who started the SWAT teams, in light of recent events and his son-in-law being killed, heís having second thoughts.
Andrea Passafiume: I think this film is utterly fascinating because the main subject, Dub is his name, heís a former sheriff, heís the one that put together the SWAT teams in Utah. It's very indicative of a kind of what's going on with attitudes in the public all across the country right now with increased militarization in police force. Itís kind of a microcosm of that. Itís fascinating because he takes his personal incident with his son-in-law and he starts deconstructing every single incident and act of violence and every bullet fired and kind of using these elaborate forensic investigative techniques breaking down what really happened, not just in his son-in-lawís situation, but several others and it's a really fascinating to look at the hard scientific evidence of this incredible use of force. We have a short film called A Conversation with My Black Son. It's playing in a shorts program called ďParental GuidanceĒ but we also decided to pair it with 3Ĺ Minutes, Ten Bullets. This is a short that we were fascinated with where a group of these racially diverse parents sit down and talk directly to the camera about the difficulties of having bring up having to bring up the topic of racism with their black sons. How do you have a conversation with your black son about how to engage with the police without it turning into a violent incident or without the police using force? There seems to be a feeling that this conversation is quite necessary, that it's going to happen, not that it might happen. That's one of the points parents make in the film.

Adam Spector: Your Guggenheim honoree this year is Stanley Nelson. Heís been a frequent guest of the festival. He seems to be chronicling the modern civil rights movement. He started with Emmett Till, then Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer and then his new one is about the Black Panther movement.
Andrea Passafiume: We had programmed The Black Panthers before he was the Guggenheim honoree. That was one of the earliest films I saw in the programming process and to me you canít go wrong with Stanley. I think his filmmaking is some of the most important of the entire documentary world right now and weíre thrilled to have him as the Guggenheim honoree too. The Black Panthers is yet another fascinating look at this incredible period of history and I think that, as always, he just manages to find these extremely relevant fascinating things. He manages to find the most incredible footage and just paint this very human full portrait.

Adam Spector: Alex Gibney is a former Guggenheim honoree who already this year has had a documentary on Scientology and a documentary on Frank Sinatra on HBO. He now has his third documentary in a year thatís not even half over yet with his one on Steve Jobs. Does he sleep?
Andrea Passafiume: One of Alexís main characteristics is how prolific he is and that's to his credit. He is always working and always nailing down the most interesting topics and good for him. He doesn't shy away from dangerous topics that might bring a little heat like Scientology or going after the Catholic Church and sexual abuse. I think that he's got a well-oiled machine going in his mind and in his work. When Steve Jobs died a few years back Gibney was kind of blown away by how deified he was. He starts by asking himself how did this man become this modern God? Steve Jobs is a really interesting film that looks at him both critically and fairly too, that really analyzes his fascinating life as this tech mogul but also isn't afraid to delve into the personal life and into maybe some criticisms of him as well, to look at him as a full human being.

Adam Spector: Another former Guggenheim honoree who has been at the festival many times is Barbara Kopple. Her new film is focused on one publication, The Nation.
Andrea Passafiume: When we were talking about strands that formed organically without necessarily looking for it, Hot Type, her film was one of them. There were a few films that separate themselves from the pack for being about journalism in an interesting way or some form of journalism and that's one of them.

Adam Spector: You have another one about The New Yorker.
Andrea Passafiume: Very Semi-Serious is specifically about the famous cartoons of The New Yorker and the cartoon editor, kind of what goes into the selection process of those cartoons. You get to meet and get to know several of the different freelance artists who regularly submit and what goes into the process of actually selecting them. I think people will be really fascinated to see that because it's quite a process if you consider just the huge number of the submissions that they get.

Adam Spector: And do both of these films, that one and Koppleís, examine how these publications survive in an increasingly digital world?
Andrea Passafiume: Exactly.

Adam Spector: Albert Maysles died not too long ago. Is In Transit considered his last film?
Andrea Passafiume: In Transit has many directors and Maysles is one of them, the most prominent of them Anyone who sees In Transit will very much feel the presence of Maysles in it. It's very observational and transfixing, a lovely film that I think Maysles fans will enjoy. In Transit focuses on actual passengers, and American train travelling. The idea behind In Transit is capturing people in a transitional state. They are all literally in the process of travelling to somewhere, from somewhere. Maysles tries to get their stories, who they are, where they were going to, what are they leaving and kind of gathering all of these fascinating stories. We also placed a lovely short with that, called Sleepers Beat which looks at the workers on a train, the people who have dedicated their lives to living on a train and being the permanent employees of a train that travels across Russia. They go nicely together I think, to get that kind of lulling, beautiful atmospheric thing about travel, about train travel.

Adam Spector: Abigail Disney, who in addition to being from film royalty, also has a long career as a producer. She produced 1971 which you had here last year, and films such as The Invisible War. You have her directorial debut, The Armor of Light. What attracted you to this? Was it the subject matter or the fact that it was her directorial debut?
Andrea Passafiume: Everything. Another organic strand that emerged this year was one about gun violence in America specifically and 3Ĺ Minutes is an example of that. There are definitely racial elements to that but it's also part of a big picture of gun violence. Abigail Disneyís film, is also about gun violence but it in a different way. One thing that is interesting is that they are tied together. Jordan Davis's mother in 3Ĺ Minutes is also present in The Armor of Light as a gun control advocate. The Armor of Light looks at a local DC-based Minister whoís traditionally conservative and his congregation is conservative and they're very entrenched in the gun culture--the traditional right wing conservative view of guns and gun ownership. This conservative looks at gun violence in American culture and some specific cases and starts to really rethink that for himself and he deeply searches, he soul searches about it and you see that and he's trying to deliver what he feels is responsible message to his congregation. That's interesting because we don't see conservative voices that often in films about gun violence, at least not in the documentary world now and that is what set this film apart, and itís quite interesting. He risks his job because he could get ousted if he goes too far against his traditional vision.

Adam Spector: Another one about gun violence is Requiem for the Dead, which seems to focus more on the victim's perspective.
Andrea Passafiume: That one is a series of vignettes. What sets that apart too and doesnít make it the same old thing is how the story is told. Itís a series of vignettes taken from a cross-section of spring in 2014 like the title says and you get to hear it from the horse's mouth through social media, 911 calls, police calls. You get to learn about a series of victims of gun violence and what exactly happened, some accidental, some intentional, some suicide, etc., and what are the circumstances surrounding all these cases. Briefly but incredibly effective ways that really hits home. I think by drawing upon this the real media and social media and kind of getting right to the human emotions surrounding all of these terrible acts of violence.

Adam Spector: When you saw the Bruce Jenner interview you had to think that it was a nice bit of kismet that you had From This Day Forward programmed.
Andrea Passafiume: I think issues surrounding being transgender, transgender rights is a topic that's getting a lot of attention right now. Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner is part of that spotlight thatís been brought on it. One of the things I really love about From This Day Forward is that it makes it clear that gender identity, sexuality, marriage, love, and these things, nothing is black and white. All of these issues are complex and not easily settled. The transgender father who is now known as Trisha, and his wife and daughters, (the filmmaker is their daughter)--the family comes off so healthy to me and how they confront dealing with these very complex issues. I think audiences are going to be very interested to kind of see how this particular family deals with this, how they tackle these issues in a healthy and loving way under circumstances that can't be easy.

Adam Spector: Last year one of my favorites was Back on Board, especially because you had Greg Louganis here. There is definitely a tie on between that film and Out to Win, which covers Billie Jean King among others. Post-Michael Sam and post-Jason Collins you have to think that thereís an audience for that type of film and that type of discussion.
Andrea Passafiume: I think for a while now thatís been a topic people have been really interested in--really interested in--about the intricacies of the sports world because, while I think LGBT rights and issues are becoming more accepted now than ever before and marriage equality things like that, but somehow within the professional sports world there's more of a barrier.
Adam Spector: The locker room is the last vestige of homophobia.
Andrea Passafiume: That's interesting in itself and to kind of look at what players are up against if they come out and be openly gay, what they're looking at, what they're up against, what those challenges are the dangers career-wise. It definitely talks to some of the trailblazers of that, people who were open years ago, people like Martina Navratilova who of course always says she lost everything overnight, all of her endorsements, everything by coming out. Now of course she eventually rebounded but that's scary. To have any openly gay players now is it is to hopefully usher in more tolerance within that arena.

Adam Spector: I think any film buff like me has to be drawn to Listen to Me Marlon. The notes you gave me indicated that it was made with just Brando talking about himself, telling his own story.
Andrea Passafiume: Itís mostly his own word. He made many audio recordings and it's a slight artsy film in a good way. It's very kind of dreamy and definitely gives a fresh perspective on his life. I think there's always more to know about Marlon Brando. Sometimes you think he's off his rocker and other times you think, no, he knows exactly what heís doing.

Adam Spector: I saw a couple of your films last year in Toronto. One of them was The Look of Silence. Last year you showed The Act of Killing. The Look of Silence takes the story of The Act of Killing and gives the other side. You saw the perpetrators. Now you see the victims. The thread that continues between those two films is that thereís no remorse. Not only is there no justice for these crimes, no one is even apologizing for them.
Andrea Passafiume: I thought The Act of Killing was amazing and unforgettable and stunning. With The Look of Silence I was very interested to expand that look at The Act of Killing. Itís a great supplement to it.

Adam Spector: Another sequel is The Yes Men Are Revolting. This one, while still examining their activism, also examines them getting older. How do they reconcile their lifeís mission with how, for example, one of them has kids? How do they adjust not just to a changing world, but their changing lives?
Andrea Passafiume: People can relate with these two gentlemen having to cope with maturity, with life going on. What are they going to do with themselves now while still trying to make a change in the world and do it in a way that's quite entertaining.

Adam Spector: What films that we havenít gotten to yet do you feel are particularly noteworthy?
Andrea Passafiume: All Things Must Pass is interesting because this is a film by Colin Hanks the actor, and also Tom Hanksís son, about the rise and fall of Tower Records. I think many of us probably spend a great deal of our youth, our younger years at Tower Records. It wasn't just about buying music; it was the social interaction when you go to browse at a Tower store. We have a couple of really good foodie docs. They always tend to do well here. We have King Georges about this incredible restaurant in Philadelphia, Le Bec-Fin, that closed recently and its owner and chef who kind of has to cope with the inevitability that heís getting older and has to pass the torch and it's full of just the inner workings of that level of a restaurant. He's a screamer at his staff but yet he's deeply passionate about what he does and it's kind of really great to get a look at that up close, how service goes on in a restaurant at that level and that stature. Also City of Gold is about Jonathan Gold the LA Weekly Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, which is a rarity and how he goes through Los Angeles seeking out every nook and cranny of the most adventurous unusual cuisine. Whatís interesting about him is that heís completely not a snob. Heíll go to any hole in the wall, any strip mall on and give every kind of food a fair shot and judge it with every bit of seriousness that he would a five-star restaurant. Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead, the story of the National Lampoon that fits into our journalism category. What's not to love about National Lampoon?
Adam Spector: Not just the magazine itself but the influence itís had on movies?
Andrea Passafiume: Exactly, and all the talent that came from that original pool. And I would point out Code: Debugging the Gender Gap because it really focuses on an issue that my understanding is a real talking point within the tech community, which is how come there arenít more women in the tech field and it really takes a greater look at that, about why women aren't necessarily attracted to that industry or is there an actual gender bias. So that I think is a fascinating discussion

Adam Spector: One that would have Washington appeal is The Diplomat, about Richard Holbrooke that was done by his son David.
Andrea Passafiume: Itís a very humanizing story of Washington and this man. David has incredible interviews with Washington elite. They're having wonderful conversations about Richard Holbrooke and I think people will find it very enlightening.

Adam Spector: Another one that jumped out at me was The Wolfpack. The trailer makes it seem very bizarre.
Andrea Passafiume: I was at another festival and almost didn't see The Wolfpack and I'm so glad that I did because it was utterly different and fascinating and I loved it and I'm really happy that we'll have the chance to show it at AFI Docs. Itís true there's a group of siblings who are highly isolated on the lower East Side of Manhattan. They have a very oppressive father and there's kind of alluding to potential creepy things going on. Because they are so isolated and able to watch a lot of movies and television they become fascinated by that world. They are incredibly resourceful and very smart. They make all of these homemade props and costumes and will write out scripts and they basically spend their free time reenacting scenes from their favorite movies like Reservoir Dogs. As they get older they're at the point where they're willing to start breaking free about oppression and start going out and asserting their own independence. So it's one of the more unusual stories you'll see.

Adam Spector: As we discussed, this festival has gone through many changes. Where do you see this festival in five years? In ten years?
Andrea Passafiume: Thatís a great question. We have a new festival director this year, Michael Lumpkin, and I think he has a great vision for the future of the festival moving forward and I think he's going to be a tremendous asset to the festival. He is a long-standing member of the documentary community and also the International Documentary Association. He's also been a festival guest for several years. I think that we're going to keep growing and pinning our mark, engaging the communities of DC and Silver Spring and continuing to bring the best documentaries we can and hopefully keep the conference going and see where opportunity takes us. I think Michael has a vision in which anything can happen in 5, 10 years from now and I think it's all going be good for the festival. I really do.

Adam Spector
June 15, 2015

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