AFI Docs: When It All Gels

This yearís AFI Docs, the annual documentary film festival, runs from June 22-26. It features 94 films from 30 countries. Tickets are available on the website. While I miss the days where the festival was contained entirely in Silver Spring, I have accepted its shift to a DC focus. Itís splitting the program between the AFI Silver in Silver Spring and the DC venues, but the opening night, closing night, the Guggenheim Symposium, and all of the Spotlight screenings are at the Newseum in DC. With DC parking its usual mess, and the Metro repairs hampering its already shaky weekend service, this wonít be the most accessible festival. But you look at the lineup the festival has and believe that its quality and diversity will make any inconveniences well worth it.

Ten years ago I began interviewing festival leadership, back when it was Silverdocs. For several years it was then-Festival Director Sky Sitney in person. Why Sky left, I interviewed then-Programming Director Andrea Passafiume, also in person. Andrea left earlier this year, and I was fortunate to get an interview with Festival Director Michael Lumpkin, but he was working out of LA, so it had to be a phone interview. We set a time, but I remembered it wrong, and Michael graciously rescheduled.

The year before I installed a transcription app on my laptop that made the interview much easier. I came to the phone interview with the app in hand, and my trusty old tape recorder as a backup. Immediately I saw that the app was not picking up our voices. No problem, Iíd just do things the old fashioned way with the tape recorder. Later I looked over and the tape had come to a halt. It was a stomach punch, NOOOOOOOOO!!!!! moment. Iíd already rescheduled, so I wasnít going to do that again. I just took notes the best I could, while feeling horrible. As you may have guessed, the interview went much better than it seemed at the time. Michael was engaging and forthcoming, which made up for any issues on my end. Between what I was able to record and the notes, I was able to get a good record of what Michael said, which I hope will do him and the festival justice:

Adam Spector: To kick things off what are some of the changes people might notice with AFI Docs this year?
Michael Lumpkin: Thereís some exciting changes. One is that this year we will be at the Newseum every night of the festival. We have a new partnership with the Newseum as our gala venue partner on the festival, so thatís a significant change from previous years. We are excited about being in that great venue and institution throughout the festival. Other things that have changed this year are our filmmaker engagement programs, primarily our Filmmaker Forum, which has expanded to four days this year so weíll have four days of programming geared towards filmmakers, the documentary community, and documentary industry. That will be happening at our festival hub, which is located at the District Architecture Center.

AS: This is your second year with the festival. Is it more or less challenging this time around?
ML: Oh, thatís a good question (laughs) ... I think putting together this kind of event is always challenging... I ran another short festival for 25 years and came back to run this festival last year when I joined the American Film Institute. Itís different this year. I came to the AFI in January and was putting together a festival that was taking place in six months. It was a very different equation to having a full year to put together a festival.
AS: Yeah, not much of a learning curve.
ML: There was a lot of observing and learning that I was doing and was able to do a few new things last year, not that I was a stranger to the festival. Iíve been coming to the festival since 2009, but now Iím actually running it and making it happen, thatís a totally different thing than attending the festival. But I was able to learn a lot going through last yearís festival and I think the important pieces of that, the key things, are just learning what makes it the festival that it is, what makes it unique, and trying to enhance those aspects of the festival and to really know what the opportunities are, to have a much more educated vision about what this festival can be, to look forward.

AS: In recent years the festival has gone from being primarily based in Silver Spring, at the AFI Silver, to, it seems, becoming more and more DC based. Is that something you plan on continuing?
ML: That basic structure we definitely plan on continuing. Itís worked very well for the festival in a number of ways. At least, based on last yearís numbers, looking at audience and attendance, Silver Spring attendance by far outnumbered attendance in DC. Thatís where the festival started, itís a very strong audience base there, with the AFI Silver Theater. Silver Spring is where a lot of our audience still is, and weíre working with that audience. Weíre also working to expand our audience further in downtown DC.

AS: Letís move into the films themselves. Weíll start at the beginning with Zero Days, by the very prolific Alex Gibney. What drew you to that film to open the festival?
ML: I think the film gets to the strength of the festival, what makes the festival unique. Itís a film that deals with policy, with government, on an international scale... Itís a film about where we are in the Washington area. That was very attractive as a film to open this yearís festival. And also that itís by, yes, a prolific, a master documentary filmmaker, Alex Gibney was certainly a reason to want this film to open the festival, and as well that weíre presenting this filmís North American premiere. It had its World Premiere at Berlin in February. To have a North American Premiere of a significant work by a significant director was a great opportunity to open the festival. So it was all of those components. It was a very easy decision to make.

AS: These films take months, if not years of planning. Yet it seems that every year, the festivalís offerings are ripped right out of todayís headlines. Thatís certainly true this year. Does that type of symmetry amaze you? You canít plan a year ago for whatís going to happen now, but it always seems to work out that way.
ML: Yeah it does. I think thatís a great observation... I think itís true of documentary filmmaking in many ways, that thereís certainly a shift going on in the documentary field, and I think our programming certainly reflects that ... more people are aware of documentaries, more people are seeking out documentaries ... but also major media outlets are looking for documentaries as a format for both presenting stories and investigative journalism. So it is a format that I think is gaining an interest year by year. Documentaries are becoming a preferred way for journalists in many aspects, whether it's long form feature documentaries like Alexís Zero Days, which I think is a masterwork of investigative journalism, to short documentaries that are popping up on almost every online media outlet as a way to communicate news and stories.

AS: A couple of the more topical films address refugees and migrants. After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, examines residents of Jordanís Zaatari refugee camp. Another one, Those Who Jump, looks at Africans in Morocco trying to get into Europe. Do those films offer a new perspective on immigration politics?
ML: Ultimately, yes, but thatís not the main takeaway. Those Who Jump in particular puts you in with people seeking refuge and the lengths they go to find it. The film places you in that world. If the refugees can go over the fence (into Europe) theyíre on their way. Filmmakers met the refugees in an area where they live and gave one of them a camera. Much of this film is shot by him (the refugee). Itís an interesting dynamic and a unique perspective.

AS: Some of the more notable films from last year, such as Peace Officer, touched on whatís going on in the criminal justice system right now. It looks like this trend continues this year with films like Do Not Resist, about law enforcement militarization, and other films, such as Solitary, about solitary confinement and They Call Us Monsters, about the way juveniles should be treated in the justice system. Was that something that you looked for?
ML: We donít go out looking for themes. We have around 2,000 entries, we attend festivals throughout the year looking for films to bring to AFI Docs. We look at documentary film production across the year that weíre doing our program, and we see whatís rising up, whatís being made and kind of take it from there. You go through the process of selecting the best film, and if the timing works for getting films to the festival in June in terms of their release... Itís first and foremost to gain the best films as films, and then we can put our films together to see whatís in there, whatís risen to the top for us and look at those names. Thereís this point in the programming, where youíre watching films but also looking at what themes are running through a number of films this year. I think this kind of thing around policing, incarceration, and justice is certainly a problem in our world right now and of course itís showing up in documentaries.

AS: Along with Peace Officer, a couple of films that really stuck with me last year were 3 Ĺ Minutes, Ten Bullets and The Armor of Light, which dealt specifically about gun violence in this country. Thatís something that this yearís festival does again, most notably with Newtown. What does this documentary have that may surprise people? We know so much about this tragedy.
ML: I remember when I saw the film at Sundance. The subject matter, it is hard. You know before youíre going into the movie theater to see this film that this isnít going to be an easy film because we know so much about what happened, this incident. But what struck me about Newtown was its intimacy, about the people in Newtown, their personal experience with this incident that happened in their town. So itís a very intimate film, and yes of course there are things in there that are very difficult, you know to hear people talk about. But itís also an incredibly respectful film and it walks a fine line. Itís a respectful relationship between the filmmaker, the film and them. It is their stories. Itís them talking about their experience. At the end of the film you are incredibly thankful that you had the experience of seeing this film. I think that is a sign of really incredible filmmaking, and thatís the experience I had. Youíre thankful that you had that opportunity to be with these people, these citizens, over the course of 90 minutes. I knew at the end of seeing that film that we had to show it.

AS: There were several documentaries about a case called the West Memphis Three. You have a film about a case that could almost be the cousin of that one in Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four about a group of Latina lesbians wrongly convicted of sexually abusing young girls. Did you see any parallels between the two cases when you were looking at that film?
ML: That other case did not come to mind when I was watching this one. You know I am a gay man from Texas and had a lot of their experiences and connected with the stories of these women. I felt kind of close to them in that respect. I grew up there in Texas. And that was another one where I was struck by the filmmaking ... how the filmmaker dealt with the timeline. The film really works with the timeline and time in terms of the viewing experience of the film. Itís not being explicit about time but what itís doing is using time as a way to engage the viewer in the storyline, so that the end result is incredibly powerful. My reaction was what an incredible story and that the film was put together incredibly well.

AS: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are best known for Jesus Camp, and more recently did Detropia, a film on Detroitís struggles. Wouldnít they seem an unusual choice to direct Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, your closing night film about the legendary television producer?
ML: No, because this is not your usual biopic. Heidi and Rachel made some interesting and wonderful choices in how they decided to tell this story. They also did a great job finding and integrating archival footage from the many TV shows Lear worked on.

AS: Your Guggenheim Symposium honoree this year is the legendary Werner Herzog. For the first time you are showing the honoreeís latest film, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, right after the discussion as part of the program.
ML: Herzog has a very unique approach to documentaries, a unique voice. In both fiction and nonfiction, heís a master storyteller. We are trying a new format (for the Guggenheim), which seems to be working. Itís our top seller (laughs).

AS: You have the latest from Barbara Kopple, Miss Sharon Jones. Kopple seems to alternate between issue driven films such as Harlan County, U.S.A., and more personality driven efforts such as Wild Man Blues. This one seems to fall in the latter category. Was it the filmmaker or the subject that drew you to this film?
ML: It was both. We are always very interested to see Barbaraís next film. I was also somewhat aware of Sharon Jonesís work. For those that do not know her, this film is a wonderful introduction to a great artist.

AS: Another big name is Judd Apatow, but you donít associate him with documentaries. He co-directed Doc & Darryl, about 1980s New York Mets stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. How did you wind up with this?
ML: It was very much a last minute addition. We worked with ESPN, which developed Doc & Darryl as part of its ď30 for 30Ē series. We knew this series and ESPN asked if we wanted to see this new documentary. I didnít notice that Apatow was involved but I noticed the film. We had another sports documentary that had to be pulled. ESPN to the rescue. This happened very quickly and fell into our lap. Thanks to ESPN we have the world premiere.

AS: You also have a very different type of sports documentary, Gleason by Clay Tweel, about the former New Orleans Saints star suffering from ALS. In 2012, Gleason had was working with another filmmaker, Sean Pamphilon, but then had a falling out with him when his confidence was betrayed. Pamphilon ended up exposing ďBountygate.Ē I take it with Tweel it was a much more positive experience.
ML: This film really focuses on Gleason and his family, his wife. What makes the film special is the window into their relationship, how they got through this. Gleason was the documentary everyone was talking about at Sundance. It surprises you. Itís not the story youíve seen before. Those are the films you look for. When a film surprises you, you know there is something good about it. It was not what I was expecting.

AS: Speaking of the unexpected, you have Sonita, about a female teenage rapper in Iran of all places.
ML: This a young woman who is an artist, trying to create her art in extraordinary circumstances. Itís a real human story about her struggle to be herself in a restrictive culture.

AS: And on the lighter side, you feature Chicken People, about the National Ohio Poultry Show, where people display chickens the way they display dogs at Westminster. Is this a real documentary or a Christopher Guest movie?
ML: Itís so close to that. Itís a show for chickens and such a great and fun movie. Itís an educational film (laughs). I had no idea there were so many chickens in the world. This is a perfect example of a documentary thatís entertaining.

AS: Do you think we are in the ďGolden AgeĒ of documentaries?
ML: I think so, although I find it difficult to say this because we donít know what is in front of us. In the last ten years we have seen an evolution in the documentary form on many levels. But itís still difficult to sustain documentary filmmaking as a career. Thatís one of the issues we address in our Filmmaker Forum series. How can we change? How can we be better? Things are great, but there is still a lot of work to do.

AS: What do you hope people come away with from the festival?
ML: Thereís a moment in the programming when it all gels and you feel that this is the festival now. I want people to have that feeling from the rich, diverse group of films. I hope people can see many films, even while knowing that they canít see everything. I hope they see enough to experience the talent of the documentary community.


Adam Spector
June 1, 2016


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