AFI DOCS: Learning From Audiences

After a few years of major changes, both in venues and leadership, AFI DOCS seems to have found a comfortable rhythm. The festival runs from June 14-18, featuring 103 films from 28 countries. Once again the films are split between DC venues and the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available here. Festival Director Michael Lumpkin recently talked with me about this yearís festival:

Adam Spector: What changes do you think people will notice about AFI DOCS this year?
Michael Lumpkin: You know I think that it will be in the realm of changes people have been noticing for the past several months. As with everyone I think, the political climate, the last election, is something that is in everybody's life... certainly for all of us in Washington D.C. So that there are things we've done with our programming in response to that, that people will notice. One thing is that, this thing happened for me in terms of programming the festival and watching movies post the November election where itís kind of like you're watching things with an added lens of what happened in November and how the government has changed. Watching films in a different way. Weíre presenting a program that is, as always, showing you the best documentary films of this year, films from around the world. But (we are) also making sure that weíre programming films that provide an escape from the constant breaking news.

So that's something we're offering this year. A lot of fun, and diversion and escapism. (laughs) But also, on the other hand, itís not so much us, what weíre programming, but itís also very much what filmmakers are making, the stories they're telling.

AS: In terms of what's going on right now. I saw the other day that the Guggenheim Symposium honoree is Laura Portias, who has her new film Risk out now and I think is probably best known for Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden documentary. Did timeliness play a part in her selection?
ML: Yeah I think that certainly Laura and her filmmaking and what she's doing as a documentary journalist and as a storyteller is very relevant to our world today. So we think it's a great time to have her and to have an in-depth discussion about her and her work. It is great when you can align in real time and highlight it and shine the spotlight on the documentary filmmakers whose work is just so relevant to current events. And that's one of the reasons, outside of her being a great documentary filmmaker, that we had Laura as our Guggenheim honoree this year.

AS: As part of your filmmaker forum you are having a discussion, led by critic Ann Hornaday, called ďLook to the RightĒ. Certainly, there is a perception that documentaries predominantly lean to the left in the political spectrum.Was this a conscious effort to try to be more inclusive?
ML: It started post the election and me thinking about what does this mean for the documentary festival in Washington D.C.? What does this mean for documentary filmmakers post-election in the world? In general, itís a bad reaction. I think therefore a responsibility (to) make sure weíre not missing something in terms of the work we're showing, the filmmakers that we're presenting, in the festival and really trying to be inclusive. Most of the world that we work with and operate either doesnít know or doesnít acknowledge the fact that that there are films out there, there are documentaries out there that are making a significant amount of money at the box office that are being produced, being released, and being seen by significant numbers of people. But many of those films donít come into the film festival world. And so that conversation between Ann Hornaday and Michael Pack is to start exploring that. Why is that? We just want to make sure that we're including all voices that are working in the nonfiction space. We made a special effort to look for voices that are not that often present in film festivals, filmmakers that don't live on one coast or the other, subjects and stories where you don't necessarily know what the filmmaker or the subject sits in the political spectrum. So we're trying to just make sure that we're not excluding any voices on our quest to find the best documentary films that are out there.

You have to ask yourself: Am I doing the best job I can do? Are we spending a lot of time looking for films? Are we looking in the right places? You are working out how you bring in all the films. This year we had over 2,000 films that were in our kind of consideration universe. You have to factor in what is not here in my world, what do I not know about? That can be difficult but you just have to make sure you really know whatís out in the world to consider for the festival. The ďLook to the RightĒ conversation is just part of that effort to make sure that we're looking at everything and considering everything.

AS: On the one hand you have some films addressing climate change, such the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, but you also have a documentary about Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Show. It seems like youíre trying to go for some balance.
ML: And you know a film like No Man's Land , which is about the siege of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge... there was a standoff for quite a long while as the government negotiated with people that occupied that federal facility. It really takes you into the people involved in that story in a very non-judgmental way. And there are crazy people on both sides of that conflict, but there is, for the most part, people who are standing up for what they believe.

What filmmakers are doing and a lot of the films that weíre showing this year were very much in production and were very much happening before the election took place in November. Itís interesting to watch post-November, to just have all the stuff that that speaks to what happened, that this was all in the works before it (the election) ever happened. So itís interesting that current events shape your perception of what you are looking at. On the other hand too there are several films weíre showing that actually had been changed. They werenít (done) yet but things happen, the story is evolving so we need to update our film. Weíre going to have to have a different ending than what we have planned.

AS: Let me switch gears. A couple years ago the New York Times proclaimed we are living in the golden age of sports documentaries. It certainly seems that way between ESPN, HBO and other venues. This year the festival begins and ends with sports themed films Icarus and Year of the Scab, respectively. Then in the middle you have Tough Guys and The Cage Fighter. Were you looking to broaden the sports theme a little bit this year, or is that just how it played out?
ML: It's mostly how it played out. You know I think there was one thing we were intent on doing... we need to have more fun, escapist kind of films and I think a lot of sports documentaries fall into that. I think our bookends, opening and closing, on the surface, yes they are both sports films, but they are very different films. The closing night film, Year of the Scab, is just a great David and Goliath story that involves the local NFL team (Washington Redskins).
AS: Yeah, that canít hurt either.
ML: And opening night, the Icarus story is about sports, and cycling, but it very quickly veers and becomes kind of a very taut, exciting kind of thriller as the filmmaker cyclist starts uncovering a lot of interesting things in the sports doping world.

AS: Also for those in the DC area is New Chefs on the Block. People donít think of DC as a food town the way they think of New York and Chicago. Is this documentary setting the record straight?
ML: Yeah, it does. I think it does showcase, in a great way, that culture in DC, of food. And I think if it's different than the other cities. I think it also shows just how unique it is and especially by the two chefs, restauranteurs that the film is profiling. They are very different. Thereís the high end ďGood luck getting into itĒ kind of restaurants, and then thereís the pizza joints. Itís great in that the film is presenting the hard to attain but also the very attainable food options for everybody.

AS: Iím also I'm a sucker for films about films or film enthusiasts and you have two of them this year with Saving Brinton and Cine Sao Paolo. I think anyone who does especially older films would be very interested in both of those.
ML: Yeah, Saving Brinton is interesting because it was one that we found. Iowa, okay, thatís the middle of the country. In our quest for having a diverse range of choices in terms of different parts of the US and getting that film from Iowa and then it being such an enjoyable, great story. We were very excited when that film appeared. I think that stories about movies are just even more popular with festival audiences because if you're a festival goer you are into movies. Films about films are always great screenings to have at a film festival.

AS: One of the names that some people recognize is Nick Broomfield, who did Kurt and Courtney and then Biggie & Tupac and now he has another music documentary with Whitney: Can I Be Me?. Whitney Houston is someone so many people feel that they know. Does this film show you things you may not have seen before?
ML: Yeah, with Nick being one of the two directors of the film, he brings his great style of filmmaking to this. Thereís a lot of footage youíve never seen. There are aspects of her life that maybe you have heard about but the film really goes deeper into it and I came out of it with a better understanding of her as a person, as an artist and a better understanding of how the recording industry works. And then what it means to be somebody like Whitney. What does it mean to be somebody that reaches that level of success and stardom and celebrity? What does it mean for their lives?

AS: What are some other AFI DOCS films that are particularly notable this year?
ML: Notable this year? Everything. (laughs) You know it's the diversity of work and also just its surprises, the people you meet, the places that some of these films take you. The thing for me when I watch a film that speaks to me is that this was not what I expected. So if a film can deliver, can exceed or shift my expectations of what I am going to see. One of the films that did that for me was The Farthest, a documentary about The Voyager spacecraft. Okay, we have seen that done already. But you watch it and it is one of the most cinematic, sublime movie-watching experiences Iíve ever had. And itís just about a piece of hardware going through space. Itís those kind of things. Thereís a lot of surprises in things that you donít expect showing up in the films. So I think there's something for everybody, to use a clichť, but I think itís true.

AS: When we talked a year ago you said at that time this it was your first full year running the festival. The year before you came in midway. Last year you felt that you had more of an input in the festival from the ground up. Now itís been two full years. What have you learned about the festival or about putting festivals together that you think you'll carry with you?
ML: Thatís a good question. (laughs) You know, I think it is that learning from audiences and, itís getting out in the film festival world. You know we did a screening in February of I Am Not Your Negro as part of our AFI Docs film screenings. We did a screening of that at Ballou High School (in DC). The director, Raoul Peck, was there. It was this 700 seat theater that was full, mostly people from that part of the district, a ton of students. It was actually the third time I have seen I Am Not Your Negro and it was by far the most electric screening of that film. You know I don't usually watch films three times.

AS: Are you going to be doing more of the programs like you did at that high school with his yearís films?
ML: The series is for the films that arenít in the festival. We show films for five days in June and certainly films open all during the year. We're really capturing a fraction of the films at the festival and thereís all these great documentaries that are being released. These are films that werenít in the festival.

That screening reinforced just how important the audience is. Who is in the room, which also means whoís not in the room? Itís about audience makeup and trying to make sure that the right people are in the room. And I mean itís getting more people into the festival that maybe never have been to a festival. The last year was a relearning for me of the importance of audiences and just how many people out there that donít experience film festivals that should be. So itís really about how an audience expands, audience development. That kind of learning that I think we're certainly trying to carry in this year's festival. Half of what we do is showing movies. But probably the more important part of what we do is getting people to the festival to watch the movies, not just warm bodies but who needs to see this film? Who is this film going to resonate with? Let's make sure that audience is in the theater to see this film.

Adam Spector
June 1, 2017

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