Crime, celebrity, the free press and everlasting love at AFI DOCS


The knock on many documentary festivals is that they can be a festival of despair. Whether it’s watching stories about indigenous people fighting off corporate depredations or people locked away for crimes they didn’t commit, a day spent in documentary land can sometimes feel like marking the Stations of the Cross. Of course, the moment that thought comes into the average critic’s mind is also the right moment for that critic to remember that any emotional discomfort endured while sitting in a movie theatre’s high-backed plush chair can’t compare to a fraction of what they’re watching people onscreen endure. So the best response is usually to just find a bar within walking distance of the venue, decompress, get back before they give away the press seats to people in the standby line, and start taking notes on the next movie.

The 2017 iteration of AFI DOCS didn’t quite fit into that mold, targeting its discussions less at simply documenting problems and more on actionable policies. A running theme through many Q&As was variations on “What can be done?” There was even an attempt to break out from the fairly lopsided nature of the nonfiction film world’s political leanings with an afternoon conversation between The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday and conservative filmmaker Michael Pack. But even when they tried to leaven the offerings with some less obviously issue-focused movies, filmmakers almost couldn’t help themselves from addressing broad-based concerns.

One of the splashiest, and more curious, movies in the festival was Whitney: Can I Be Me. Co-directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, this was a deep dive into the chart-topping blitz and subsequent tabloid collapse of Whitney Houston. Unlike many of Broomfield’s earlier movies on music stars come to untimely ends (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac), Whitney doesn’t come spring-loaded with a bombshell allegation. At most, it makes clear the widely known non-secret of her years-long relationship with a woman, her assistant and childhood best friend Robyn Crawford, and the resulting tension of a quasi-love triangle once Houston married Bobbi Brown.

The theme of identity is shot through Whitney, as Houston fails to find herself amidst competing demands and the twinned pressures of fame and drugs. Brought up in a rough New Jersey neighborhood and steeped in her mother Cissy’s gospel tradition, she had to airbrush out as much of her blackness as she could for producer Clive Davis, who was determined to make her into a crossover pop-hit machine. Davis and Houston succeeded, so much so that she had more consecutive number-one hits than The Beatles. But her crossover came at a cost: getting booed by the crowd at the 1989 Soul Train Awards and never being able to come clean about her relationship with Robyn. The filmmakers find ample reason for empathy even at the depths of her self-destructive addictions, but they never quite locate their story.

Among the festival’s most flat-out enjoyable movies was Sarita Khurana and Smriti Mundhra’s A Suitable Girl, an attempt by the filmmakers—both of Indian ancestry but American-raised—to broaden the discussion of arranged marriages in Indian culture. On that point they succeed, as their three characters are far from the stereotype many have of the hapless girl forced to marry some wheezing old man she’s never met. The most traditional seeming is Dipti, a shy and sweet-natured homebody of a teacher who’s eager to find a proper man before she gets too old but isn’t quite sure how to get there. Ritu is a more classically modern type, working at Ernst & Young and in no rush to tie the knot. She’s the daughter of professional matchmaker Seema, a blustery powerhouse whose frustration over her inability to do for her own offspring what she does for clients provides much of the film’s casual humor. Amrita is the most urbane and outgoing, but feels compelled to leave her MBA behind to get married.

The calculations used to determine marriages can seem clinical—at one speed-dating meet-up, the men’s age, salary and caste are announced to the room as at a cattle call—and refreshingly realistic to others. Although the movie climaxes in a sumptuous flutter of roses, dance routines and henna tattoos, it never feels manipulatively romantic. Having chosen such an endearing clutch of brides-to-be, all the filmmakers really had to do was watch them pursue marriage and happiness in their own ways, instead of following the narrow path laid down by either cultural tradition or cinematic cliché. They made a delightful movie, in part, by making it about delightful-to-watch people.

For a look at some less appreciable personalities, one could hardly do worse than Brian Knappenberger’s fast-paced and harrowing Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. At first, the movie has all the markings of a “Can you believe this?” story, as it illuminates the grubby proceedings of the defamation lawsuit waged by Hulk Hogan (a.k.a. Terry Bollea) against Gawker Media after it published a tape of him having sex with his (supposedly) best friend’s wife. But Knappenberger’s scope is wider than just the question of Gawker’s arguably questionable journalistic judgment. Leaving that question for somebody else, he defers to First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams: “The reason to save Gawker is not because Gawker is worth saving.”

Nobody Speakknits together the surprise bankroller of Bollea’s suit, libertarian Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, with fellow conservative media-haters Sheldon Adelson (whose ham-fisted takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal is hilariously documented here) and Donald “the media is the enemy of the people” Trump into a five-alarm-fire of a documentary about the dangers posed to the press and the public that needs it by ruthless and deep-pocketed enemies.

Two of the most fascinating movies at AFI DOCS took on a similar subject from almost entirely opposite perspectives. In Dieudo Hamadi’s Mama Colonel, Colonel Honorine Manyole transfers from her long-held post in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Kisangani to continue her work as part of a police force designated to protect women and children from abuse. The scope of the problems facing the grave-faced “Mama Colonel” are horrendous, but whether talking to rape victims whose families were butchered or starved-looking children being tortured for supposedly being witches, she seems to have seen it all before. Shot with honesty and patience, Hamadi’s movie is nevertheless hampered by a lack of context for the tangled state of things in this war-ravaged nation. Without it, the full contours of the story remain fuzzy, with viewers likely to occasionally be as lost as the colonel when she asks one victim, “Which war are you talking about?”

As the second part of Peter Nicks’ planned trilogy on Oakland—2012’s striking Oscar-nominated ER account The Waiting Room was first and a movie about education is planned next—The Force is a gripping, broad-spectrum nonfiction drama that stuns with its sublime mastery of intelligent storytelling. One of the hardest tickets to get at the festival and the result of two years spent embedded in the scandal-plagued Oakland (CA) Police Department, The Force could easily have been another account of bad cops and an institution’s inability to defend its citizens. All that is in here, from the Oaklanders furious about not getting help from the stretched-thin 700-officer department to the trigger-happy rookie cops who refuse to see any difference between shooting somebody once and thirteen times. But Nicks also engages emphatically and intelligently with the whole range of issues affecting policing in a city like Oakland, where scars and suspicions run deep.

The movie’s structure can feel haphazard at first. It skips from the micro, surveying a new class of recruits from training to the streets, to the macro, following chief Sean Whent as he dashes from crime scene to interview to public hearing, trying to keep the tenuous relationship between the jittery citizenry and his frazzled cops from turning into open warfare. But Nicks’ tricky balancing act, toggling between serious policy debate and the live-wire tension of shootings and protests, comes together in a tragic and dramatic kind of symmetry by the end. Distributor Kino Lorber already has plans for distribution later in the year; Oscar talk is almost certain to follow.